Green jobs: the rhetoric and the reality


Britain has been promised a quarter of a million ‘green jobs’. But as the government continues to struggle to contain Covid-19, the details are lacking. Ros Taylor looks at the scale of the UK’s ambition and some of the obstacles to decarbonisation.

Teaser Image Caption
Net Zero in Teesside plans to be the UK's first decarbonised industrial cluster.

If you want to see a Conservative leader who’s having his cake and eating it too, you don’t have to go to Boris Johnson. Look instead to Ben Houchen, a 34-year-old who was re-elected as Mayor of Tees Valley by a landslide in May.

Houchen represents a part of northeast England that suffered badly from the loss of coal mining and manufacturing jobs in the 1980s. His ‘Net Zero Teesside’ project will ‘create 5,500 jobs’ (while also supporting, he says, 6,000 others in the chemical industry). There will be a new biomass and rubbish incineration plant in Redcar to generate electricity, and General Electric is to build a new wind turbine plant. The Tees Valley will be Britain’s first ‘hydrogen transport hub’, and millions are being spent on upgrading railway stations.

Yet the centrepiece of Houchen’s achievement, and the policy that arguably won him re-election, is his championing of Teesside airport. He has brought the airport back into public ownership and scrapped the “hated” airport fee for travellers. With foreign travel still heavily restricted due to Covid-19, Houchen’s ambition for holiday flights from Teesside has yet to be realised. Instead, two departures go to the oil city of Aberdeen in Scotland, one to Bristol, one to Belfast, one to Heathrow and even one to Humberside – which is less than two hours away by road or train.

Perhaps it would be impossible to attract the industry needed to achieve ‘Net Zero Teesside’ if the region lacked an airport. But it is hard to square Houchen’s ‘green jobs’ rhetoric with plans to dramatically increase the number of flights – and the public financing of the airport is worryingly opaque.

It is now seven months since the Prime Minister set out his Ten Point Plan for a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ that would create 250,000 jobs. Initial enthusiasm from business has been replaced by impatience. In March, the government scrapped one of the key planks of the plan, the Green Homes Grant, which gave people up to £5,000 to make their homes more energy efficient.

The demise of the scheme, which was plagued by delays, was an embarrassment. Much of Britain’s older housing stock is draughty and heated by gas boilers. Achieving significant reductions in carbon emissions without tackling insulation and switching to greener forms of heating will be extremely challenging. Nonetheless, the failure of the rollout holds some useful lessons for the government, should it choose to revive a version of the grant. The House of Commons environmental audit committee identified:

  • A ‘chronic shortage of skills’ to retrofit homes
  • The costs of the policy disproportionately falling on electricity (rather than gas) bills
  • ‘Botched implementation’ of the scheme and long delays, leaving builders in limbo
  • Inaccurate energy performance certificates (which rate the energy efficiency of buildings for sale).

What about the rest of the Ten Point Plan? Wind energy is one area in which some progress has been made. The new Teesside plant will supply the large Dogger Bank offshore wind project, which is due to open in 2026. Humberside and Scotland are also keen to attract turbine manufacturers.

Probably the most ambitious commitment was to ban the sale of new petrol- and diesel-fuelled cars by 2030 (although hybrid cars and vans will still be sold). There will be £582m available in grants to encourage people to buy low-emission vehicles, although with about 32m petrol and diesel cars on the road, no-one will be overly impressed the government’s generosity. The main investment will be in electric batteries and charging points. Car companies, always eager to sell new models, would welcome details of any incentivising tax breaks, and judging by the efficacy of the stamp duty rebate, a temporary waiver on the sales tax on property, which has helped drive house prices up 10 per cent during the pandemic, they would be popular.

But in other respects the plan has yet to be fleshed out, and the Confederation of British Industry is now impatient for details. It warns that businesses cannot move forward without more direction from the government, particularly on green transport, hydrogen, heat and buildings, and taxation. The range of jobs that could be considered ‘green’ is large and varies from planting trees to building flood defences.

Another major challenge will be to ensure that as much of the country as possible benefits from green jobs. Teesside has been lucky, and its recent conversion to Conservatism has helped. Sam Alvis, of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, has warned that many of the new green jobs will be in areas that already have expertise: ‘A “hydrogen town” can pioneer net zero progress and be a proof of concept. But because only one town will initially benefit, Whitehall will need to think how to ensure other places also gain.’

Less discussed, too, are the job losses that inevitably accompany a shift to green technologies. More than 10 per cent of jobs in Aberdeen are directly dependent on oil and gas extraction, and 260,000 nationally, according to the IPPR thinktank. Memories of the trauma inflicted on coal mining communities during the 1980s are still vivid. It will not be possible to offer everyone who loses their job in a polluting industry a sustainable alternative.

The difficulties in Cumbria are a warning of the difficult trade-offs the government will have to make. Last autumn, the county council gave planning permission for a new coalmine at Whitehaven to supply steelworks, providing 500 jobs. Climate campaigners have warned that Whitehaven would have an ‘appreciable impact’ on the UK’s carbon budget, and after an outcry, the national government has put the plans on hold pending an inquiry. Local mayor Mike Starkie was angry, telling the BBC: ‘We’re going to need steel to drive forward the green agenda… windfarms, nuclear power stations, they all need steel.’

The row speaks to the importance of involving local people in decisions about decarbonisation and making local authorities aware of the potential of the National Infrastructure Bank to help fund green projects. The LSE’s Grantham Institute has suggested some of the ways Cumbria could draw on funding for example, managing its peatlands to ensure that they continue to store carbon, small-scale hydropower generation, installing district heating networks and improving public transport.

Finally, the ‘green jobs’ agenda is not without its critics. The Financial Times has argued that the government’s emphasis on jobs rather than productivity – something in which Britain already lags behind France and Germany – is the wrong way to approach decarbonisation. Companies should be encouraged to develop new technologies as cheaply as possible; jobs should not be the metric by which to measure the success of green technologies, particularly since Britain does not yet export many of them.

Nonetheless, the strategy has a clear appeal – the challenge is to hold the government to account for coming up with the detailed policies that will make it possible. The environmental audit committee’s forthcoming report on green jobs will provide important guidance, as will the Green Jobs Taskforce, which was scheduled to have finished its work in April, but at the time of writing has yet to report. The risk, as so often the case with the current administration, is that a policy launched in the hope of solving a problem and cheering a weary population fails through inattention to detail.