Business

The need for stability in an uncertain time

CUSTOMERS HAVE THEIR SAY: NIE Networks, owner of the electricity transmission and distribution networks in the north, held an event to launch a six-week consultation period on its proposed business plan for its next price control period from 2025 to 2031. Pictured are NIE Networks managing Derek Hynes with event host Wendy Austin
Claire Aiken

MUCH digital ink has been spilled over this tumultuous period for politics in the UK.

We have watched on as the famous front of No 10 Downing Street became something of a revolving door, first greeting and quickly bidding adieu to the Liz Truss Cabinet in what felt like the blink of an eye.

But beyond the shenanigans of the Tory party and the impact of their internal implosion there is at last, a stark realisation of the need for proper leadership at this uncertain time. With the new PM Rishi Sunak installed in Downing Street, his focus must now be squarely on achieving financial and economic stability and seeking to repair some of the damage of his ephemeral predecessor.

One of the most pressing issues is ensuring that businesses and communities get the support they need as the energy crisis bites in the months ahead. The new Prime Minister has a fine balance to strike in supporting them to survive and thrive, whilst also vowing to cut public spending.

While not as long-lasting as originally set out by Liz Truss, the Energy Price Guarantee scheme is a welcome reprieve for both businesses and consumers at a time of record wholesale energy costs. This will help bring some support and reassurance as the winter starts to bite.

However, everything that can be done, must be done to support jobs, employment and struggling households. Top of that list, here in Northern Ireland, is to quickly administer the £400 energy support payment, bringing households here in line with the discount scheme already being rolled out across the rest of the UK.

As for the longer-term picture, both nationally and locally, to ensure that society doesn't find itself in this position in five years' time, government strategy and targeted policy needs introduced now to eradicate our dependence on harmful fossil fuels. They are the single biggest hindrance to us achieving our climate change objectives across the island and UK wide and they are the source of our high energy prices.

The development and utilisation of our indigenous renewable energy resource across Ireland, such as wind, is a crucial conduit to long-term energy security which will support the climate, the economy and reduce energy costs. But to truly achieve on our climate change objectives, which for Northern Ireland was set out recently within the Climate Change Act 2022, a culture change is required. And there are actions we can all take right now, that will save on energy, on our pockets and on carbon emissions.

Actions such as accelerating the rollout of home energy upgrades, including draught proofing, attic insulation, regular servicing of boilers, and simplifying the paperwork to access grants are things we can all do now.

Policy-wise, retrofitting plans need expedited in Northern Ireland which are already under way in the south, albeit with more work to be done to drive uptake.

Home-owner buy-in is essential for this important policy to have the desired impact, but that can only happen when the process is streamlined and the up-front costs are kept at a minimum with grant support in place.

On the transport front, we need a strategic re-think. The OECD and Climate Change Advisory Council which advises the Irish government on climate change produced a report, endorsed by Minister Ryan, which highlights that the transport system and infrastructure in the south, is not fit for purpose. It highlighted that the primary focus within transport infrastructure is enabling and supporting car usage which, in its current form, is incompatible with the sector's 2030 emission targets.

This dependency can only be reduced with local authority input to help provide innovate solutions that lower emissions and reduce energy and ultimately, save people money. A similarly holistic approach is needed in Northern Ireland. Confirmation last week that a cross-departmental working group to promote active travel and greenway development, is welcome.

However, we don't have an Executive in place to support with any of this, from the cross departmental group to the administering of the £400 energy support, to the delivery of a renewable energy system that secures a sustainable and affordable future for us all. And that's without getting into other crucial areas of health and education. There are no words.

In the absence of an Executive, some businesses are taking the lead in addressing our harmful dependence on fossil fuels and strategically plotting out the pathway to a cleaner, greener, more secure energy future. Last month NIE Networks launched a six-week consultation around RP7, which will be critical in enabling the changes needed within our electricity network to achieve net zero carbon by 2030.

For Northern Ireland, it is clear, there is much catching up to be done to support a sustainable future which will see businesses thrive and communities prosper. That first step is, of course, a functioning Executive.

With a December election now firmly on the horizon, we expect our publicly elected representatives around that Executive table to ensure that affordable, secure, clean energy and a sustainable future isn't one of the many casualties of this most recent political fallout.

:: Claire Aiken is managing director of public relations and public affairs company Aiken

:: Next week: Richard Ramsey