Whitehall

Whitehall Prepares For Major Cuts Under Coalition Government

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Imagine that you are a minister with an important decision to take. The decision is finely balanced and you have your doubts about costs and the commitments on deliverability. You are inclined to say no. But hold on – the firm involved employs your wife as a consultant which brings in a helpful £ 40,000 a year. If you take the wrong decision the consultancy is very likely to come to a rapid end.

Or consider that you are a moderately senior civil servant who can see your career coming to an end as one round of spending cuts follows another. There is a company, already successful, and if it expands further it will need experienced staff. You like them and they like you, as they have made clear over a couple of very pleasant lunches. The only slight problem is that in order to expand they need a decision taken on which your advice is likely to be decisive. Read more

A sign pointing to Whitehall (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty)

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Applications close this week for the newly created post of chief executive of the UK civil service. The general reaction to the advertisement of the vacancy has been muted, to put it mildly, with a much repeated view that the job is un-doable.

The role is certainly not an easy one – think of it as Yes Minister with knives – but the conventional wisdom is too negative.

Whitehall badly needs reform and this could be a good way to drive forward the changes which have been so elusive over the past few years. But if they really want change and a modern, professionalised civil service, ministers will have to adapt as well. Read more

The full-scale competition review of the UK’s energy market which will be announced later this week is a challenge the industry should welcome. The inquiry will absorb a huge amount of time and effort over the next year but it offers the chance both for the industry to clear its name by removing the cloud of public suspicion over pricing policies and simultaneously for individual companies to examine their own strategic positioning in a market which is changing rapidly.

Of course, the competition review will add to uncertainty and will reinforce the reluctance to invest in new generating capacity, which is already evident, but the sense of doubt will exist in any case, and the review may help to produce some longer-term clarity. In the short term the government will have to find a new mechanism to ensure that supply is adequate to meet demand – and doing so with an expensive plan for emergency electricity supplies. But that is a separate issue from this fundamental analysis Read more

Applications closed last week for the chairmanship of the UK’s Environment Agency. Lord Smith of Finsbury, much criticised by some ministers during the recent floods, has not been sacked but has reached the end of his term. The appointment of a successor is important for the energy sector, and many others, but what happens next will also a test of whether public appointments in the UK have been politicised. Has meritocracy been abandoned? Read more

Older UK readers will remember the Green Goddesses – fire engines held in reserve for moments of national emergency. At the height of a crisis army drivers would maintain an essential service. Well, lo and behold, some new Green Goddesses are to be created as the government launches its “emergency electricity reserve”. Read more

Forget the evidence, feel the populism. That seems to be the motto of the UK secretary of state for energy, who has written to regulators suggesting that British Gas and perhaps other gas suppliers should be broken up because their profits are too high. There is nothing like picking on an enemy no one loves. With their refusal to be completely transparent on costs and pricing, the utilities have made themselves sitting ducks.

Never mind that there has been no competition inquiry (rejected by the Government despite support from EDF, who rightly argued that one was needed to clear the air). Never mind that the figures quoted by Mr Davey have been in the public domain for months, without triggering action by Ofgem. Never mind that Ofgem is a highly professional public body that knows what it is doing. And most of all, never mind the consequences. Read more

With the world’s population growing by almost 10,000 a day, and more and more people in Asia and Latin America enjoying access to effective spending power for the first time, the energy business should be a thriving and happy place.

It is not. Across the sector, the mood is downbeat. The talk is of building resilience against risks and threats. Read more

As the smoke of briefings from the government PR machine clears, the shape of the deal to secure the development of the new nuclear station at Hinkley Point in Somerset is becoming clearer. As mere consumers we are not allowed to know the full facts – that privilege is given, it seems, only to the companies involved and the French and Chinese governments. But we can piece the story together. Read more

The report of the public administration selection committee of the UK House of Commons into the workings of Whitehall earlier this week sounds like a dull read. It is not. This is a serious document which deserves to be read by anyone who cares about how power is exercised in modern government. It also carries an undertone of barbed malice, some deserved, some not which fans of CP Snow will much enjoy. Read more

According to reports in the Daily Telegraph, the Energy Department is blocking publication of a serious and detailed study of the impact of wind farms across the UK. This exposes the tip of an iceberg. At least a dozen major reports on energy policy issues, in many cases commissioned at considerable expense from external consultants, are being kept secret because of their inconvenient findings. It is time for a change of culture in WhitehallRead more

Those despairing of the lack of progress in managing climate change or the absence of practical and realistic energy policies in so many countries should take a look at the work being done by some of the world’s great universities.

In Durham, the Energy Institute has focused on the societal aspects of changes in energy technology. One of their main projects is to look at the role and potential of smart grids. Thanks to advances in IT, smart grids now offer the prospect of managing the distributed production and use of power in ways which will transform the economics of the whole sector. Smart grids create automatic processes which can help both businesses and households not only manage what they use but also to become producers themselves –selling power into the grid. Read more

July promises to be a busy month in Whitehall Place, the home of the UK’s Energy and Climate Change Department. Unfortunately, however, despite the prospect of a flurry of activity it seems as if all key decisions will still be left on hold. Read more

The announcement that the Department of Energy and Climate Change – along with half a dozen other Whitehall ministries – has accepted another reduction in its budget under the latest spending review will be celebrated only by the energy companies and their lobbyists. A weak department has been weakened further with its negotiating capability undermined at a critical moment.

Most of DECC’s £3bn budget goes to meet its statutory obligations – including nuclear decommissioning costs. Those obligations can’t be cut so the burden falls on the “discretionary” areas of policy making which include negotiations around the vexed issue of Electricity Market Reform. Cuts and natural wastage, which leaves a significant number of posts unfilled, mean that the department is now seriously understaffed for these negotiations. There is big money at stake and for the companies no expense on staff and lobbyists is too great. The secretary of state has been supine in accepting the cuts without challenge. Read more