It is difficult to keep up with Professor Sir Dieter Helm. He has acquired so many strings to his bow, he must have more than one bow. He is a Fellow of New College, Oxford and an influential economist, with strong opinions on everything from current Treasury plans (unsustainable) to climate change to student fees (outrageous). He is an enthusiastic teacher of students and a sought-after speaker. He is a national policymaker; having had the ear of every Prime Minister for the last 30 years and had a hand in at least two recent Acts of Parliament. He is also a prolific and best-selling author. And, as anyone who listens to the radio knows, he is a regular broadcaster and commentator and a powerful environmental voice. He is also a serial (and successful) entrepreneur and a business leader – and he was knighted in 2021.
How on Earth does he do it?
He gets up early, he says, slightly irritated, but even more bemused at the question. He ‘works hard’, he says.
‘We only have this time, we mustn’t waste it,’ says Professor Helm, suggesting a degree of urgency to his many activities.
Professor Helm has come far from his rural childhood in Essex. His love of the natural world started young, when he was growing up in a farming family. His German father, a prisoner of war, had been put to work on the land and never went back after the war to his home in East Germany, then under Soviet rule.
The young Dieter stood out in the 1960s with his German name, but also as an academically minded child, interested in books and natural world. Others around him left school without qualifications, while he wanted to apply to Oxford.
Remembering his application, he laughs, ‘I did not know which college to apply for, everyone said theirs was the best, so I put all the names into a hat like a raffle and drew out Oriel. So, I put Oriel top.’
I thought I had arrived in heaven, and nothing that has happened since has disabused me of that
Professor Sir Dieter Helm on arriving in Oxford
And he won a place. But, he explains, he was offered an exhibition to go to Brasenose and, as was the custom at the time, he went there. So, in the mid-1970s, he left Essex to come to Oxford to take Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Brasenose (as did David Cameron a decade later). Only Professor Helm has never left.
‘I thought I had arrived in heaven,’ he says. ‘And nothing that has happened since has disabused me of that…I loved it and was totally irresponsible [he says of his undergraduate years].’
Teaching undergraduate students is one of his greatest pleasures, he says, adding with a laugh, ‘They’re all much cleverer than I am.’
After his first degree, the young Helm did not return to Essex, but was set on a career at Oxford. He went on something of a tour around colleges. He lectured at Mansfield, took a Masters at Nuffield, followed by a Junior Research Fellowship at New College, then, he lectured at the Queen’s College. After that, he was elected a Fellow at Lady Margaret Hall. Finally, he was offered a fellowship at New College, where he remains to this day. Up several flights of stairs, his bright study looking over roof tops, could not be more Oxford.
Looking back, Professor Helm says his doctoral supervisor had been Amartya Sen, the Nobel prize-winning economist and a Fellow of All Souls. And he assisted Sir John Hicks, also a Nobel laureate, with his collected papers.
‘I started off with two of the greatest economists ever,’ he says, still evidently astonished at his good fortune.
Although avowedly apolitical, Professor Helm became a reluctant, if highly successful, product of the Thatcher period, looking beyond academia for opportunities – even in business
It was a politically tumultuous period and there had been a freeze on university recruitment, which had put a brake on his hopes for an academic career, ‘There were no fellowships in the early years of the Thatcher government, so the incentives to stay in academia were very low…they were desperate times...there was mass unemployment and, at the time, it was challenging and harder.’
So, Professor Helm was unable to settle down in academia and, although avowedly apolitical, he became a reluctant, if highly successful, product of the Thatcher period, looking beyond academia for opportunities – even in business. He reels off the names of talented economists who were lost to academia at that time and says, ‘I stayed, but did lots of other things.’
Spin-outs and knowledge exchange are now part and parcel of many academic careers. But, in the 1980s, it was unusual. But, alongside his burgeoning academic career, the then new Dr Helm developed an entrepreneur’s instinct for opportunity and started Oxera, an economics consultancy. It offered advice to Whitehall and beyond on privatisations and regulation, then a specialist and in-demand area.
Keen to make an impact on Government policy, he had already started working for Whitehall departments. Always fascinated by questions of infrastructure, one 1985 paper was on options for privatising British Gas while later papers were on regulating electricity supply, in the wake of privatisation – then a hot political topic.
