Simon Fell: The Government must resist calls to change its policy on fracking

15 Oct

Simon Fell is the MP for Barrow and Furness.

I welcomed the Government’s effective ban on fracking just before I was elected as the MP for Barrow and Furness two years ago.

I have always urged the Government to keep local safety and environmental concerns at the forefront of its decision-making when it comes to the extraction of shale gas.

Viewing the challenges caused by wholesale gas prices rocketing these past few weeks, I’m as sure as ever that fracking is not the solution and believe the Government should resist calls to change its policy.

Let’s not forget that the sole reason why the moratorium was put in place is because the Oil & Gas Authority – the independent regulator – found it was not possible to accurately predict the probability or magnitude of earthquakes linked to fracking.

In other words, fracking to extract shale gas just isn’t safe. This has been echoed multiple times recently by the Business Secretary, citing the “shaking walls” and “falling plates” after fracking in Lancashire.

It is also worth remembering that, shortly before the Government’s moratorium on fracking was announced, the companies involved were asking the Government for earthquake limits to be relaxed to make fracking more commercially viable.

So fracking fell at the first hurdle – safety. But there are others it would have to clear if we were to begin scaling it up.

The second hurdle is popularity, and the simple fact is that fracking is deeply unpopular. It drives down house prices, brings more heavy traffic which country roads can’t handle, and pollutes the natural environment. The views of local communities should come first, and they overwhelmingly oppose fracking.

This is a crucial point, because fracking is often depicted as an industry which would scale up in the Bowland-Hodder and Midland Valley areas (i.e. in the North of England and Scotland). But the Weald basin – which stretches across the bottom half of South-East England – would also be opened up to exploration if we were to change the current rules to suit the fracking industry.

It’s extremely doubtful that Conservative MPs and their voters in the South would stand for this. New Conservative heartlands in the North shouldn’t be expected to either.

In Barrow and Furness at least, this opposition certainly isn’t due to ‘energy NIMBYism’. I’ve joined countless other Conservative MPs in supporting more renewable and nuclear energy investment in our constituencies. That’s because, with clean energy, there’s much more public support and a much stronger business case.

Even if the Government were to ignore public opinion, face-down a Conservative backlash, relax our regulatory and planning frameworks, abandon a manifesto pledge, and undermine Net Zero, one of its core domestic and foreign policy agendas, there is still the issue that the economics of fracking do not add up.

First, what sense is there in pivoting towards unpopular, uncertain, unsafe fracking just as the clean energy revolution is gathering pace around the world?

Solar and wind enjoy strong public backing, including among Conservative voters, and are the cheapest new electricity sources available to us. The solutions to wind lulls or cloudy days exist – whether battery storage, interconnectors to Europe, or clean hydrogen. They just need scaling up.

Given the North West’s existing expertise and supply chains in nuclear energy, why would anyone call for investment to be diverted from new nuclear to shale gas extraction?

It’s very doubtful that the American shale gas boom in the late noughties is something that could ever be repeated in the UK. Even if we could overcome all the local democracy challenges that prevented fracking when the Government was committed to exploiting our shale gas reserves, shale gas would not be able to meet a meaningful share of UK gas demand over the next decade to have a meaningful impact on prices.

It’s also worth remembering the National Audit Office’s finding that, since gas is a globally traded commodity, UK gas prices inevitably reflect those in Europe. It would require an impossibly large influx of fracked gas to make a dent on European prices and therefore to cut British households’ gas bills.

During the next decade, more and more private investment will continue to surge in the direction of renewables, as has been the trend for a number of years. The opportunity costs would be staggering if the UK opted now to invest in a declining industry right as the global transition to clean energy picks up pace. The truth is that, even before you turn to the environmental damage it causes, fracking’s time has been and gone.

Fracking is a non-starter for a legion of reasons. The Business Secretary is right to reject calls to start this debate all over again when there are more important and urgent decisions to be made to tackle the challenges we face now. The only way to protect consumers from the price of natural gas is to invest in clean energy and energy efficiency as quickly as possible.

John Bird: Why Conservatives should get behind my Future Generations Bill

9 Jul

Dear Conservatives,

I hope you don’t mind me addressing you in a letter form. I just want to let you know that I have a Bill passing through the Lords, which is co-sponsored by Simon Fell, the MP for Barrow and Furness MP, in the Commons. Now it may be a bit of a leap in the dark for some Conservatives.

My Bill is based on the premise that we have to redesign the way we legislate and operate. At the moment we concentrate policy mainly on the needs of today at the expense of tomorrow. Much of what we do works for today but looks dire for the future.

How many parliamentary hours are spent unravelling the problems that were created by poor thinking from times past?

I go up North to meet with one of your new “Red Wall” MPs and am astonished at how her words are so full of a desire for social justice through increased opportunity; through investment in areas that have lacked support for over half a century; and a fierce desire to see people not held back by their own limited resources.

The Government’s response to the pandemic, seen as a mixed blessing by some, is nonetheless on target when it comes to “building back better” and “levelling up”. It will potentially end a divided England that saw enormous levels of social difficulties mixed in with a lack of social mobility, and address the issues that I discussed when I travelled North, to garner some support for my “Wellbeing of Future Generations” Bill.

Yet the said “Red Wall” Conservative MP asked me a very sharp question; “You have a Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill going through the Lords. How does that help my constituent in a deep crisis now? How does that help her now?” To which I answer “it doesn’t”.

“Then why should I support your Bill?”

