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Shale Wealth Fund

Volume 617: debated on Monday 21 November 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)

Thank you for granting me this debate, Mr Speaker. I begin by welcoming the Government’s recent consultation on their shale wealth fund, to which I want to draw attention. It is only right that this House should have an open, constructive debate about this new Government-created fund and how it might be used most effectively. This may be the first debate about the new fund, but I hope it is not the last. Perhaps the Minister will confirm in her response whether the Treasury will be publishing submissions to the consultation. The fund is a new concept and exchanging the information and ideas that were submitted can only be good for policy making, so if the Minister is able to, I encourage her to make them available online.

I should perhaps say what this debate is not about. I have not secured this chance to bring the Minister to the House to debate the whys and wherefores of fracking. My views are well known from my time as Labour’s shadow Energy Secretary in the previous Parliament. With appropriate environmental regulations in place, shale gas has a role to play in the UK’s energy mix. It could assist the UK’s transition to renewables, replacing coal with gas, reducing dependency on imported gas, some of which is fracked, and reducing the UK’s carbon emissions. The Government could have gone further on the regulation, but that is for another day.

If shale gas exploration is proceeding, communities should have a fund for their use. Communities in my constituency of Don Valley have tolerated quarrying, but they have benefited from such funds, too. The fracking industry has agreed two forms of community benefit: a one-off payment of £100,000 per well; and a share of revenue from each well—currently set at 1%. Each should give communities dedicated funds for the lifetime of the project. In addition, local authorities will be able to keep 100% of the business rates that they collect from shale gas sites, which is the case with renewable developments.

This evening I want to advance the conversation about the best way of spending the revenues that the Government receive in the form of nationally determined taxes, levies and duties. Specifically, I want to discuss the proposal for an initial 10% of tax revenues to be deposited in a shale wealth fund—a sovereign wealth fund by any other name. The fund should be ring fenced for a clear purpose, such as improving the UK’s energy efficiency, using the proceeds from a fossil fuel to reduce our future dependence on those same energy sources.

I pay tribute to the work that the right hon. Lady did in the House over her many years as a Minister. Weaver Vale is affected by shale gas exploration. Does she agree that the most affected communities should benefit from the shale gas wealth fund?

I do agree. Whether shale gas or nuclear, when it comes to developments in energy we should recognise the enormous contribution communities make towards our future energy security. Such communities should be seen as guardians of the country’s interests, and they should receive support from some of the good things that could happen to them as a result of such developments.

As I said, it would be helpful if we could ring fence the fund, but I am aware that it is not an immediate win. We are some years from receiving significant taxable profits on shale. However, I cannot help but look at our neighbours in Norway and think how different things might have been had we also protected our North sea oil and gas revenue. This fund will never equate to the scale of such revenue, which has never been less than £2 billion a year since the 1970s and reached over £12 billion in one year during the past decade. Successive Governments poured that revenue into the general taxation pot and simply use it to fund general public spending. By contrast, Norway created a sovereign wealth fund that is now so significant that the income it generates for the nation outstrips the revenue from oil production, but it also has some interesting rules.

Given the reserves of shale gas that are believed to exist in the United Kingdom, does the right hon. Lady think that the wealth fund could be a massive boost to the economy, not just for a short period, but for a very long time?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. From what I understand of the places where shale gas could be recovered, it is an open question as to how much could be received in revenue. There may be difficulties in getting the gas out of the ground: it might be under the ground, but we might not be able to recover it all. It is an open question. At the moment, it is too early to know just how much could be gained. Now is the time to think about the principles for such a fund and about how we can ensure that it is not frittered away across Government on different schemes so that, at the end of the day, we cannot really see the power of good that it has provided for the nation.

As I said, the Norwegian wealth fund was quite amazing in how it was put together. First, the Norwegian Government said that they could draw down only 4% of the fund each year to spend, but March this year was the first time that they drew down 4%, and that is despite the fact that the fund was worth $890 billion. Secondly, they invested for the long term. The oil fund is Norway’s pension fund. We do not know exactly how much the shale wealth fund will generate, but it is forecast to generate £1 billion over 25 years, which is a considerable sum to put to good use, and it may be more.

