This article is from the January issue of Total Politics
In his first speech on the environment as opposition leader, David Cameron visited a firm called Solar Century in Waterloo. He lauded solar power, and in the years running up to the election committed himself to supporting it. Fast-forward five years, and the same firm is taking legal action against the government over its disastrous cuts to the feed-in tariff (FiTs) for solar power, which hit families trying to cut their bills, put thousands of jobs and businesses at risk and undermined the government’s promise to be the “greenest government ever”.

 As Solar Century’s founder, Jeremy Leggett, put it in his letter to the PM last month: “Surveying the wreckage caused to my company by the announcement, I have to ask you, prime minister, where did it all go wrong?”

At a time when growth is flatlining and unemployment rising, the solar industry is actually growing and creating jobs. When the last Labour government introduced FiTs, there were just 3,000 people working in 450 firms in the sector. Today, there are more than 25,000 people working in 3,000 companies. Industry experts believe it could be as many as 360,000 people by 2020 – but not if this government’s cuts go ahead.

These plans will strangle the solar industry at birth. A survey conducted by the Renewable Energy Association and the Solar Trade Association earlier this month forecasted job losses in excess of 10,000. Around 57 per cent of companies anticipate having to lay off at least half their current staff, and a third are worried that their businesses may be forced to close. As the news from Carillion Energy Services shows  – it put its entire 4,500 workforce on notice of redundancy  – thousands are facing an uncertain Christmas and new year because of the cuts.

For every job in the solar industry, there are many more in the supply chain. According to the government’s own estimate, the solar industry and its supply chain employs 39,000 people and resulted in nearly £5bn in sales last year.

At a time when millions of families are struggling with soaring energy prices – and when this government has cut help for people this winter – solar power is one way households can get more control over their bills. But the government’s plans will exclude nearly nine out of ten families, and everyone in social housing, from having solar power. They could hit up to 32,000 families that have already installed solar, but might not meet the government’s six-week registration deadline.

As the policy has crumbled and the government’s green credentials have been shredded, ministers have resorted to ever more desperate and outlandish excuses to defend their cuts. In a debate in Parliament, they came up with a wild range of figures about how much FiTs was costing bill-payers. First, it was £26, then £55, then £80. The next day, it issued a written answer confirming that the actual cost last year was just 21p per household.

They’ve tried to blame us, too, for introducing a scheme that was too generous. But, before the election, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats criticised the scheme and said it should be more generous, and apply to people who had already installed solar.

No one is saying the scheme should carry on unchanged – not even the industry is calling for that. It wants a sensible reduction in tariffs, as we had planned in government, but a cut of more than 50 per cent with just six weeks’ notice will undermine confidence and deter investment in other green policies, when people are already worried that the government’s energy policy lacks leadership or coherence.

Even at the eleventh hour, and despite the damage that’s been done, the government can put solar on a sustainable footing for the future. If it doesn’t, people will know that for all the warm words and husky-hugging, its promise to be the “greenest government ever” was nothing more than a cynical rebranding exercise.
Caroline Flint is Labour MP for Don Valley and shadow energy and climate change secretar