November 29, 2012 9:30 pm

PM rejects climate expert for top job

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David Cameron has taken the unusual step of overruling the head of the civil service and quashed the appointment of climate change expert David Kennedy to lead the energy department.

In a fresh sign of coalition friction in one of the government’s most hotly contested policy areas, the prime minister has rejected the selection of Mr Kennedy, the economist running the Committee on Climate Change, even though it was also supported by Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat energy secretary.

The move means the department that on Thursday published what has been described as the most sweeping set of energy reforms since privatisation must start the process of looking for a new permanent secretary again.

It is also likely to raise fears the government is moving to a more US-style of civil service in which ministers have a greater say than bureaucrats in picking departmental heads.

And it may trigger fresh accusations that Mr Cameron is trying to appease Conservative MPs suspicious of Mr Davey’s support for green energy programmes such as onshore wind farms.

The energy department is being run by Phil Wynn Owen following the unexpected resignation in July of Moira Wallace, its previous permanent secretary.

Mr Kennedy was ruled the most qualified candidate to replace Ms Wallace in October by a panel that included Lord Stern, author of the 2006 UK government review of the economics of climate change, and Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service, according to people familiar with the matter.

According to one official close to the process, Mr Kennedy was selected from “the strongest field for many years for a permanent secretary position”.

In what this person said would normally be “a formality”, a report recommending Mr Kennedy’s appointment was sent to Mr Cameron early in November for final approval.

To the surprise of some in Whitehall, however, Downing Street responded this week by saying Mr Cameron would not support the appointment.

A No10 spokesman confirmed that Mr Cameron had personally decided against Mr Kennedy’s appointment.

“As minister for the civil service, the prime minister oversees senior civil service appointments,” the spokesman said.

A spokesman for Mr Davey said: “The selection process for a new permanent secretary at the Department of Energy and Climate Change has concluded without making an appointment. We will be re-running the competition as soon as possible.”

Mr Kennedy declined to comment.

The Committee on Climate Change, which Mr Kennedy has run for the past four years, is the statutory body that advises the government on its climate change policies.

Mr Kennedy joined it from the World Bank, where he worked on energy strategy. He was previously involved in infrastructure investment projects at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and has a PhD in economics from the London School of Economics.

The disclosure that Mr Cameron has overruled the civil service’s choice will heighten tensions between ministers and Whitehall. Relations are already poorer than for many years following publication of a civil service reform plan which, among an array of measures, sought to sharpen the accountability of officials and included a proposal to give ministers the ultimate say in selecting their own permanent secretaries.

Mr Cameron believes the move was not inconsistent with the Civil Service Reform paper, given that he is “minister for the civil service”. The prime minister intends to take a closer interest in permanent secretary appointments in the future, according to one official.

Renewable conflict

Ed Davey said his conflict with his Conservative deputy John Hayes over renewables was resolved, following a “grand bargain” on energy policy clinched between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats this month, writes Guy Chazan.

“We’ve had our disagreements across the coalition but now we’ve put them aside,” the energy secretary told reporters, shortly after introducing the government’s energy bill to parliament.

The fight between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats over energy has been one of the most hard fought since the general election.

Tensions flared up when Mr Hayes, who was appointed energy minister in September, appeared to challenge coalition support for building more onshore wind farms, saying in an interview with the Daily Mail that “enough is enough”.

Mr Davey wrote to the prime minister, urging him to take action against Mr Hayes and strip him of responsibility for green energy. Mr Cameron refused.

In the end, the two sides called a truce after George Osborne, chancellor, agreed to strong financial support for renewables and nuclear power, and Mr Davey agreed to drop a 2030 target for decarbonising the power sector.

However, relations between Mr Davey and Mr Hayes have been so bad that the pair have been barely speaking, using emails and letters to communicate instead.

At the press conference, Mr Davey was asked how he could continue to work with a deputy who appears so fundamentally opposed to onshore wind. He countered that he was “delighted to have John on the team”.

Mr Hayes denied their disagreement was anything personal. “This is not about me and him; it’s about discussions across the coalition,” he said. He added that “serious discussion” was always going to be needed to reach consensus on a bill “that’s for the future, not for a parliament”.

Additional reporting by Jim Pickard

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