Jeremy Warner's Outlook: Surprise! Business seems to be ahead of the Government on climate change

HSBC strike: the dog that didn't bark; Wembley runs into cash crisis
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Hoods off to the gaggle of business leaders who have written to the Prime Minister berating the Government for its cowardice on climate change. This is one of those "please beat us about the head a little bit more because we know what's good for us even if you don't"-type letters in which Sir John Bond, the chairman of HSBC, and assembled others beg the Government for much tougher action to deliver the promised low-carbon economy.

Tony Blair has made progress on climate change one of his two key priorities for presidency of the G8, but though he preaches action, he seems to practice the exact opposite. Having agreed a reasonably tough ceiling for emissions for the start of the European Commission's new trading scheme, the Government then attempted to raise it after lobbying from industry. If that's to be the Government's approach, Britain stands no chance whatsoever of reaching its target of a 60 per cent reduction in emissions by the middle of the century.

The year 2050 is so far in the future that by the time it arrives New Labour will be but a footnote in the history books and southern England will in all likelihood have sunk beneath the rising sea level. It's the here and now everyone most cares about, and if the Government can get away with spouting meaningless, feel-good long-term targets, then why not? Are ministers serious, or are they just playing to an audience?

Sir John and his crew believe the Government is caught in a Catch 22 where they want to clamp down on climate change emissions but are nervous about the backlash from business if they push the envelope too far. Don't worry about it, he says. Industry can take the pain, which in any case is a largely imagined one. According to the signatories, meeting the target will cost just 2 percentage points of GDP growth by 2050, or rather less than a year of trend growth. There, that wasn't too bad, was it?

This sounds almost too good to be true and I suspect that it almost certainly is. The figure appears to have been arrived at simply by calculating how much is spent by the country on energy consumption and then how much it would cost to reduce this consumption by 60 per cent or move it on to cleaner forms of power. However, this assumes all other things are equal, which they are not.

As things stand, America isn't signed up to Kyoto at all, and nor are the two big developing countries of the world, China and India. The competitive disadvantage thereby suffered is capable of much deeper damage than the 2 percentage points spread over 45 years envisaged by Sir John.

Even so, the signatories seem broadly to have got the right idea. One way or another, tougher carbon controls are inevitable. It is much better that these are known about and planned for years in advance than that industry is all of a sudden swamped by them. Such planning will also put British business and commerce ahead of the wave in the development and application of green technologies, which is a potentially vast new industry of the future.

So jump to it, Mr Blair. When it comes to saving the planet at least, many business leaders are ahead of you and actually want to be more heavily regulated. If they are to get their investment decisions right, they need to know exactly where they stand. As things are, all such guidance is sadly lacking.

HSBC strike: the dog that didn't bark

While Sir John Bond was busy saving the planet and attending to his duties at the HSBC annual general meeting, his workers were out on strike. Or to be more precise, just 1,446 of them were. Even the union, Amicus, was unable to claim strike action by any more than 2,500, which in the context of a UK workforce of 50,000, is of hardly any significance at all. The strike didn't manage to close a single branch, let alone bring the whole banking system grinding to a juddering halt.

Union membership as a whole in Britain is still in gentle decline, despite Labour's reversal of some of the Thatcher government's union reforms, but interestingly it has been growing strongly in the finance sector.

This shouldn't altogether surprise. The stereotypical image of a union member as a shop floor worker in smokestack Britain belongs to a bygone age. It died with the smokestacks, and today most union members are white collar workers. As manufacturing declined, finance has grown. Union militancy, such as it is, has moved out of the factories and into the air-conditioned office block. It has always been difficult to persuade such workers to stand on a picket line, even when the weather is good, and at HSBC there was clearly no appetite for a strike at all.

These are not the unions of old, with the power to hold the country to ransom and bring the economy to a standstill. Only one-fifth of HSBC's UK workforce are represented by Amicus, and when their leaders shouted "over the top, lads", they looked behind them and found there was no one there.

According to Sir John, as little as 4 per cent of the workforce actually voted for the strike, which was about the old issue of pay and bonuses. Amicus wanted its members to share in HSBC's £9.6bn profits bonanza, never mind that the great bulk of it was made overseas. The bank wanted to punish underperformers by not raising their pay. Nobody wins in a strike, but if this was a contest, there's little doubt about the victor. It was common sense.

Wembley runs into cash crisis

After the euphoria of Istanbul and Liverpool's sensational Champions League victory, we are back to the grim reality of how badly managed and run the national game of football is back home. The company building the new Wembley Stadium has got rid of its two bosses and warned of significant losses on the project. The good news is that the company in question, Multiplex, is Australian, and not British. The bad news is that Wembley may not now be ready in time to host next year's FA Cup Final.

The Government says it is the FA's problem, as it is the FA's stadium. The FA says it is Multiplex's problem, since it agreed to a fixed-price contract. Multiplex in turn blames a dispute with its steel suppliers and the fact that one of its subcontractors poured wet concrete on top of dry concrete into the foundations of the stadium ­ a basic error, according to construction experts.

The biggest puzzle is how it is possible to make a loss on the stadium at all when the total cost of the project is an eye-watering £757m. For that price, the Japanese and the Koreans managed to build five brand new stadia to host the 2002 World Cup and still have cash left over for the sushi.

Michael Cunnah, the chief executive of Wembley National Stadium, the FA subsidiary in charge of the project, says it would "not be the end of the world" if the stadium wasn't ready to host next year's FA Cup Final. The corporate sponsors who are being asked to pay £210,000 for a hospitality box may not take such a phlegmatic view.

More than half of the £757m is being provided in the form of bank debt with the rest coming from the FA, the national lottery and, to a small extent, the taxpayer. In order to service that kind of debt, the new stadium needs a business plan which makes even the funding of Malcolm Glazer's Manchester United takeover look conservative by comparison. Coming in late and over budget was definitely not in the script.

Wembley may not be destined to become quite the white elephant that the Millennium Dome has proved to be but it is difficult to see the new stadium ever being a commercially viable project. So far the taxpayer is only exposed to the tune of £41m. Now why does it seem so unlikely that this will be the full extent of the call on the public purse.

j.warner@independent.co.uk

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