Thursday, July 30, 2009

Saving the Vestas jobs

Way back in April when Vestas announced significant lay offs in the UK (whilst hiring in other parts of the world, including the US) I noted that the company blamed the excessive planning regulations in this country that prevented orders getting filled. With the best will in the world there's little point in making turbines that will never be put into operation.

Vestas' Chief Exec. said; "The UK has large wind resources and it's a priority for the government but the orders didn't move. That's why we're telling employees that we're not reinvesting there... In the UK nimbyism is a huge challenge. This is outside of Whitehall territory."

We know there is an element of truth to this but there are two problems. The first is that Vestas is completing UK orders for 2,700 turbines using its factories in Germany and Denmark, which appears to be more about outsourcing the work than the orders not existing in the first place.

The second problem comes from today's Times which reports that the British Wind Energy Association (of which Vestas is a member) has released a report that directly contradicts the company's line saying that in the next three years the number of operational turbines will have doubled.

Although the Association makes it clear that 2020 targets on renewable energy may not be met it is still clear that turbine production should be progressing at a pace given the current number of orders. In which case Vestas are not making their business decision based on local opposition to new wind farms (even though that opposition does exist and can be very strong).

The government has offered Vestas six million quid in order to conduct new research at its existing site in Newport. This would involve creating green research jobs at the expense of losing existing green manufacturing jobs. In effect the government is supporting Vestas' plan to lay off the Newport workers but retain the site as a research centre. Why is public money is being given to the largest turbine company in the world to research its own industry?

The Green Party has put forward an imaginative plan to use the Sustainable Communities Act to allow the government to support the establishment of a workers co-op which would take over the running of the factories. Caroline Lucas, Green Party leader, said:

"If the government is serious about tackling climate change, helping to protect the future of UK manufacturing, and safeguarding local jobs, it must act now to keep the Vestas facility open for business.

"By submitting a proposal under the Sustainable Communities Act for a workers' co-op, the Council can demand that the government provides the investment and assurances necessary to save this facility - on the basis that it plays a crucial economic and environmental role in the local community.

"Failure to keep the Vestas plant open will represent a spectacular failure by the government to match its rhetoric on green jobs with real policy action. It should be seizing the opportunity to create a renewable energy revolution that can see us through a transition towards a more environmentally and economically stable economy. Allowing the IoW plant to close now would be a massive embarrassment for ministers - and devastating for the IoW's workers."

I have to say I'm impressed by this plan which uses pre-existing legislation and process to do something quite radical that can be enacted almost immediately. It's an enormously practical solution that's even implementable by Labour in the way that rhetoric about nationalisation, for example, couldn't be no matter how programatically correct.

The ongoing occupation by Vestas workers has been crucial in pushing this out of news obscurity right back into the media headlights. Even the government has had to shuffle its feet in embarrassment, which is sadly only a small crumb of pleasure.

Offering practical solutions to save the Vestas plants seems to be the exact opposite of Labour's approach which is to pay Vestas to replace the workforce. I'd add we also need to do what we can to improve the chances of renewable technologies becoming operational which means overcoming the nimbies with a real counter-movement to transform society.


ModernityBlog said...

A nationalised Vestas, with plants throughout the UK, could seriously encourage wind power and renewable energy.

The financial outlay would be pretty small, comparatively speaking, (~£50 million) yet the result spectacular as wind turbines become more widespread and viable.

However, given New Labour's animosity towards such radical ideas I don't see it happening, pity.

Peter Shield said...

The issue is how do you challenge that Nimbyism. FoE opposed the suggested changes in the planning laws, which in essence would allow a central committee to override local authorities on 'big' projects, on the grounds that an airport expansion, new motorway, as well as wind farms could be rammed through.

Milliband talks about mobilising the 'silent majority' who support renewable energy to drown out the likes of the CPRE. When a politico basically says that you know they are grasping at straws.

Maybe we need new legislation that gives each local authority a binding CO2 target and renewable energy %. Then the debate would be where to out the wind farme, not whether to have one in the first place.

Only danger with that is that land fills, incinerators, et al tend to be placed next to less vocal communities- ie working class ones.

Jim Jay said...

I think legislation is part of it but we do also need to build a counter-cultural movement to nimbyism so that when they mobilise we mobilise too.

We need to get as vocal as them, and give others the confidence to speak up too.

I think your point about the way the less vocal working class communities are more likely to get the shit end of the stick is spot on btw. Campaigns that are rooted in their communities can go a long way to addressing that problem.