Richard Holden: This spring’s local elections. For levelling-up to work, we need local councils and leaders who back it.

29 Mar

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

Constituency Office of Richard Holden MP, Medomsley Rd, Consett

The leaflets are landing on doorsteps. The Risograph is working overtime. Walk routes are being updated. First-time council candidates – a heady combination of apprehensive and excited – are getting to know each other on WhatsApp as they make friends with people in other wards. Experienced candidates impart nuggets of wisdom, ‘war stories’ and experience on our zoom calls. Labour’s keyboard warriors fight on , but there is very little sign of life in the party of Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer on the ground.

These elections are taking place in a way that is like nothing I’ve known in two decades of campaigning – after over a year of gruelling Covid-19 restrictions and under the shadow of a virus whose lingering presence, even as Britain’s phenomenal vaccine programme knocks case numbers and deaths down, is still a real concern for many. It’s not been a normal year, and it’s not going to be a normal election.

As a new MP, I can barely remember a time that I wasn’t having to try and help those struggling with Covid-19 or the impact of measures to control it. The long tail of Coronavirus will continue in various guises. Many months of delayed operations and stifled economic growth need to take place. The impact on the education of children will last for years, especially for the poorest, even with the welcome efforts of the Government at top-up tuition. The Government debt taken on to support the people, jobs and businesses through the pandemic will stay for decades.

It is in that context that Rishi Sunak came up with a big offer to business: unprecedented tax relief to try and drive investment and help to deliver knock-on productivity gains. The Treasury and Department of Trade moves to Teesside and the new freeport are massive economic boons, too, for the North East. These moves are not just about the jobs – though that’s the main part. It’s about showing that we both care and want to do something about the problems faced by our new voters in the ‘Blue Wall’.

It’s clear that both the First Lord of the Treasury and the Second Lord of the Treasury “get it”. Short term, the plan is about recovery from Covid-19: getting jobs back and the economy moving again – which they’ve also got a plan for with Kickstarter and support for apprenticeships double.

And for the longer term, jobs in the next industrial revolution are coming down the track: batteries for our car industry and wind power for our transport and electricity. This big push to drive private enterprise to invest now is crucial, because we all know that only productivity gains can lead to real wage increases and the much talked about ‘levelling up’.

As we escape the shadow of Covid-19 we can see that much has changed but some things have stubbornly remained. In many parts of the North, moving back to the status quo ante – pronto – seems to be the order of the day from Labour. The debate over the coal mine on the West Coast of Cumbria brought this home in recent weeks.

To give you a bit of necessary background, Cumbria is a joint Labour/Lib Dem administration. Labour lost overall control in 2017 and formed a coalition (despite the Conservatives being by far the largest party). Labour retained control with their three tribes of Corbynites, Brownites and few Blairites, in what is a perpetual internal struggle.

To the mine itself. Robert Jenrick, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary, has taken a lot of heat, but it’s clear that what’s really behind the palaver is vacillation among the Labour/LibDems who are running the council. Cumbria County Council has now put forward the proposal only then to decide to re-consider it no fewer than four times. Jenrick has done everything he can to let the council decide, but in the end its vacillation created a national controversy. A dangerous precedent.

Labour weakness and division doesn’t just stop at doing everything possible not to make a decision on bringing 500 really well-paid jobs in Cumbria. Look across the other side of the country and you see it caught up in another culture war with itself in Leeds.

West Yorkshire wants to rival Greater Manchester as the engine room of the North of England. Leeds is back in the premiership, and everyone’s longing for the old rivalry on the pitch and, more generally, some healthy competition across the Pennines.

But Labour politicians locally can’t even agree on whether to expand Leeds Bradford Airport. The Labour-run Council has, eventually, passed a proposal, but the local Labour MPs (more concerned about their own membership than their voters) have gone against it. Hilary Benn and Alex Sobel, amongst others, literally asked the Secretary of State to call in a decision by the local Labour council.

