Does Scotland have the capacity to produce its own energy policy?

UK energy policy is still reserved to the UK Government but, to all intents and purposes, major parts are being devolved to the Scottish Government. Politically, Scotland has a veto over the construction of new nuclear power stations, through executive devolution (via the Electricity Act 1989) and statements by several UK ministers since devolution. Legally, it is securing greater powers to oppose hydraulic fracturing for shale gas (‘fracking’), initially through the planning system and, from 2015, by securing the right to grant drilling licenses to companies. It is also pursuing a distinctive renewable energy policy, underpinned by its ability to help fund and approve the planning permission for major projects, and a permissive regime linked to EU targets and UK demand.

Yet, it does not have the constitutional or legal power to control the complete mix of energy production. This limitation helps generate the sense of a fragmented policy process in which the Scottish Government often contributes to the blocking of major sources of energy, while encouraging some and relying on the maintenance of others. This is an unsustainable position, since major sources of Scotland’s energy – its old nuclear power and coal burning plants – are coming to the end of their lives. We have reached the point where the Scottish Government, in cooperation with the Scottish Parliament and other actors, has to be a part of a long term strategy to secure its energy needs within a UK and EU framework.

Does the Scottish political system have the capacity to produce this strategy?

What would it take to make a legitimate decision built on sufficient and enduring support? The capacity:

  1. To generate and process evidence. Some will be fairly straightforward, technical, information – on, for example, levels of consumption/ production, import/ export, the risks and rewards to production, and the environmental effects regarding the use of each type of energy – and other information will be heavily contested. However, this distinction is not always predictable, particularly in highly salient issues where some groups do not trust information from others. A system requires the expertise to help generate and/ or analyse information, as well as the processes to combine it with other forms of knowledge (e.g. on the policy process), values and opinion, to produce a defendable decision.
  2. To inform the public, to generate an informed decision. Public knowledge of energy issues are often low, and it is rare to see public debates which consider energy consumption and production as a whole, rather than in relation to (for example) particular forms of energy produced in specific areas. The Scottish Government would need the capacity to encourage a sustained public discussion on the issues, perhaps not as intense as the debate on Scottish independence, but drawing on increased public participation (and certainly as high profile as the ‘national debate’ on compulsory education).
  3. To foster cooperation and a degree of consensus among social partners. The Scottish Government has developed a reputation for consultation to produce relatively high ‘ownership’ of policy problems and a useful degree of cooperation between social partners. Yet, this took place during a period of high public spending within policy areas, such as education and health, often marked by widespread agreement – often producing little need to generate consensus on ‘hard choices’. Energy policy would be a key test of its capacity to secure widespread agreement between business, energy, public sector, environmental and community groups.
  4. To produce ‘joined up government’, to ensure that energy aims are consistent with other policy aims, such as to produce sustainable growth and adherence to climate change targets. It has produced a National Performance Framework underpinned by a single purpose and a series of supporting aims (and measures of progress) but, as yet, it does not incorporate energy aims fully.
  5. Of the Scottish Parliament to scrutinise the Scottish Government. The Scottish Parliament has the ability to scrutinise government policy, but it has limited resources to do so (and often-limited political incentives to devote considerable time to scrutiny), and its remit on partially-reserved areas would be difficult to define.
  6. To produce a degree of cross-party agreement, sufficient to maintain a long term strategy. Energy issues often generate intense competition among political parties, with the potential to undermine long term planning.
  7. To produce effective intergovernmental relations. If energy remains a formally reserved but an effectively increasingly devolved matter, the Scottish Government would need to maintain a regular relationship with the UK Government and UK public bodies, to secure a degree of agreement on Scotland’s contribution to UK policy.
  8. To produce a robust legal and regulatory framework, and sufficient resources to regulatory bodies.  Many of these policies require (Scotland, EU or UK-wide) regulations to maintain a dual focus on energy production and environmental (and health and) safety. Often more importantly, they require well-resourced public bodies to carry out regular inspections and approve local projects.

The example of hydraulic fracturing

Fracking policy is a useful example of an issue that has the potential to generate public interest in energy, but perhaps only to one aspect of a complicated decision. Current surveys suggest that public knowledge remains low (even when attention seems high) and that attention is focused on a small number of aspects (environmental consequences, economic potential) of specific projects. The issue has generated intense electoral competition to produce a moratorium or local veto on development, without giving the sense of what Scottish parties are willing to encourage alongside renewable energy. There is little evidence, yet, that the Scottish Government is in the position to broker a deal between energy businesses and environmental/ community groups – in an area in which it is increasingly important to demonstrate that the government has not already made up its mind on development (currently, this is a ‘governance’ problem faced more intensely by the UK Government). Scottish parliamentary scrutiny is limited, partly because there is still uncertainty about the specific issue and the Scottish Government’s role. Intergovernmental relations may often be limited to the forthcoming further devolution of powers, which give the Scottish Government another veto on energy production, without solving its need to work with the UK to produce an overall strategy. The consideration of a regulatory framework is in its infancy: the Royal Society guidelines are there, but we do not yet know how they would translate to specific regulations or if public bodies such as SEPA have the capacity to monitor adherence, before and after planning consent. Currently, this is one of many cases in which Scotland will benefit from further devolution and face considerable uncertainty about what to do with its new powers.

See also: I was partly motivated to write this up after reading Murdo Fraser’s Missing – an energy strategy for Scotland  and these replies:

Aileen McHarg also discusses energy (from p37) in ‘Further Devolution and Energy Policy’

My bullet point 1 was a glaring omission until:

(There is some more background to the relevance to fracking here: The fracking moratorium in Scotland: what is it for? To gather new evidence? If evidence based policy making interests you, see also  The Science of Policymaking)

You can also link this issue to the usual Scotland/ England banter here:

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Filed under Scottish independence, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

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