“Because if a previous incumbent of your office had addressed the problems back then, then you probably would not be having to come up with an emergency solution now.”

The need to “build back better” is a clear indication that we are playing “catch up”. We are making up for lost time, lost hope, lost opportunity. And the only way to address that issue now is to start building the future today. The past is little more than a neglected “past future”, if you see what I mean. Chances thrown away become compounded social collapse: poor housing, poor jobs, poor social opportunity, poor educational outcomes.

Unless my Bill gets the blessing of the Government, of which I am told by the informed it will not, then it will not reach the statute books. And will then be reduced to the kind of historical waffle category that so many socially aspirational Private Members’ Bills have been cast into.

So this is a long shot. But its a shot I’m willing to put the next year to. Why? Because of two factors. One is that the Conservative Party in the 2019 General Election was given the strongest of mandates imaginable. That it was recognised that it would not have been given that by a largely disillusioned Labour vote if it was not a sign that vast areas of England, laid waste by the ending of former heavy industries, had had enough. They wanted a new deal, not a raw deal, which they had been handed by successive governments.

The other reason I am adopting my “David” stance, facing a Goliath of a Government (one that’s competing with a myriad array of pressing problems), is because the pandemic proved something big. It proved that society and Government could work in harmony with community. It could unite us in a way that we have little evidence of that unity in living memory.

“Build back better” can only be done if we lay the foundation stones today of a future that is not just rhetorically talked of. But is built now.

I’m John Bird, described in Wikipedia as a working class Tory, founder of The Big Issue; Cross bencher, ex slum boy, ex offender etc. And I want you to join me in putting meat on the Conservative “build back better” bone, by kicking up a great fuss with your MP, and getting under the skin of the Government.

Get them to look at the detail of the Bill; quibble, scratch their heads, and maybe improve; but don’t kick it into the long grass as much of our “future” has been previously. Consider it as my offering to a better built back world that isn’t just a slogan.

Sincerely,

John, Lord Bird.

Simon Fell: Why there should be a permanent cut to business rates for retail

19 Oct

Simon Fell is MP for Barrow & Furness.

As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Our business rates regime assures both: as a tax it is one of the biggest contributors to the death of high streets up and down the UK.

I see the consequences of this first hand in my own constituency of Barrow & Furness. Where once the high street was the beating heart of Barrow, the life is seeping away. Dalton Road, the high street in Barrow, was where local residents met up to shop, gossip and laugh. My constituency surgeries are full of residents and business owners telling me that something must be done.

And we must do everything possible to turn the tide. Covid-19 has hit the high street hard. But even before the onset of the pandemic, retailers – large and small – were struggling to cope with the ever increasing rise in business rates.

It is a regressive tax which is not fit for purpose. Since 1990, business rates receipts have increased from £8.8 billion to £27.3 billion in 2017/18, an increase of 210 per cent compared with a 75 per cent increase in inflation. The UK now has the highest property taxes in Europe, nearly double the rate of the next nearest country, and business rates is a large reason why.

It is a tax which hits hard-working business owners, it is a tax which is a barrier to investment, and it is a tax which costs jobs.

It imposes a double whammy on the high street too: we haemorrhage ‘anchor’ stores like M&S and Topshop which makes it harder to attract shoppers to our independent stores. Those independents are the plucky heroes of Barrow’s street scene and they thrive against all odds. We can’t allow them to pulled into the same downwards spiral.

This tax also hits the north hardest. New research today by WPI Strategy categorically proves that the business rates burden is highest in northern towns such as Barrow and Leigh. Using store data from the thousands of Tesco stores across England and Wales, the paper shows 75 per cent of constituencies in the top 10 per cent of rates burden are in the North and Midlands, compared to just 26 per cent in London and the South. This is because the tax rate does not mirror economic performance, so for areas facing economic challenges the burden is much higher.

The research shows that shops in the top 50 constituencies most burdened by rates have four times the business rates burden of those in the bottom 50. If the top 50 constituencies faced the same burden as those in the bottom 50, they would save £50 million a year.

It is even more important for constituencies such as mine that the Government does all it can to ensure retailers can survive and thrive. Retail makes up 25 per cent more of the job market in the North, Midlands and Wales than it does in London

During Coronavirus, retailers such as the big grocers, took on tens of thousands more staff to help feed the nation. The sector is also a stepping stone into the world of work for many people, offering apprenticeships for youngsters up and down the UK.

But retail provides more than simply an economic boon to northern towns. Shops play an important psychological and social role within neighbourhoods. They are often the only touch points for some of the more vulnerable members of our community.

Encouragingly, the Chancellor recognises the value of retail to our social fabric and economic prospects. At the start of the pandemic he announced that retailers as well as businesses in the hospitality and leisure sectors in England will not have to pay business rates for a year.

This was an extremely welcome move. There is further work going on here too: Town Deals and Future High Street Funds offer the chance to renew the high street and town centres like mine. But that renewal must be backed.

When the rates holiday comes to an end next year, we must continue to relieve the pressure on retailers. That is why I’m calling on the Government to introduce a permanent cut to business rates for retail. A 20 per cent reduction in the overall level of rates would make a huge difference to shop owners in towns like Barrow, Bury or Bolton. It would enable them to retain jobs, keep the doors open, and reduce the number of boarded up stores on our high streets.

Of all the low-hanging fruit available to the Government’s levelling up agenda, reducing business rates would be an easy win with an immediate positive impact.