Scratch the surface anywhere in the North and you’ll find Labour in mini-civil wars everywhere. What does this mean for other big projects? The A1(M) upgrade? New train lines? The A66/68/69/74? Are we going to allow vacuous, vacillating, virtue-signalling Labour Councils to kibosh our levelling-up agenda?

Contrast Labour’s approach to Ben Houchen’s in Teesside or Andy Street’s in the West Midlands; pro-enterprise, and willing to work with the Government. Interestingly, Andy Burnham seemed to be too, during his early days of wanting to get stuff done but his rivalry with Sadiq Khan over who will be the next Labour leader has seen him go from pragmatic local leader to disingenuous leadership contender, in lock step with Starmer’s personal poll rating.

What I’m driving at is that for levelling-up to work, we’re going to need to see local authorities and local authority leaders who want it to work.   The sad truth is that many local Labour councils and local bureaucracies don’t want it: they’re scared of it. In County Durham, it would create further upheaval in the system of sinecures that, sadly, local council positions have been for 102 years. They don’t want to risk ‘levelling up’ – they’re happy with a lazy the politics of grievance. After all, it’s served them well for decades.

Meanwhile, when faced with big political calls, the Prime Minister tends to make the right ones. On running for Mayor. On Brexit. On standing for the Conservative leadership in 2019, doing what many said was impossible, and getting Tory MPs to back him. (I remember this ,because when I joined his campaign you could get six to one on him to make the ballot.) On the general election. On the vaccine.

He’s making a big call on the economy now – the big push to level up. This is his big bet on Britain.  To deliver it though we need strong aligned local leadership. Mid-term elections always hammer the party in power, and we’re coming from the 2017 local election high point and a year of Covid. Getting Conservative 2019 voters to come out again is the challenge on which the ability to deliver the agenda now rests. We’ve fifty days to show them it does.

Gavin Rice: The Conservative campaign in Hartlepool kicks off today. But will Johnson deliver for his new working class voters?

29 Mar

Gavin Rice is Head of the Work and Welfare Policy Unit at the Centre for Social Justice.

All eyes are now on Hartlepool, with the first by-election poll showing Labour’s lead down to just three per cent.  The Conservative campaign opens today: whether the party can flip the seat, which hasn’t voted for a Tory candidate in six decades, is being viewed widely as a litmus test for the strength and permanence of the party’s 2019 incursion into the North East and West.

There is a lot to live up to. After thousands of voters overcame multi-generational hatred for the Tories to “lend” Boris Johnson their vote, the Prime Minister made a solemn commitment to govern in their interests, saying: “I will repay your trust”.

It’s now imperative that the Conservatives do repay it, and are seen to do so. This will involve giving priority to concrete remedies to the poverty that for many Red Wall voters has become a fact of life.

The Centre for Social Justice has compiled a list of 205 deprived towns, using the Index of Multiple Deprivation, as an indicator of Britain’s communities most in need of “levelling up”. We have also mapped them electorally by parliamentary constituency.

The results are revealing. No fewer than 38 of the constituencies containing deprived towns are 2019 Conservative gains – all in the Midlands, North East and North West. All of them are marginal, meaning the government’s stake in making a real difference in these places is electoral as well as moral.

Many more are narrow Labour holds such as Hartlepool, again in the Red Wall. It’s generally accepted the Conservatives have long-term problems in London, the cities, spa towns and middle-class suburbia. They will need more working-class seats in former Labour territory to offset these losses. There are positive signs, with the party taking a 25-point lead among working-class voters, but also policy choices that are much more concerning.

The recent decision by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to “call in” the planning application to open a coalmine at Whitehaven in Copeland constituency is astonishing if it indicates where the Tories’ hearts lie.

Such decisions are normally made by the local authority, and the Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, initially pledged not to intervene. He later U-turned, however, taking the decision out of Copeland County Council’s hands and returning it to central government. After an outcry from the likes of Greenpeace, the project has been earmarked for a public inquiry and kicked into the long grass.