To create a defined wealth fund is a start. The Government’s intention is that it should be a fund that is clearly separate from the general revenue pot. A further lesson would be to follow the Norway example and use the fund for a specific purpose. I am talking about one that everyone could see the point of—a big picture idea, with an impact that can be clearly seen.

Norway looked forward to a day when it no longer depended on oil. We could look forward to a day when we are not dependent on fossil fuels by reducing our long-term energy use. Energy efficiency in this country is at a crossroads, as existing programmes end or decline. As shadow Energy Secretary, I raised serious concerns about the coalition Government’s flagship proposal, the green deal. We were sceptical about how it would work. It lasted two years before it was scrapped.

I am a member of the Public Accounts Committee and we recently revisited the coalition Government’s household efficiency schemes. The Department of Energy and Climate Change’s financial model depended on large numbers of households taking out a green deal loan. The Government projected around 3.5 million green deals, yet a tiny 14,000 households signed up. That was bad policy making and, sadly, it wasted taxpayers’ money.

The Prime Minister has indicated that 10% of tax revenue could be used for communities, which could amount to up to £10 million per eligible community. Does the right hon. Lady think that new infrastructure, skills training and long-term job opportunity could benefit each and every community?

Absolutely. The great thing about energy efficiency is that it has a multiplier effect. It not only makes our homes warmer and reduces bills, but creates jobs and encourages innovation, too. Although it will be a national fund, the delivery should be at a local level, and the leadership should be held regionally within our communities across the UK.

One bad scheme such as the green deal does not mean that we should give up. With the green deal gone, and the energy company obligation soon to exist solely to tackle fuel poverty, we need to be asking serious questions about how to move forward on energy efficiency. We know, because the Competition and Markets Authority told us, that 70% of bill payers are paying over the odds for their energy and even if the latest Ofgem measures are introduced, they will reduce bills for only a few. It is very likely that, even by 2020, we will still be talking about energy bills that are as high, if not higher, than they were in 2010. I am sure the Minister would agree that the cheapest energy is the energy that we do not use. A shale wealth fund could provide an opportunity to enhance a large-scale retrofit of the UK’s housing stock, protecting households from future energy price rises. The fund should not be the only programme for energy efficiency, but it would provide a new means beyond passporting the cost to the general bill payer.

For a moment, let us consider the future if we do not make energy efficiency a priority. Quite rightly, the UK has ambitious and legally binding emissions targets, and we shall have to meet those targets, with 80% of the UK built environment still existing in 2050. The UK building stock is a long way from the low-energy housing stock that the UK will need, and the challenge is still huge. The Government’s own figures for 2015 show that, overall, their largest energy efficiency scheme, ECO, installed one or more measures in around 5% of homes. Some 320,000 homes had cavity wall insulation installed, 230,000 had new loft insulation, and 50,000 had solid wall insulation fitted. Yet of the 620,000 green deal assessments, 89% of those homes were rated as D, E, F or G. There is a long, long way to go.

There is a huge job that needs to be done, and for whatever reason—poorly directed funding or lack of profitability—the hard-to-treat properties have been substantially ignored. Many of the easiest measures have been undertaken first. Now Britain needs to finish the job. An energy efficiency dedicated shale wealth fund could be a hugely positive step, and I am not alone in suggesting this. Neil Marshall, chief executive of the National Insulation Association, commented:

“There are still some 5 million cavity walls, 7 million solid walls and 7 million lofts that need insulating and therefore we welcome this proposal. Insulating these homes will combat fuel poverty and climate change as well as reducing energy bills and creating jobs.”

The association rightly identifies the fact that many homes have yet to be adequately insulated, including 95% of homes with solid walls.

Most of my constituency is covered by exploration licences for shale, so I have done a lot of research, visited Pennsylvania and set up an all-party parliamentary group on the subject. Does the right hon. Lady accept that the greatest impact of shale gas exploration is above the ground and consists of traffic movements, noise and light pollution? As a consequence, does she agree that some of the financial benefits should go directly to some of the householders who bear the brunt of those difficulties?

