On 13th June 2016, an articlei appeared on the BBC website, headed simply “UK to double French energy supplies with new cable”. So far as I can see, that is the first online reference by the BBC to a story that was going to grow. At that stage it seemed to be relatively uncontroversial, with a simple report of an announcement of a £1.1Bn cross Channel electricity cable, which it was said would double the amount of energy the UK then received from France. The story reported that the announcement had been made by the developer, Aquind, led by Ukrainian businessman, Alexander Termerko. There followed a reference to a name that would surface later:
Lord Callanan, a non-executive director at Aquind, said: “With a growing energy supply gap threatening UK households and businesses, there’s an urgent need for a fast and reliable way to introduce new capacity.
“The interconnector will significantly ease the pressure on the UK grid and reduce the risk of blackouts,” he added.
Those would be the blackouts that nobody acknowledged were a risk. The story concluded by noting that UK wholesale power prices were gradually becoming more expensive than those in France (I wonder why?), and this made supplying power to the UK from France more economic. Also:
The spread between the two markets has widened because while power prices across Europe have fallen, UK prices have not fallen as far as France – partly because there have been concerns about whether the UK can meet demand at peak times in recent years, and this risk has been reflected in a higher price.
Oh, that’s why. Plus ca change.
Cross-Channel £1.1bn electricity link plan submitted by Aquind
I have found no further references on the BBC website until, on 15th November 2019, another articleii appeared there, with the above heading.
As with most BBC reporting of anything vaguely to do with renewables, the report seemed to be broadly favourable, with uncritical regurgitation of Aquind’s press release:
The two-way link could supply up to 5% of Great Britain’s energy needs with cheaper, greener electricity, the firm said.
Aquind said the link, known as an interconnector, would “make a significant contribution to the security of Great Britain’s electricity supply and achieve greater affordability by improving competition”.
It said it would typically import electricity from France because British gas and coal-derived power was more expensive than French nuclear and renewable sources [sic].
The firm, which is led by Ukrainian-born businessman Alexander Temerko, said it was unlike most similar projects in that no investment costs would be passed to consumers in Great Britain or France.
However, there was just the first suggestion that all might not be straightforward, and that problems might lie ahead:
Portsmouth City Council has objected to the scheme, which would reach the Hampshire coast at Eastney beach.
Council leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson said: “It seems bizarre that if you’re going to bring an electric cable in from France, you land it at the southern end of the most densely-populated city out of London and then take this cable all the way through the city.”
Portsmouth protest over Aquind Cross-Channel electricity link plan
Almost a year later, and difficulties were surfacing, as reported by the BBC in an articleiii on 10th October 2020. The difference in reporting style is interesting, and the sympathy for the protestors is already evident (would that the BBC would be so sympathetic to those protesting about the devastation of thousands of acres of wild uplands by wind farms).
Plans for a £1.2bn [I see it had increased by £100M] electricity link between England and France could mean the loss of green spaces in Portsmouth, campaigners have said.…
…Portsmouth City Council has allocated £250,000 to opposing the scheme.
Council leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson said the planned route was “nuts”.
“Traffic chaos across the city for a year is a price that is too high.
“But its the destruction of the allotments which has really galvanised people – they are completely right to be upset.”…
…”Green energy is great, but not green energy to lose your green spaces.”…
A little over four months later, and new issues were being reported. As the heading above suggests (it was the heading to a BBC articleiv on its website on 19th February 2021) questions were now being raised about a potential conflict of interest:
England’s new university regulator is facing questions about a potential conflict of interest.
Lord Wharton has been appointed chair of the Office for Students (OfS) but is also a paid adviser to a firm Aquind, which wants to build a cable linking the UK and French electricity grids.
The £1.2bn project would be built through the University of Portsmouth, which is strongly opposed to the route.
The OfS says protections are in place to prevent conflicts of interest.
“Where there is a conflict related to an individual higher education provider we would expect the relevant board member to exclude themselves from any decisions directly related to that provider,” said a spokesman for the OfS university watchdog.
