Mark Leftly: Huhne's stance on nuclear policy was perfectly clear
The Energy Secretary's U-turn is only a beginning
Sunday 15 August 2010
Chris Huhne can dress it up all he likes, but the Energy Secretary and one-time author of this column has performed an extraordinary U-turn on nuclear policy.
And, boy, is the UK nuclear industry relieved.
Huhne tried to argue last week that his stance had been misunderstood. I'm not sure how describing nuclear power, less than three years ago, as a "tried, tested and failed technology" could be misunderstood.
Nor is it clear how he has been misunderstood when his party's website states: "Nuclear has a dirty legacy and increases global security risks. We oppose construction of further nuclear power stations."
I doubt that even Huhne's renowned megabrain can square those comments with his latest ambition for a new wave of nuclear power stations by 2018. Even his assertion that he simply opposed public subsidy for nuclear power is disingenuous; the previous government also wanted the private sector to pay.
David Cameron has completely outmanoeuvred Nick Clegg in this coalition. Making David Laws and then Danny Alexander the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has tied the Lib Dems to cuts the pace and severity of which they would have condemned in opposition.
Even appointing Norman Baker as transport undersecretary was inspired. This has gagged Parliament's most tireless inquisitor. But allowing a Lib Dem to head up energy was Cameron's masterstroke. In these cash-strapped times, Huhne could hardly ignore the economics: industry experts estimate nuclear power will cost £55-60 per megawatt hour, against £100 for onshore wind, £150 for offshore and somewhere north of £200 for tidal generation.
And the Lib Dems will cop the flack from the environmental lobby and those who fear nuclear, even though the industry has the sort of safety record post-Chernobyl that is the envy of the oil and gas sector.
I'm told that Huhne started changing his tone when he realised that his appointment had spooked the markets. One banker says that having a sceptical Lib Dem in charge of nuclear raised the potential cost of financing projects by 1 per cent.
The truth is that the global market is huge, so that the big French, German and US nuclear players can go elsewhere. Huhne knows he must go much further than assuring them that building stations in the UK will be OK: he must actually encourage them that a bet on our nuclear programme is a sure thing to pay out huge.
Apparently Huhne has met the heads of UK divisions of the likes of RWE and EDF, but until his recast image as a nuclear enthusiast convinces, he is unlikely to make eye contact with their most senior bosses.
The scale of these nuclear players is immense, the geographical reach virtually unrivalled in world business. Just last month, Nicolas Sarkozy backed proposals for EDF and Areva to unite to make France the world heavyweight champion of the nuclear industry. If France snubs the UK, it would be humiliating for Huhne. He could ill afford the accusations of incompetence that would follow if he does not ensure this country's energy supplies.
Home grown: From posh crisps to award-winning vodka
William Chase is a PR's nightmare. That's another way of saying he's a journalist's dream. Chase was the guy behind Tyrrells, the posh crisp brand that he sold to private equity for a cool £40m. He still works there one day a month, but admits to feeling horribly uncomfortable about someone else running his baby. Chase still has a 20 per cent stake that he would like to sell, and he's very open that he's unhappy about how commercial and relatively downmarket the crisps have become. But happily, he's now behind what was recently voted by the San Francisco World Spirits Competition as the planet's best vodka, Chase, made at his Herefordshire potato farm. One son, James, helps with sales in London, where Stephen Fry is among the distillery's many fans, and another, Harry, looks after the apple orchard that's the basis of its gin. He'd like to create a cider from the orchard and is set to buy a vineyard in France. One thing's certain, though: next time Chase sells out, he sells out completely. No spin, no regrets. Better-known businessmen could heed his example.
Break up airport-terminal ownership? It's one idea that really should take off
When staff at airports operator BAA voted in favour of pay strikes last Thursday, I had one overriding thought: that ownership of airport terminals, particularly Heathrow, should be broken up.
An overlooked but attractive idea for Heathrow's terminals to be run by separate entities was mooted in the Competition Commission's investigation into BAA's market dominance in 2008. BAA owned four airports in South-east England – including Heathrow and Gatwick until the latter was sold-off last year – and three in Scotland. The commission instead demanded sales of whole airports, though this has been stalled by BAA's successful appeal against potential bias in the inquiry.
The concept has problems, not least finding ways for competing terminal owners to pool cash to improve common infrastructure, such as runways.
But Heathrow has already gone in this direction, British Airways being the sole occupant of the superb Terminal 5. What BA says goes, and the airline demands that T5 be a more civilised facility for passengers than other terminals.
If there were several terminal owners, a pay dispute would be easily resolved. If staff were right that their skills were not properly valued, rival terminal owners would poach them with fantastic pay offers and they would not be faced down by the prospect of relocating away from family and friends. If they were wrong and their skills were commonplace, salaries would be justifiably low across the airport.
If this argument makes me seem a free-market zealot, I'm not. I have doubts on any philosophy, ideology or view that is predicated on a perfect view of the world. But Heathrow, the UK's most important transport asset, is an unruly mess. Sticking with the status quo is ridiculous, and new, even flawed, ideas are welcome if they can help avert the misery of industrial action.
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