I entirely agree. Some of those problems come down to planning. As in any other planning arrangements, there should be mitigation by any developer of any undue impacts caused in the community. It is important to emphasise that not every place that is the subject of an application will get through, because of the drawbacks that the hon. Gentleman outlines. There are many different ways that compensation could be found from shale gas development, whether through the planning process, the £100,000 per well, 1% of revenues to local communities, or the shale wealth fund, which I believe has a particular role to play in addressing a massive problem in this country—the lack of energy efficiency.

IGas has decided to focus its community fund awards this year on local renewable energy generation and long-term conservation. In its submission, INEOS argued:

“The Government may wish to consider allocating a portion of funding towards energy efficiency initiatives or developing renewable technologies. This will also help to debunk the myth that it is an either/or between gas and renewables.”

Let us remember that INEOS is one of the firms that has had to import shale gas from the USA to meet its current needs.

Lancashire County Council argues in its submission that as part of a devolution deal the shale wealth fund in Lancashire

“could be focussed on green and renewable technologies and also ensuring that ordinary families in the county can help reduce their energy costs through energy efficiency measures in the home.”

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has secured this debate, as it is extremely important. The topic is being discussed to some extent in Lancashire, and it is certainly being discussed among MPs. In my constituency 40% of properties have category 1 hazards—cold and damp—yet shale gas in the Bowland basin sits underneath it, as it does under the rest of Lancashire. Is it not imperative that we examine the problems, and is it not to the Government’s shame that they have abandoned housing regeneration programmes in the north that retrofitted many of those hard-to-treat properties?

It is certainly demoralising that in the coalition Government five years were wasted advancing methods to tackle the tricky problem of energy efficiency. I would not claim for a minute that all the schemes before that were perfect, but I know that the decent homes programme did a huge amount to bring our social housing stock up to a better standard, and that some of the work that we were doing through the Warm Front programme and other schemes was making an impact. Unfortunately, we wasted five years not learning from what worked and what did not work, and we ended up with something that did not work. We have lost time and we need to get back on track.

It is important to understand that there does not have to be a top-down approach. The past decade or more of energy efficiency programmes have generally shown that national targets need local delivery. Energy companies found that they could deliver their programmes more quickly and reach more households if they had a trusted local partner, such as a local council, acting as the face of the project.

Local authorities have lots of the data needed to create the heat maps, and they are well placed to pull together the records of the elderly and the vulnerable and the lists of the most inefficient properties. When they can see a street where 80% of properties are eligible and 20% are not, they can fill the gap to make sure that we do not leave streets with some properties done and some not done, with all the rage that follows in our communities.

Nor should we underestimate the significance for local economies. Home insulation is a skilled job, requiring high standards. These jobs are delivered locally. There are ready-made training providers to skill up apprentices. This is an ideal opportunity for tradespeople to retrain or to adapt a small business to provide this service. These are jobs for people in every town in Britain, with local investment producing jobs in every local economy—for installers, supply chains and British manufacturers. This fund can help to stimulate growth, jobs and innovation. With the fund’s principles and priorities set nationally, with regional co-ordination and leadership, and with local delivery, our communities can benefit in a more profound way, beyond compensation grants.

At Treasury questions, I recently asked the Chancellor for his views about a shale wealth fund providing for energy efficiency. He said:

“We have a serious challenge on this country’s energy capacity over the next 20 years, and we are going to have to invest eye-wateringly large sums of money—perhaps £100 billion—just to ensure that the lights stay on. Of course it makes sense to look at ways of reducing demand for energy through energy conservation measures.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2016; Vol. 616, c. 140.]

The Minister knows I will never shirk from holding the Government to account. I will continue to press for bill payers to get fairer energy prices, for shale gas to be produced responsibly and for communities to benefit from local funds. We may disagree from time to time, but I have worked with her before—not least to change the law on tax transparency. I will not allow party advantage to prevent the sharing of good ideas or the possibility of finding consensus to meet a problem or find a solution. This debate, and the Government’s consultation, may be such an occasion. Let the shale wealth fund become a warm Britain fund: a fund that is a friend to those households who have yet to see the benefits of energy efficiency; a fund that foresees a low-carbon Britain and contributes to that goal; a fund that creates jobs in every community, uniting politicians and the public for the common good—a fund that truly leaves a legacy.

