By bringing together leading experts in law and energy policy in an innovative workshop at Cambridge, Simon Deakin and David Howarth have generated new insight and stimulated debate on one of the most significant PFI‐style deals in UK history.

We have been contacted by campaigners, regulators, practitioners and academics in the UK and other EU countries. So although this is a huge issue, the Cambridge workshop influenced debate and reached a wider public

Simon Deakin, Centre for Business Research

In October 2013, the UK government announced that it had reached agreement – in principle at least – with the French government‐owned energy firm EDF for the supply of up to two new nuclear power stations, the first of which is planned for Hinkley Point.

Backed by investment from nuclear power station builder Areva, the China General Nuclear Corporation and the China National Nuclear Corporation, the contract is worth £16bn and will last for 35 years after construction, making it one of the largest and longest PFI‐style contracts in UK history.

According to Professor Simon Deakin, director of the Centre for Business Research at Cambridge Judge Business School: “There was a lot of debate in the press about the announcement, so we knew it was something people were interested in. But we felt that there hadn't been enough discussion of the legal context; very often it's this type of technical knowledge which is not easy to access, and we thought this was an issue.”

While most press coverage focused on the 'strike price' that will determine how much the UK government pays EDF for the electricity the new power station generates, crucial aspects of the contract – including issues of private law, EU law and international law – had been less examined, as well as broader democratic and policy issues. “We talk about nuclear waste having a half life of millennia, but this is a contract with a half life beyond most parliaments, so we are tying the hands of our children and grandchildren,” says Deakin. “We felt this was about democracy and accountability, the balance between politics and financial interests, and energy security.”

Together with David Howarth of the Department of Land Economy and POLIS, Deakin convened a day‐long workshop funded by the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account Pilot Programme to bring together leading legal experts with energy policy economists, nongovernmental organisations and politicians.

Loosely structured around three key themes, private law, EU law and energy policy, the workshop's flexible format was novel, he says: “The workshop was tailor made, it wasn't something we'd done before. What's interesting about this way of working is that you don't know in advance what will be said, but with the right expertise in the room you will learn something, and it's especially good to get different disciplines together.” “Many policy problems are very complex and require specialist knowledge. But it's not just a question of tapping into this knowledge: academic work is very specialised and segmented, and the more you know the less easy it is to communicate even to other academics let alone an outside audience, so we need ways of getting people to talk to one another in a fairly free way, and the freer the better,” Deakin explains. “And it really worked, we generated new knowledge. We didn't know everything before we started, but we knew a lot by the end of it.”

Among the workshop's key conclusions are that interchanges between the UK government and the European Commission – concerned about the issue of state aid – are likely to lead to a renegotiated contract. As well as resulting in greater scrutiny of costs and greater preparedness to use competitive tendering, these changes should also permit parliamentary debate before the contract is signed. Far beyond this case, the workshop raised fundamental concerns about whether it is possible to design contracts that are so long term they are likely to outlast the legal doctrines upon which they are predicated. As well as new knowledge – captured in a report that will feed into at least one academic paper – the workshop created impact through blogs, podcasts and media coverage, including an interview with Howarth on BBC Radio 4's agenda‐setting Today programme.

According to Deakin: “We know from the reception we got to the blogs and podcasts that it's been taken up by NGOs, politicians, and lawyers. We have been contacted by campaigners, regulators, practitioners and academics in the UK and other EU countries. So although this is a huge issue, the Cambridge workshop influenced debate and reached a wider public.” The workshop has also been a learning opportunity for Deakin, who views impact as a virtuous circle, rather than a linear process. “I learned that this area contains academic research issues that have yet to be exploited, and the policy feedback we're getting from users gives us additional insights as academics about what we should be studying.” And while the workshop illustrates the imperfect nature of the policy process, it also illuminates the vital role of academics in public life. “It's all part of being in a democracy. There's a division of labour here: we are not running the country; our job is to show there is specialist knowledge that can be brought to bear on an issue like this, and that as academics, we can take the long view.”