The decision – taken in reality, no doubt, by Number Ten – looks shamelessly political, prioritising green optics over Northern livelihoods – the very opposite of what Johnson should be doing. But clearly 500 or more well-paid jobs in Whitehaven cannot compete with the fact that Britain is hosting COP26 in November, when a brand new coalmine (the first in 30 years) could present plenty of opportunities for media embarrassment. The decision also came – rather suspiciously – three days after the visit to the UK of John Kerry, the US’s replacement for Al Gore as chief climate guru.

Refusing to open a commercially viable new mine seems extremely ham-fisted, given the lost opportunity and disappointment this will cause to exactly the constituents the Conservatives need to be defending – and, yes, Whitehaven is one of CSJ’s “205”. Not so long ago the party was pursuing an explicit Cumbria strategy; the Whitehaven decision seems a long way from there.

Given what could be at stake, there has been no regard for trade-offs. Mark Jenkinson, the MP for Workington (another former mining constituency), has argued that producing coking coal domestically could even cut emissions by eliminating the need to ship to Britain from around the world, meaning the carbon footprint – if any – would be minimal. In contrast, the local and symbolic impact of saying “No” to Whitehaven is enormous.

The Conservatives do not enjoy a good legacy in the North when it comes to closing mines. The way the closure of the pits was handled, and the tragic social aftermath in which two generations were consigned to unemployment, has left a lasting scar. Even John Major has admitted that the party “got it wrong”. But at least Thatcher’s closures were motivated by economic reality. This time it’s about displaying green credentials for perceived political gain.

Whether this is in fact a political gain should be reconsidered, fast. The Red Wall absolutely cannot be taken for granted: a 2020 Channel 4 poll of voters in 45 Red Wall seats found that 16 per cent of 2019 Conservative voters didn’t know which way they would vote now, with seven per cent saying they will definitely go back to Labour. Indeed, Labour took a Red Wall poll lead in December. Given how marginal these seats are, these are numbers that should cause unease in CCHQ.

Painting a picture of local stagnation George Bell, a veteran of the National Union of Mineworkers, said that in Worksop, which switched to the Tories for the first time since 1929: “a lot of [the work] is low-paid, non-unionised work…the electricians, brick works, timber yards and other industries that used to service the mines are all long gone”.

These are the communities the Conservatives need to win and hold. Their top 20 targets for 2024 are almost all in the Red Wall. These include Wansbeck, Hemsworth, Normanton Pontefract and Castleford, Chesterfield (Tony Benn’s former constituency), and Oldham East and Saddleworth. In each of these the Conservatives only need a small swing. Every one is in or near former mining country.

The Government must accept that chasing a green-only economic agenda at breakneck speed is a policy that sits in clear tension with the solemn commitment to regenerate Britain’s post-industrial regions. Net zero and levelling up are competing objectives. This is a contradiction within the party’s thinking, and the sooner there is honesty about it, the better.

Unfortunately, this policy clash speaks to a deeper cultural divide within the party between Cameroons and the new Boris consensus. David Cameron did incredible things for the party, making it electable again after 13 wilderness years. But his electoral strategy – chasing middle-class votes, parading environmentalist credentials (“Vote Blue, Go Green”), and taking the fight to the Liberal Democrats in England’s leafy suburbs, ultimately resulted in Coalition. In 2015 he pulled off a majority, but one much smaller than Johnson did when the Red Wall fell.

Cameron’s autobiography, “For the Record”, makes plain that the former leader remains convinced of the merits of what he calls the “centre ground”, with social liberalism and climate change its core priorities. This Westminster centre – as research shows – is in fact not the centre ground of British voters at all.

Whitehaven may seem like a local issue, and indeed it should have been. Whitehall’s intervention has made this a national question, revealing a deeper existential conflict within the Conservative Party. Is it the party of bourgeois ideological preoccupations, or of British workers? Were our former mining communities right to place their trust in the party? A good signal of the true answer to this lies in whether they open this mine. Let’s hope Johnson doesn’t let his new voters down.