I thank the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) for bringing this debate to the House and for a typically thoughtful and constructive speech. I also thank other hon. Members who have stayed to make their contributions on this important topic.

I should say straight away that I absolutely agree that energy efficiency is one of the best ways to reduce energy bills in the long run, so we start on a note of consensus. As the right hon. Lady will know, and as I will make clear in my remarks, the fact that the consultation closed relatively recently inevitably limits a little what I can say. However, I enjoyed her speech, and I would like to make some general comments about where we are in terms of shale and the shale wealth fund.

The Government are backing the safe development of shale gas. We have over 50 years’ experience of regulating onshore oil and gas. The UK has the experience to develop our shale gas industry while at the same time ensuring the most robust and stringent protections for our environment, too.

We believe, as I sense other Members do, that shale gas is an important step forwards in a number of respects. It is a way to secure our energy supply by using our own domestic resources, as we have heard. It also brings with it the potential for tens of thousands of new jobs across various sectors, from the oil and gas industry to construction and engineering. I was very struck when I recently chaired our oil and gas forum in the Treasury just how many jobs are created in supply chains by these industries—it was one of the most striking things to come out of that discussion.

Of course, natural gas will continue to play an important role in our energy system as we move towards a low-carbon economy. We are absolutely committed to reducing our carbon emissions by at least 80% by 2050, compared with 1990 levels. Members on both sides of the House will recognise the fundamental importance of our doing so as part of the collective— indeed, global—efforts to stop climate change in its tracks. We are the first country to propose a phase-out of unabated coal, with gas and nuclear forming the secure base of our future energy mix as we continue to develop renewables and improve energy efficiency. I could not agree more that that is a really important part of the mix.

Shale will be a new, domestic source of gas, which adds to our energy security as we make the shift from coal to reduce our carbon emissions. Gas is the cleanest fossil fuel, producing half the carbon emissions of coal when it comes to generating power. Studies have shown that the carbon footprint of our shale gas would be significantly less than coal and comparable to the liquefied natural gas we import. In short, the shale gas resources beneath Britain could contribute to our security of supply, to jobs, and to increasing tax revenue, while providing a bridge to the greener future we all support.

That is why, in the previous Parliament, we put in place the right fiscal framework to make sure that the incentives are in place for investment in shale gas. It is worth reminding the House that there is an estimated potential cumulative investment in the region of £33 billion. As we explore our shale gas resources, we are also exploring how we can make the most of the benefits that the industry could bring to our economy. Specifically, we want to ensure that the communities and regions that host shale activity will benefit directly from doing so. By that, I mean that they should benefit beyond the boost to the local economy that one would expect them to receive in any case from the development of this new industry. The Prime Minister has been very clear on this. Local people must come first, not only in their involvement in the planning decisions that affect them, with all shale gas applications requiring a full consultation with local people, but in sharing the benefits with the areas in which the industry is developed, with a significant proportion of this expected in the north. That means that the shale industry could play an important role in the economic development of parts of the northern powerhouse, helping to drive local growth, investment and jobs even further.

The autumn statement of 2015 said that the community dividend benefit of 1% is expected to rise to 10%. Are the Government going to make good, to local communities specifically, on that statement that the 1% dividend will rise significantly?

I am about to come on to the dividends for local communities and how we see that working through.

The shale wealth fund is a big part of how we are going to deliver these benefits for local areas. It will consist initially of up to 10% of all the tax revenues arising from shale gas production, all of which should be used for the benefit of the communities that host shale sites. I want to be clear on two points: first, this is new funding, not money used to replace any existing Government funding; and secondly, it will be in addition to any benefits provided by the shale industry itself, because, as Members know, the shale industry has independently committed to making payments to communities that host shale gas developments. The industry’s benefits scheme currently commits to providing £100,000 for each well site of hydraulic fracturing, as the right hon. Member for Don Valley said, as well as 1% of revenues from any site that enters into commercial production. The shale wealth fund is in addition to that. We estimate that it could provide up to £l billion in total and each community could receive up to £10 million. We want this money to go towards leaving a positive legacy for the future of these areas. I note that the issue of legacy was also on the right hon. Lady’s mind.