But the OfS declined to say whether that would specifically apply to the University of Portsmouth and its incoming chair, Conservative peer, Lord Wharton.
The University of Portsmouth says any “perceived conflict of interest” needs to be “transparently managed”.
I find it fascinating that double standards seem to apply. The sort of comments that were reported next are exactly the sort of comments (from both sides) that are often heard when local communities seek to resist the much more intrusive huge scale wind farms that are blighting large swathes of our countryside, but rarely – if ever – do we see this scale of support from the BBC:
The city council’s planning officials said the prospect of it being pushed through with the compulsory acquisition of land was “draconian” and an “interference with human rights”.
The University of Portsmouth, whose land it would run through, is concerned about disruption to sporting facilities and says it would have a “huge negative impact” and leave it facing financial losses.
Aquind firmly rejects the university’s claims, saying the impact would be “minimal”, work would be carried out in a way that reduced disruption and the route of the “underground cable corridor has been amended and refined” in response to earlier feedback.
The response to the apparent conflict of interest on display is also fascinating:
But the university will now face Lord Wharton both as someone working for Aquind, on the opposing side in this commercial dispute, and also the chair of the regulator, which has powers to impose fines and sanctions on universities such as itself.
While there is no suggestion of impropriety in either role, as paid private adviser or incoming publicly-funded watchdog, there are questions being asked about an overlap.
Portsmouth South MP, Stephen Morgan, questioned whether Lord Wharton could appear to be impartial.
“We know Aquind has links to Tory donors. But to be advising a firm responsible for this project while it is being challenged by a university Wharton is set to regulate, raises serious red flags about his impartiality, particularly if he keeps the Conservative whip.
“These revelations cast fresh doubt over Lord Wharton’s suitability for this key role,” said Mr Morgan, Labour’s shadow minister for the armed forces.
These are the sorts of things we sceptics often say about (inter alia) the likes of Lord Deben and what we regard as his substantial conflict of interest in his role as Chair of the Climate Change Committee whilst being (fully and properly declared) chairman of Sancroft International Limited, Valpak Limited and Valpak Holdings Limited, but nobody other than us seems much interested in that issue.
By 4th July 2021, even though the number of protestors were apparently rather small, the BBC was happy to give them publicity in an articlev bearing the above headline.
Dozens of protesters have marched against a planned £1.2bn electricity link between England and France….
…Campaigners walked 12 miles (19km) along the proposed route of the cable in protest. They said the project would damage the environment.
As it happens, I sympathise with the protestors, but I am bemused by the continuing shift in the nature of the BBC’s reporting of the story.
Just nine days later, and the BBC followed up with another articlevi bearing the above heading. The fact that an MP made an intervention in the House of Commons certainly justified the BBC reporting the story, and it does fairly report Aquind’s response to the allegations. But there’s no disguising the fact that the reporting style has gone from being quite enthusiastic about a “green energy” project, to decidedly luke warm. The most that the BBC could bring themselves to say, by way of anything remotely supportive, is this:
The company has said previously the two-way link could supply cheaper, greener electricity.
To be clear, I actually approve of this reporting style. I think the BBC should report stories of interest to the public without fear or favour and should not show obvious bias in support or against an issue. I just can’t help contrasting it with the reporting style adopted when reporting on other “green” or climate-related issues, whether with breathless enthusiasm or desperate anxiety.
And so we arrive at this week’s big news story. The above heading was that on a BBC articlevii yesterday, which was just one of many on the leak of the Pandora Papers this week. And now the story has changed. No longer is it simply a report about the plan to construct an interconnector from Portsmouth to Normandy and some local opposition to the plan. Now it’s much bigger, and I make no apologies for quoting at length:
A businessman whose companies have backed 34 Tory MPs made millions from an allegedly corrupt Russian pipeline deal, leaked files show.
Former oil executive Victor Fedotov owns a firm currently seeking UK government approval for a controversial energy link between the UK and France.
…Last year Mr Fedotov was revealed to be the owner of Aquind, the company behind a £1.24bn project [I see the price has increased by another£40,000] to build an electricity cable linking the UK to France. Aquind is currently seeking UK government approval for the project and a decision will be made in weeks.