Chris Whiteside: Why Britain’s first new coal mine for decades should open in the ward I represent

23 Feb

Chris Whiteside MBE is County Councillor for the Egremont North & St Bees division of Cumbria County Council, and also Deputy chairman (political and campaigning) of North West England region of the Conservative party.

ConservativeHome readers will know of the controversy over proposals for Britain’s first new coal mine for decades, in Copeland, West Cumbria.

I am county councillor for the division which includes most of the application site.

Almost to a man and woman people in the vicinity are in favour, while almost all the opposition comes from people living many miles away. The most vocal opponents live on the far side of the deepest and longest lakes, and the highest mountain, in England.

Copeland

Copeland moved from the red to the blue column two years before the rest of the former “red wall” seats, but is typical of traditional communities in Northern England which voted Labour for generations but finally lost patience with that party while it was led by Jeremy Corbyn.

When elected to Cumbria County council, I was the first Conservative councillor in history to represent parts of my division. Voters in West Cumbria who elected Conservative councillors like me, and Conservative MPs like Trudy Harrison and “Workington Man” Mark Jenkinson, lent us their votes. We have no more automatic right to their continued support than our Labour predecessors had. Local people expect us to fight harder for them than those predecessors did.

We will.

The historical context

I was a student during the 84-85 miners’ strike. With Iain Dale, I was a ringleader of a campaign to sack a Labour student union president who misused used union resources to support the strike.

I now have more sympathy for comments made to me in 84-85 by students from traditional mining communities – like the area I now represent – than either I or those who made them would have imagined possible at the time. Particularly about affluent middle-class people from many miles away trying to take jobs from a less affluent community which they knew little about and probably couldn’t find on a map.

Woodhouse Colliery is expected to provide 518 jobs and fifty apprenticeships in a community which includes some of the worst pockets of deprivation in Britain. Spending will also boost the local economy and supply chains, on ONS multipliers providing a further estimated 380 jobs.

The facts about the mine

The proposed mine will not produce coal to burn for energy. It is specifically restricted, in the proposal itself and planning conditions, to mining coking coal to make steel, mainly for the British and European steel industries.

If you want more renewable energy, you need steel – It takes lots of steel to make a wind turbine. Britain needs steel for many other purposes too.

Currently there is no economic way to make new steel without coking coal. More than 85 per cent of scrap steel in Europe is already recycled so there’s limited scope to increase the 39 per cent of steel currently coming from recycling.

Ironically, the same Lib-Dem MP who leads opposition to the mine also calls for more steel to be made in Britain. Only a Lib-Dem could so comprehensively face both ways at once as to call for more steel to be made here while effectively working to ensure it’s made with imported coal. Most coal used by British and European steelmakers today comes from the USA or Russia.

Technology will change. There may be improvements which remove need for coal: or in carbon capture technology to use coal without damaging the environment. But the steel which this country needs in the immediate future will be made with metallurgical coal.

Better to make that steel in Britain and Europe with coal mined in an environmentally sensitive way here, than to use steel made with coal from Russia and America, often strip-mined in the Appalachians and shipped over the Atlantic.

Council votes about the mine

Councillors have voted for the mine three times: all three votes demonstrated cross-party support among Conservative, Labour, Lib-Dem and Independent councillors. Two votes were unanimous. At the third meeting, one councillor from each of the three parties went against but there was a four-to-one margin in favour including majorities of votes cast from each party.

It’s nonsense to suggest that councillors who voted for the mine hadn’t considered the environment, didn’t know what they were doing, or can’t be trusted to make the decision. Such comments are an attack on local democracy.

The council’s officers went through the proposals in exhaustive detail during a process which lasted literally for years. Each report to committee ran to hundreds of pages describing all the objections and every imaginable issue, including lengthy consideration of the impact on Britain’s carbon footprint. A hundred conditions were attached, including a time limit of 2049, the year before Britain’s target to go carbon neutral. Another condition limits greenhouse gas emissions.