The shale wealth fund will be the latest in a line of local benefits schemes designed to support communities. For example, a number of renewable energy firms have made a voluntary commitment to provide community benefits of £5,000 per MW of installed capacity.

The Minister says that this wealth fund is going to be available. I am Lancashire MP, so let us just talk Lancashire, where development of fracking is predominant at the moment. What discussions has she had with Lancashire County Council, Lancashire authorities, the local enterprise partnership or other interested parties about how the wealth fund may be delivered? How does she see it being delivered at a regional level in Lancashire?

I am afraid that, inevitably, it is a bit too early for me to comment in detail on that. The consultation closed only in late October, and we have had a very substantial number of responses that we want to go through very carefully. People have responded in quite some detail on exactly these sorts of issues, so we will return to this topic and it will be possible to look at them in more detail later on. Suffice it to say that we have had plenty of ideas about how this might work as we move forward, but we need to look at this carefully.

I was giving examples of other funds. The landfill communities fund is another example of statutory community benefits provision, and the Government’s coastal communities fund is also similar.

The Government have been clear that local communities should benefit directly from shale gas resources in their areas, because we are committed to delivering an economy that works for all, ensuring that the benefits of economic growth and investment are spread as widely as possible. We have also been clear, though, that local people often know best what the individual needs of their communities are. We want them not only to benefit from the fund, but to have a real say over how it operates.

That is why we have sought views from the country through our consultation on how the fund should operate and ensure tangible, lasting benefits for communities and regions that host shale activity. We asked how the shale wealth fund should be delivered, and what its priorities ought to be. As I have said, the consultation closed on 26 October. We have had an excellent response from a range of individuals and organisations—from right hon. and hon. Members, including the right hon. Lady, to charities, local businesses and community groups. We are now looking carefully at the responses, and we plan to publish our response to the consultation by the end of the year. I hope the House will therefore understand that I cannot give an indication of the responses at this early stage.

On publishing the responses, it is for respondents to consider whether to do so, but we will of course provide a list of respondents at the end of the consultation document, as we always do. I would have thought that councils and LEPs would normally make public their contributions. Given the interest in the debate, I am sure many people will decide to do that.

In answer to the right hon. Lady’s query about the purpose of the shale wealth fund, the main purpose is clear. The fund is a way of ensuring that, as this country develops our shale gas resources in a safe and sustainable way, local communities and areas that hold the resources and therefore support the industry’s development should directly benefit from doing so. As I have said, this could amount to as much as £1 billion of extra funding across these regions. We believe that local people should have a say over how best to use any such funding—for example, about whether it should be used to support new job opportunities, develop or enhance community assets, be invested in skills or be invested in green energy.

I understand that the submission from Lancashire County Council talks about the investment going into renewables or energy efficiency, but may I give the Minister a little word of warning? As the MP for a constituency that has been involved with the landfill fund and the aggregates tax, I know there can sometimes be a danger that only the loudest voices get heard. Quite a few local football teams get more strips than Manchester United because they are back every year putting into funds. Can we think bigger about the impact of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and will she bear that in mind?

Of course. I take this debate very seriously, and the fact that it has essentially taken place in a consensual atmosphere makes me think that there is a possibility the House can find things on which we substantially agree about how we move forward. We need to look at the responses. I am sure there will be other contributions and thoughts about how we move forward, but we just have not had the chance to look at them yet.

The right hon. Lady has made a significant contribution to the debate this evening, and she has clearly set the ball rolling in the House’s debate on a topic to which I am sure we will return. We have consulted extensively, asking how the shale wealth fund should be delivered and what it should be spent on. I look forward to reporting on the outcome of the consultation in due course. As I have said, I feel confident in saying that we will return to debate this important subject further, and I thank the right hon. Lady for kicking off the House’s debate on this issue in the way she has this evening.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.