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Archives for February 2011

Is Cornwall's solar power gold rush turning into a spaghetti western?

Martyn Oates | 17:56 UK time, Monday, 28 February 2011

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Wind farm c/o PA

The Energy Secretary's recent visit to the South West felt a bit like a re-run of the Deputy Prime Minister's a couple of weeks earlier.

That doesn't mean I'm already getting blasé about the (still rather novel) spectacle of senior Liberal Democrats descending on the region in ministerial state.

It's more the fact that both were cursed with poor timing.

Nick Clegg arrived barely 24 hours after a host of Liberal Democrat councillor leaders wrote to the Times berating the coalition for its cuts to local government.

Everything he wanted to talk about was inevitably overshadowed by the previous day's grand remonstrance.

To add insult to injury, when I interviewed him he had to compete with a farmer and a herd of cows who made it clear they were no slackers either when it came to remonstrating on a grand scale.

Poor Chris Huhne suffered much the same fate.

He was here to meet Cornwall's renewable energy producers, lavish praise on their efforts and generally talk up the government's determination to be the greenest ever.

But coming shortly after his decision to withhold the Feed in Tariff subsidy from big players in the solar industry, he was walking into a lions' den.

You see, just a few months earlier Cornwall Council had grandly forecast a "solar power gold rush" worth £1bn to the county's economy, based entirely on this very subsidy being paid to the same solar energy companies.

So you can guess what Mr Huhne ended up talking about, whether he liked it or not.

Even the celebratory highlight of the trip - officially opening a new generation of cutting-edge turbines at Delabole Windfarm - was blighted a) by me going on about solar subsidies and b) by one of the invited guests who, rather than just marvelling politely at the giant windmills and applauding on cue, had the temerity to ask the Secretary of State whether the government planned to pull the plug on wind energy in the way in the way it had just pulled the plug on solar power.

Here's my contribution to spoiling the party:

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Review or no review, it's clear very large scale concerns won't be getting their hands on the Feed in Tariff. As Mr Huhne makes abundantly clear, he's simply not having it.

What might be up for negotiation is how "large scale" is eventually defined by the Government.

Many argue the suggested 50kw cut off point is so low that it will effectively exclude some of the worthy community ventures that Mr Huhne says he wants to encourage - and it strikes he me he's not necessarily dismissing this argument out of hand.

Sarah Wollaston's new politics

Martyn Oates | 19:05 UK time, Thursday, 24 February 2011

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Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative MP for Totnes, is a new kind of politician in many ways.

Selected as Tory candidate by an open primary in which all her future constituents were entitled to vote, she has no tribal background in the Conservative Party or, indeed, politics full stop.

For the last nine months she's been discovering just how hidebound the traditional world of Westminster can be.

Recently she turned down the chance to become a Parliamentary Private Secretary - the first rung on the governmental ladder.

I had a chat with her on the banks of the Thames to find out why.


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When she voiced the above views in a Westminster debate she said she'd committed career suicide. At least one of her backbench colleagues, though, thinks she could still be destined for a ministerial career.

Shortly before she delivered her frank assessment of the way Westminster works, I received an email from the Conservative press office recommending MPs who could stand in for Ministers as Government spokespeople.

There were two South West MPs on the list. One was David Cameron's former press secretary, Camborne & Redruth MP George Eustice. No surprise there, then.

The other - you've guessed it - was Sarah Wollaston.

Tory MP says don't waste taxpayers' money on gypsies

Martyn Oates | 15:20 UK time, Monday, 21 February 2011

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Travellers' site

There's been a general gnashing of teeth and rending of garments in local government circles in the past few weeks.

Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors are openly at war with Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles. And even some Tories are finding it difficult to keep smiling through as he tells them to spend their savings and cut bureaucracy to fill massive holes in their budgets.

Another of the the coalition's policies, however, will have produced a collective sigh of relief from council chambers across the land.

The last Government re-introduced the statutory duty on local authorities to provided sites for gypsies and travellers. It offered financial incentives as well, but this merely sweetened what remained a very bitter pill for almost any local decision-maker.

One councillor told me gypsy site planning applications were the most difficult thing he had to contend with in public life.

It's not difficult to see why. Furious opposition to any gypsy site, anywhere, is virtually guaranteed. And woe betide you if you happen to be the local ward councillor caught voting in favour of granting planning permission.

The Tories in opposition promised to let councillors off this particular hook and the coalition has duly delivered.

Local authorities are now free to provide sites if they wish, with government money on offer to encourage them to do so.

But if Labour struggled to get anywhere with a double-pronged approach of compulsion and incentive, is dangling a bit of money alone really likely to be any more successful?

When Devon South West's Tory MP Gary Streeter joined me on the BBC Politics Show he readily conceded that not many sites would be found.

He didn't see this as a problem. In fact, as he went on to make clear, he doesn't think finding gypsy sites should be any concern of government or the tax-paying public...

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Devon double bill: Clegg and Miliband go west

Martyn Oates | 12:18 UK time, Tuesday, 15 February 2011

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Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg

The news that two party leaders were gracing the region with their presence on the same day briefly alarmed me into thinking I'd sleep-walked my way into the middle of a general election campaign.

Things turned out to be not quite that weird. But the unintentional double bill of Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband brought home just how much things have been turned upside down since May.

It's almost exactly a year since a Labour leader last visited Devon. Then it was Gordon Brown, surrounded by all the panoply of high office in the dying months of his premiership.

Former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown was a ubiquitous presence at around the same time, evoking the spectre of the Conservatives resurrected to government. A prospect, he argued, almost too horrible to contemplate.

At least he could just about bring himself to talk about it. When it came to the idea of a coalition - despite all my best efforts to engage him on the subject - he seemed to find it literally unspeakable.

Now the unspeakable has come to pass. Not only are the Conservatives back in government but the Lib Dems are there too, giving them a hand.

Thus it was that Nick Clegg swept into Newton Abbot in full deputy prime ministerial pomp. Ed Miliband, liberated from the cares of government, arrived and departed in a Vauxhall Corsa.

I talked to them both...

Nick Clegg interview

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Ed Miliband interview

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