Before voting on the plans, councillors listened to hours of presentations from officers and representations from objectors and supporters.

Most of those who attack the committee sound like the bloke in the pub who, because he’s read an account in a tabloid newspaper of a court case lasting weeks, is confident he knows better than the jury who sat through the whole thing.

The latest developments

When Robert Jenrick declined to “call in” the mine and said the decision should rest with Cumbria County Council, most people expected permission would swiftly be granted in line with the October decision. Instead the council is putting it back to committee for a fourth time.

The objection the council received to granting permission is public domain because the group responsible, South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC) – published it on its website.

SLACC argue the decision should be revisited because, since it was made, the advisory committee on climate change published proposals for the UK’s sixth carbon budget.

That document comprises recommendations to ministers, as those who study it will quickly find. Although anyone reading the letter from SLACC’s solicitors who didn’t know better might get the impression that it’s already legally binding, it isn’t.

Fifty Conservative parliamentarians and local government leaders, including most of the MPs representing Cumbria, the mayors of Copeland and Tees Valley, and many “Northern Research Group” MPs wrote to the Leader of Cumbria County Council on 18th February supporting the mine. Their letter made a convincing case that SLACC’s arguments misrepresent the sixth carbon budget.

Conclusion

This saga raises deeply concerning issues. It shows how vulnerable Britain’s planning system can be to high profile, articulate pressure groups even if they have negligible local support.

Anyone who has a serious objection to a proposal should be entitled to have their concerns properly investigated, once. But when similar points are brought up again and again, there comes a point when we are witnessing the attempt to frustrate a democratic decision through delay.

But delay is not the best way to decide whether planning proposals should go ahead. Delay from those who can’t win a democratic vote but use every trick in the book to obstruct what they cannot defeat is the worst of all.

The cynical politics of emissions targets and COP26. How government is poised to declare success while delivering failure.

25 Jan

Dissenters can go figure.  Yes, China is still stacking up new coal plants.  But it is also the world’s largest invester in renewables.  Meanwhile, America was pouring record amounts into them – even under Donald Trump.

Those on the right who don’t believe in man-made climate change can protest as loudly as they like about this shift in the zeitgeist.  Their own capitalist system is turning its back on them.

BP’s plan to increase its renewables twenty-fold, cut oil and gas production by 40 per cent, and not to enter new countries to explore for either is only the tip of a non-melting iceberg.

Slumps, black swans and wars could slow the pace of change.  But the direction of travel is unmissable.  Fossil fuels are out – at least as traditionally used – and renewables are in.  The rejectionists might as well seek to shout down a hurricane.

In many ways, this is all to the good.  Energy security demands decreasing our reliance on, say, Russian coal.  Emissions reduction suggests not looking to our own for a replacement.

We have no quarrel with “the science”: as Roger Scruton pointed out, “the greenhouse effect has been known for over a century and a half”. But giving the shift to renewables a thumbs-up in principle is not necessarily the same as doing so in practice – that’s to say, when a plan is on the table.

The Government has a series of targets for reducing emissions.  Two of the best-known are the ban on the sale of new diesel, petrol and hybrid cars, and the zero emissions 2050 target, rushed in by Theresa May as a legacy policy.

We want to look at these targets, and the pace of change which they suggest, through three lenses: those of people, politics and Parliament. First, people.  Our columnist James Frayne writes on this site that he “has probably done more work on the environment than any other single issue”.

He finds a class and age divergence among support for environmental policies.  They’re important to everyone, more so to younger, urban voters – and in different ways.

To many of those people, Greta Thurnberg is a hero.  Lots of those older, provincial ones have never heard of her.  Their concerns are concrete, not abstract: “excessive use of plastics, the destruction of areas of natural beauty and animal welfare.”

Yes, there’s an overlap.  But how will they react when or if governments tax their hybrid cars, bar the coal they use for their fires, hike their electricity bills, export their jobs and ban them from eating meat?

Cambridge University is blazing a trail for that last policy – a reminder that urban, younger people are concentrated in Planet Remain, and provincial, older ones in Leave Country.  Welcome to the latest version of culture wars.

