Yesterday was never going to be easy for Amber Rudd and Andrea Leadsom. Having spent the summer building a renewables pyre and then lighting the match on 27 August, the energy secretary and minister’s return to the House of Commons was always going to be a fraught affair.
It was very much an attack from all fronts. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas accused the Conservatives of “taking a wrecking ball” to the solar industry. Scottish National Party MPs renewed attacks on a lack of consideration for jobs. Labour's Lisa Nandy, returning from maternity leave early to contest the cuts in her new position as shadow energy secretary, spoke confidently and coherently on a chronic fall in investor confidence, resulting in the UK dropping out of EY’s attractiveness index for clean energy investing for the first time in 12 years.
All valid points, all knocked back by the secretary with the repeated line that the proposals are an “urgent response” to protect consumers from “devastating bills” further down the line. Quite how an extra £6 a year – at the very most, according to DECC’s own impact assessment – by 2020/21 could be perceived as devastating however, is anyone’s guess.
It will have no doubt served as a great source of encouragement for the industry to see so many MPs pour scorn over the proposals, not least because of the cross-party support the cause appears to have garnered.
The questions continued to pour in but, unlike in previous encounters, not just from those in opposition. London's Conservative mayor Boris Johnson was the first to break ranks earlier this week and Rudd could well feel slightly let down by some difficult lines of questioning from her own backbenchers. Julian Stroud suggested a more tapered degression to the FiT was more appropriate, Peter Bone went one further to question the future of the department’s very existence.
What gradually became apparent over the course of the questions session was a definitive, albeit slight, change in tone from Rudd and Leadsom. Repeated defiance that the proposed cuts were the best way to save consumers money was replaced by a far more conciliatory approach. Rudd mentioned the ongoing consultation on numerous occasions, while Leadsom repeated that the department “strongly welcomed” evidence to be submitted.
Leadsom might have prompted some consternation with her summation that at least some of the industry’s anger was a result of a “lack of understanding about what we are trying to do”, but Rudd’s assertion that it is “still to early to say what the outcome of the consultation will be” offered more than a crumb of comfort to those who might otherwise have thought this a futile task.
Perhaps the most telling line of the morning emerged towards the end when Rudd said that her department was “determined to identify the right level of solar subsidies to continue growth” in the sector, before then hinting that community energy programmes could be granted additional support in order to save them from the chopping board.
Solar Power Portal’s suggestions to DECC that the message – or at least tone – had changed slightly in recent weeks were rejected with an insistence that the proposals are still being consulted. This is indeed the case, but other cuts to clean energy this summer have been pushed through with sheer brute force and little thought for the ramifications. DECC has still, for example, to unveil replacements for the Green Deal and Zero Carbon Homes initiatives, merely stating they are forthcoming. That the secretary and minister appeared so keen to court responses could at the very least show a willingness to listen to what the industry has to say.
Is govt preparing a softening of 90% cuts in #solar feed-in tariffs? Rudd and Leadsome in HoC make many mentions of the consultation.
— roger harrabin (@RHarrabin) September 17, 2015
The politically-motivated cuts to the small-scale feed-in tariff will not go away and the repercussions will be substantial. The face of the industry will change almost overnight, but if yesterday’s oral and topical questions session proved anything it’s that people at the highest level of government are hearing the message and are prepared to take it further. Not only that, but the sheer numbers of companies, organisations and stakeholders willing to put their names to the growing list of open letters and government petitions has been phenomenal.
The fight is far from over and the solar industry cannot rest on its laurels now having helped cause quite the scene yesterday morning. With just more than a month left until the consultation closes, it is imperative that the campaigning and lobbying continues in earnest.
The House of Commons is listening. If the shouts grow louder, Osborne might just hear them from the Treasury.