His connection to Aquind has been hidden through an exemption to UK company laws granted to people with personal security concerns.
Mr Fedotov is now identified on the company’s public records, alongside Alexander Temerko, the Ukraine-born public face and part owner of Aquind.
Mr Temerko is a Conservative Party activist and personal friend of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
He is a regular at Conservative Party fundraisers and has personally donated more than £700,000 to the party.
Research by the BBC has established that in addition to Mr Temerko’s donations to the Conservative Party, Mr Fedotov’s businesses have donated another £700,000 to 34 MPs and their local parties since the Aquind project began.
Aquind’s relationship with the Conservative Party does not end there.
Lord Callanan, currently a business minister responsible for corporate responsibility, is a former director of the company, while former minister Lord James Wharton took up a role as a paid adviser when he lost his House of Commons seat in 2017.
I make no allegations of impropriety. I reproduce comments made by others, while noting that those who are the subject of the article defend themselves vigorously. It may well be that everything is above board and in compliance with UK law. However, why the double standards? Why the grave concern about this issue, while in another context, it is deemed perfectly acceptable for Parliamentarians to have what most people would regard as obvious conflicts of interest, simply because their interests have been declared and are there for all (who can be bothered to look) to see?
I mentioned above what some of us regard as Lord Deben’s conflict of interest. Again, I make no allegations of impropriety. He has complied with his legal obligations, and nothing is hidden. And yet it feels so wrong that he is in a position to be so influential with regard to shaping laws and policies from which he may personally benefit, however indirectly. I can’t help having the same feeling about those politicians or ex-politicians who have advocated and pushed through legislation for “green” energy, while family members have (however openly, and however much above board) gained personal benefit from the policies for which they legislated or advocated. David Cameron, whose father-in-law was said to be earning £1,000 per day from the wind turbines on his landviii. Ed Miliband, whose barrister wife earns fees from acting for wind farm companiesix. Nick Clegg, whose wife is a non-executive director of a Spanish construction company said to be the world’s largest wind farm building companyx. Sir Ed Davey, who was appointed chairman of Mongoose Energy in September 2015xi. (I see it had its electricity supply licence revoked by Ofgem in December 2019xii). Or Sir Ed Davey again, who as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change awarded EDF the contract to build a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point, and who was appointed a part-time consultant in January 2016 to MHP Communications, the public relations and lobbying firm representing EDF Energy. All legal and above board. All wrong, to my mind. It’s a short hop, I think – at least in terms of perception – between making a large-money decision some time before being appointed to the board of the PR agency representing the company on whose application you’ve just sat in judgment, and this:
The company [Aquind] submitted its plans in 2019 and the decision now sits with Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng. His predecessor Alok Sharma recused himself from the decision following revelations he had shared a table with Mr Temerko at a Conservative fundraising event.
Former energy minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan also recused herself after her local party group received several donations from Aquind and Mr Temerko.
It’s also a short hop – to my ultra-scrupulous way of looking at things – between Messrs Cameron, Miliband and Clegg and Sir Ed Davey, with indirect financial interests in the policies they advocate or have advocated, and this.
Gavin Millar QC, an elections expert, said: “The question is: if you’re a political party in government, why aren’t you recognizing the risk that there’s a connection between the money you’re receiving and the person who’s giving that money? ”
He added: “It’s in their interests not to look too hard. And it’s lucrative to not look hard if you’re good at raising the money.”
I stress again that the people I have named have complied with the rules, and to that extent have done nothing wrong. It’s just that I think the rules are wrong.
Finally, I also find it strange that interconnectors are being hailed as the route to energy security (the BBC had a nice articlexiii this week about the new one between the UK and Norway), while local MP Penny Mordaunt:
said it would be “strategically wrong” to go ahead with a project that would make the UK “reliant on another country [France] to power us”.
It’s a funny old world.
Postscript. For the sake of balance and completeness, Aquind’s websitexiv is footnoted below for those who wish to read what it says about the proposed interconnector.