Now, it’s true that voter protest so far has been muted.  Which brings us to our second p: politics.  Britain’s democracy is geared up to a five-year election cycle.

It is built into the very stuff of Parliament, therefore, for MPs to fixate on the date of the next election (due in this case to be May 2 2024) – and often to look no further.

To make a complex story simple, green technologies mean subsidies, subsidies mean jobs, and MPs want those jobs for their constituents.  Who can blame them?

Hence the rush of articles on this site, more numerous by our count than on any other subject, from backbench MPs making the case for green technologies that will mean “green jobs” in their seats.

What about the bills?  They will mostly arrive on the doortsteps of taxpayers, consumers and business in the medium-run, if not the long-run.  And “in the long run we are all dead,” as Keynes put it.

So, third, to Parliament.  We quoted Scruton earlier on the known factor of the greenhouse effect.  But withheld until now the context of the quote.

The greenhouse effect “implies that, other things being equal, the accelerating production of carbon dioxide will cause the earth to warm”, he added, before briefly citing one of those other things: “fluctuations in solar energy”, he added.

There is more detail in his book Green Philosophy, but one would have thought that this position (the greenhouse effect is a cause of global warming – even the main cause, but not the only cause), would be shared by some on the Conservative benches.

Even if not, one would certainly have imagined that, by now, a band of Tory MPs would be pointing out that the bills for this green programme will come in sooner or later – at which point, a choice may open up between mulcting the taxpayer or losing those jobs.

Perhaps we are not reading Hansard closely enough, but we can find no evidence that such a group exists.  That suggests a new dimension to change in the Commons.

It’s often said that modern MPs are increasingly rebellious (not least by this site).  But they are so in a particular kind of way.  More stand ready to put the interests of their constituents ahead of the blandishments of the whips.

But the Commons seems to be producing fewer Andrew Tyries – the awkward, angular former Treasury Select Committee Chairman, now a peer, who campaigned against climate change orthodoxy, for all his establishment status.

At any rate, climate change sceptics outside Parliament warn of terrible things to come – higher electricity bills, for example.  We take the point, but query the scale – because we suspect that rebellion will finally come when the proverbial hits the fan.

To put it plainly, try telling Robert Halfon that his Harlow constituents must pay higher fuel duty to help meet some government target.  He will revolt.  As will all those other backbenchers who have no ideological or constituency stake in the push for zero emissions.

Maybe government will manage the transition, after all.  But with COP26 coming down the tracks, and with a mass of coporates, lobbyists and cheerleaders clinging to its wagons and rooftop, this is a good moment to take stock.

Reducing emissions and securing supply are only two of a quartet of main policy objectives, the other two being keeping the lights on and keeping prices low.  Remember: the Tory manifesto promised to lower energy bills for those in social housing.

How can these objectives be squared?  Finding an answer doesn’t require a drive-by shooting of green policies.  In some cases, we need more. For example, Rachel Wolf and others have made a strong case for a carbon tax, which is robust regardless of targets.

Nor are these wrong in themselves.  For example, it would make sense to have a timetable for the take-up of Flood Performance Certificates – documents that set out the severity of flood risk for homes, and steps that could be taken to mitigate it.

And there are worse things in the world than politicians declaring success (“we’ve made great progress towards our zero emissions target”) while delivering failure (i.e: backing off some of the tax hikes necessary to actually hit them).

But the landscape ahead looks to be one of conflicting policy objectives, punts in new technologies that won’t always come off, pressure on consumers, business and taxpayers, jobs that won’t always be sustaintable – and further damage to the standing of politics.

In which case, a small boy ought to halt the wheezing emperor of government policy, and point out not that he has no clothes, but that he is overdressed amidst this warming weather.  And would move more lightly were he to cast off the 2050 target.

ConservativeHome will run a mini-series on climate change policy tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday.

Mark Jenkinson: The case for coal

21 Sep

Mark Jenkinson is the Member of Parliament for Workington.

