Opening the Guardian's Big Energy Debate fringe at the Conservative conference, Damien Carrington remarked on the lack of any significant policy announcements on energy. Rather than this being seen as a challenge by the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Baroness Verma explained that what the industry needed was certainty from a consistent policy approach.
Phil Jones, Chief Executive of Northern Powergrid explained that governments should, "make a commitment to markets and independent regulation to deliver", with and intervention being targeted and specific, which once carried out, the government should step back again.
Some would argue that far from avoiding intervention, the government has shifted position and legislated more over the last five years than it should. Professor George Yarrow of the Regulatory Policy Institute told a Policy Exchange fringe that the market reform policies had been "political meddling of the grandest scale" and that when the industry and regulator is left to do its job, giving the example of the networks, you get very good results.
Other fringes were not so clear cut in their criticism of the government's approach, and indeed the conversations on shale among Conservatives were excitable. A roundtable discussion on smart metering highlighted the long term need to go beyond the tariff restrictions to maximise smart potential, but also accepted the need first to simplify the market for customers as part of rebuilding trust. All participants agreed that a ‘coalition of voices’ would be needed to ensure vital consumer confidence around smart meters, with the energy industry, consumer groups and other third party advocates playing an important role. The need for a collaborative approach was echoed at a separate smart energy fringe event, with Citizen’s Advice calling for a cross departmental approach from Government so that energy ministers work closely with colleagues in health, communities and welfare to protect the interests of consumers.
Given there was no speech made explicitly on energy in the main conference hall, and no significant policy announcements, it is possible that the Party's views on energy and climate change are better suited as part of other broader economic and environmental discussions. Neal Carmichael MP, who sits on the Environmental Audit Select Committee, reinforced the last Conservative government's view that DECC as a department in its own right wasn't suitable and that its functions should be separated.
It is easy for there to be relative agreement across the fringes when the discussion is around the current situation rather than the detail or practicalities of conference policy proclamations. But if any message was loud and clear from Birmingham it is that consistent, clear and stable energy policy, based on minimal intervention is necessary for secure and affordable energy.