Professor Helm’s consultancy became a bridge, offering economics consultancy to policymakers and business. It allowed him to range far beyond the confines of academic interest. Professor Helm speaks with passion about the need for economics to take a broad view, looking at the ‘big questions of our time’, and to communicate with the wider world.
Academia creates an inner sanctum, where only the cognoscenti can understand…I want to write books that people understand
‘Academia creates an inner sanctum, where only the cognoscenti can understand…I want to write books that people understand.’
And he has – in numbers. Professor Helm’s published work has often explored the great issues of the day and proved highly influential. In the 1990s, he was preparing reports on the railways and water industry, both of which have now returned as major issues. And, since 2012, Professor Helm has written five major works on energy, natural capital and climate change – the latest, Net Zero, How we Stop Causing Climate Change, was nominated for last year’s Wainwright Environmental prize.
Professor Helm maintains, ‘I see myself at the intersection of research, what business does, and government.
It makes him a distinct and powerful voice in the corridors of power and he maintains, ‘I am deeply interested in having an impact and changing policy, particularly on infrastructure and the environment.’
I am deeply interested in having an impact and changing policy, particularly on infrastructure and the environment
As the chairman of the Natural Capital Committee (from 2012 to 2020), he has had an impact on both the Environment and the Agriculture Acts. And his apolitical status, has seen him act as an adviser to numerous Prime Ministers including Tony Blair and David Cameron. ‘It has been a great privilege,’ he says.
Making a contribution is important, he says. Of what is he most proud? There seems to be quite a lot to be going on with.
‘My work on the Natural Capital Committee and on the new Agriculture Act and the Environment Act,’ he says without hesitation, before adding casually. ‘And the 25-year environment plan.’
As an entrepreneur, meanwhile, Professor Helm has had a window into the commercial world and he has enjoyed being part of it. He eventually sold Oxera, which is now 40-years old. He identified another business opportunity and founded Aurora Energy Research. It creates energy models for businesses and, he speaks with passion about the economics graduates they were able to employ and the work they did. Last year, as the company expanded globally, he decided it was time to bow out and is currently considering other possibilities – although he is keeping any ideas to himself.
Despite his many strings and bows, though, Professor Helm appears very much grounded in Oxford.
‘Being a Fellow at New College has made it all possible,’ he says. ‘We debate, challenge, work with multiple voices for different approaches. With a college, anything is possible.’
It seems unlikely Professor Helm will be invited to work for Liz Truss anytime soon. He looks positively alarmed at recent announcements from Downing Street and the Treasury....‘It’s unsustainable of course…I just can’t take it seriously
It seems unlikely Professor Helm will be invited to work for Liz Truss anytime soon. He looks positively alarmed at the recent announcements from Downing Street and the Treasury. Talking before the mini-Budget, when all that was known was the price cap on energy, he says, ‘It’s unsustainable of course…I just can’t take it seriously. They proposed to borrow. £200 billion by next year.’
Continuing prophetically, before the pound fell to an all-time low, Professor Helm was forthright about Liz Truss’s anticipated drive for growth and rumoured tax cuts, ‘The idea that you can just change the rate of growth is sheer hubris, as are unfunded tax cuts in an inflationary period …Rishi (Sunak) was right about that, and the chickens have come home to roost.’
Clearly not an optimist about the current administration, he maintains, ‘There is no such thing as Trussonomics.'
The idea that you can just change the rate of growth is sheer hubris, as are unfunded tax cuts in an inflationary period … and the chickens have come home to roost
He continues, ‘What worries me as well is that they will water down EU regulations on air and water quality and squander the opportunities of agricultural reform…it’s going to end in tears.’
Professor Helm is focused on whether the current government will be able to achieve its climate goals – and he is not optimistic.
His Net Zero book sets out the radical action that is needed, so that we the polluters pay and start living within our environmental means, if net zero is to be achieved. Professor Helm insists, ‘Most environmentalists will tell you it won’t cost much, but it will. 80% of the economy is dependent on fossil fuels and we have to get rid of most of them from the economy.’
His next project is a new book on the sustainable economy – on what we would all have to do if we really wanted to leave the next generation with a decent inheritance and to live within our environmental means.