Earlier this week saw the publication of a decision by the Secretary of State to reject the application by Banks Mining for an opencast coal mine on the Northumberland coast, to which environmental campaigners have reacted with glee – with Friends of the Earth saying “Coal mines must be consigned to the history books if we are going to avoid climate breakdown”. It is this statement that I think is particularly damaging to our shared aim on net-zero by 2050.

It is worth remembering that the Highthorn development was a huge opencast on a site without previous activity, and that the planning inspector that gave the original permission made the point that the proposal would have an adverse impact on landscape character of substantial significance. Slight changes to the weight given to other elements by the Secretary of State tipped the sensitive planning balance. This decision should not be lead us to assumptions on other proposals, such as West Cumbria Mining’s Woodhouse Colliery in Copeland next door to my Workington constituency.

While we have rightly committed to eliminating thermal coal from our electricity production, coking (or metallurgical) coal is an entirely different matter. It is important that we understand the difference. The UK and Europe import 16.4Mt of coking coal every year, with the CO₂ emissions from its transport five to seven times higher than if it was produced closer to the point of use.

Economic growth and demand in growth for steel are undeniably linked. Our plan for growth will necessarily bring a demand for steel, and we should place much heavier weight on the use of UK produced steel. The low-carbon energy technologies that we will rely on in the future – without exception – are underpinned by steel. That steel production requires coking coal for the foreseeable future. Any increase in UK steel consumption without domestic production of that steel and its process components will result in increases in our offshored and domestic carbon footprints.

Electric Arc Furnaces (EAF) are often portrayed as the green saviour of steel production, but aside from the obvious questions around the high energy requirements and where that electricity will come from, EAFs are still not fossil-free – requiring the addition of coking coal, albeit in much reduced quantities.

The primary feedstock for EAF is recycled steel, and while crude figures suggest that the UK is almost self-sufficient in scrap steel, the EU and World markets are not. This fails to take account of the fact that the scrap steel has be of exactly the right composition to make the requisite end product, so most EAF produced steels are a mixture of scrap steel and Direct Reduced Iron (DRI). Nitrogen produced in the EAF process remains a significant problem, as it makes for brittle steel.

The DRI process itself is still heavily reliant on thermal coal or natural gas, while trials such as those in Sweden to use hydrogen continue. Some point to the intention of HYBRIT to have a commercial plant running by 2026 as the way forward, but again without even touching on feasibility in the short to near term of replacing plants with such energy intensive replacements, they fail to realise that the HYBRIT process is for production of DRI – the problems in the EAF process, and the necessary use of coking coal remain.

It is absolutely right that we scale up our investment into hydrogen production, storage and usage as a fossil fuel replacement. But we have to be honest with ourselves that it is unlikely to be the panacea for the road to net-zero by 2050. In the same way that wind, solar and marine energy production will feasibly replace our fossil fuel production but not our reliance on nuclear for baseload, hydrogen will replace some of our fossil fuel reliance but not all. These two subjects – electricity availability and hydrogen production – are intrinsically linked by the energy intensive nature of the latter.

We must seize the narrative around net-zero, and be honest about what that means for the people in our constituencies. Counter-intuitively, part of the route to net-zero is to bring back some of our carbon footprint that we’ve offshored by importing from countries that often have dubious environmental protections. Growing our economy, and revitalising our UK manufacturing base will necessarily bring carbon emissions. But we must work harder and smarter here in the UK to reduce our reliance and to reduce the impact.

The recent Measuring up for levelling up report from Onward, which led to the creation of a Levelling-Up Taskforce of which I’m a member, shows the stark reality that average GVA per capita has grown faster in London than anywhere else post-deindustrialisation, while in constituencies like mine in Workington it has slipped back or remained stagnant.

We have a significant opportunity to level up across our constituencies if we can rejuvenate our UK manufacturing base, but we won’t do that by looking at policy-making through a lens that appears more focused on absolute zero, than it does net-zero