Race to Net Zero: Key Labour MP asks if Government is running quickly enough

BEIS Select Committee chair Darren Jones has outlined his concerns around a “chronology crunch” in the race to Net Zero.

Taking in the huge strides being made on the Humber, the Labour MP for Bristol North West, told of his fears that policy and strategy from Westminster is not being matched by public investment elsewhere – leading to a lag as legislation inevitably forces markets rather than incentives leading them.

Mr Jones met the Humber Zero team, toured Orsted’’s East Coast Hub and visited both North Lindsey College in Scunthorpe and Hull’s Centre for Digital Innovation on a factfinding mission – citing several exemplar elements he believes should be rolled out in other clusters.

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Speaking to Business Live in Grimsby – while at the world’s largest offshore wind operations and maintenance base – he said: “I am discovering what Net Zero really means for local people in different regions of the country.

“We scrutinise the whole BEIS department and I’m really interested in the Net Zero strategy and how government is getting on with delivering that. A huge amount of infrastructure building and development needs to be done, be it offshore wind, nuclear, hydrogen, carbon capture use and storage, changing boilers or insulating homes.

“My concern is whether government is really delivering quickly enough on that. They have announced a number of policies and strategies, do they hope the market will do the work? My concern is it won’t happen quickly enough to hit the targets.”

Competitive bidding rounds are keeping industry operators on their toes, with success in carbon capture sequencing and progress on hydrogen for some, while others wait it out for future opportunities.

(Image: Reach Plc)

A recent move to annualise the renewable subsidy round, the Contracts for Difference, was widely welcomed, with Orsted itself having previously praised successive goverments for commitments to renewables.

And while there is little doubt the Humber is on the cusp of playing a pioneering role, that itself brings challenges according to Mr Jones.

“The other side of the issue is jobs and skills,” he said. “I don’t think we have enough people with the right skills in the right places to do the right jobs – and we’re facing a bottleneck. There is a big opportunity and there is a big risk.

“It can create lots of great jobs, and in the Humber region there are tonnes of examples there, but the risk is for people who work in carbon intensive industries if we don’t hurry up, previous work or jobs will change or businesses close.

“It is a chronology crunch – the opportunity will come, but it needs to be before anything is lost.

“In this region and others we have seen this happen, be it in steel or chemicals and other industries – a huge gap before the new opportunity.”

Offshore wind’s arrival in Grimsby came after a three-decade decline of fishing to the point where proud Victorian infrastructure had to be massively overhauled to enable the closest port to the best locations for turbine installations in the near North Sea to function.

“It is the whole point of having an industrial policy, we don’t want another generation of largely redundant or lower paid jobs – it is not what the people want. It is bad for a local community and for the local economy,” Mr Jones said, bemoaning the delayed Levelling Up White Paper that “reheats their scrapped industrial policy and continues to force regions to compete for central government funding”.

Under scrutiny: Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, left, with Orsted’s UK head, Duncan Clark, on an earlier visit. (Image: Rick Byrne / GrimsbyLive)

“Industrial policy should guard against that, the risk of not doing it in the right order is we have don’t have the capacity to build and deliver what we want. We currently have a high level of support for Net Zero, but it could crumble if people don’t see real jobs, if they are not seeing skills and training opportunities.”

He was impressed with North Lindsey College’s work with the private sector in Scunthorpe, and digital advances in Hull, and the visit came as pan-Humber engineering training organisation HETA unveiled a £5 million expansion.

Mr Jones said how policy actually plays out – and who ultimately pays for the green switch – are key too. “If government says you have got to pay £15,000 for a heat pump, people won’t be enamoured with that,” he said.

The visit came just days after the Humber lost a huge offshore wind investment to the Tees from South Korean monopile manufacturer SeAH – with the promise of 750 jobs broken.

He also followed Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Levelling Up Minister Michael Gove and his own party leader, Sir Keir Starmer, to the town in the space of a month.

Mr Jones said: “The Humber has been given a lot of political attention by the government, but what does political attention mean? It is all well and good saying you will give preference to an area, but we need to see that translate into jobs and opportunities, and not just new apprenticeships, which is important. We need opportunities across the whole age range.”

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Whispers of the influence elected mayors can have – with Tees Valley’s first citizen Ben Houchen seen as blazing a trail in the North East – have surfaced since SeAH pulled the plug on Able Marine Energy Park, an area with no such representation having seen Humber hopes fade and progress only just being made in East Yorkshire and, at a slower pace, Greater Lincolnshire.

Mr Jones said: “There has been evidence that government prefers to put money through regional mayors, we know Michael Gove was interested in having more, and making investments is one way of incentivising having more mayors.

“We haven’t found a good case study that can be applied equally across the country.” He said many areas, such as Greater Manchester under Andy Burnham, were already working together.

“For me, devolution cannot just be a structure, with decisions in Westminster and regional mayors going for hand-outs, we need power, money and decision-making devolved.”

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