Let the public sector lead a green and local recovery
Wrexham Council is installing solar power units on 3,000 council properties using panels assembled at the local Sharp factory. Cities like Nottingham, Preston and Lewes are leading energy saving projects that tackle fuel poverty, insulate homes, generate energy and thousands of new green jobs. Speaking at the Unison/TUC conference on 31 January, Caroline Lucas MP came out with a vivid analogy: She said that such schemes are a bit like walking past a £20 note on the pavement. We don’t want to stoop down to pick it up because it seems too good to be true.
What emerged from our discussions around the groundbreaking report, the New Green Team was that it’s now up to local authorities, trade unions and the renewable and energy efficiency industries to say to the politicians that local schemes which create or save jobs, boost the local economy, tackle climate change and fuel poverty are just what we are all looking for. A key barrier now is persuading the Coalition to just get over their dogmatic refusal to recognise the potential of public sector solutions to the sustainability challenge.
A major reason jobs are not materialising, and at worst being lost, is the cut to the Feed in Tariff supporting solar power. Howard Johns, Chief Executive of Southern Solar, said thousands of jobs were lost because of government cuts to the rate payable to households and organisations that sell their surplus power back into the grid. Individual and possibly community level schemes may survive, but as things stand local authority led schemes may well not.
At a fundamental level, this is about more than just the feed in tariff, and indeed the Green Deal. It’s also about austerity and the failure to properly think through the role that the public sector has to play in the recovery.
That’s why the report, and the debate that it has started, is so important. It gives us an opportunity to begin to talk about the role of the public sector, of local government, in creating decent jobs and contributing to a more fair and sustainable economy. This does rest on recognition of two important facts:
First, the interdependence between public and private sectors. As a survey last summer by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation demonstrates – cut the public sector and the private sector does not necessarily fill the gap. 20% of private sector employers think that public spending cuts and the lost of trading opportunities, will have either a serious impact on them.
Secondly, it’s because the private sector, left to its own devices, is not up to the task of creating the jobs we need. Between 1998 and 2007, 2.2 million jobs were created in the UK – well over half were public sector, or in charities and firms dependent on public contracts.
These did not “crowd out” private sector employment. Instead they compensated, as one commentator has put it, for ‘the incompetence of the private sector to employ’.
The recommendations in the New Green Team report published 31 January, clearly point towards a sustainable growth strategy, demonstrating the steps that help generate the jobs that are urgently needed:
- reinstating the Feed in Tariff for local authority and community scale renewable projects.
- doing more to maximise opportunities from the new energy efficiency retrofit scheme for homes and businesses – the Green Deal.
- Unions need to engage in tripartite discussions with councils and business on investing in green energy jobs and skills, to ensure that decent, well paid employment offers a pathway out of the recession.
But the challenge for us all is how move to a positive growth and decent jobs whilst trying to cope with the cuts and austerity agenda.
We can only succeed in opposing austerity if we have an alternative. This report and the debate that its started is an important contribution to developing such an alternative.