Portrait of Professor Sir Dieter Helm


Sarah Whitebloom profiles Oxford’s Professor Sir Dieter Helm

Published: 20 October 2022

Author: Sarah Whitebloom


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It is difficult to keep up with Professor Sir Dieter Helm (Brasenose, 1978).  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 Bills currently going through 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 leading 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, adding. ‘I have no time for the idle rich.’

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 academic 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.’

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.’

With some feeling and strong opinions, he continues, ‘It is outrageous that we charge students now.’

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 - the first fellow elected in the university in five years. Finally, he was offered a fellowship at New College, where he remains to this day, up several flights of stairs, his bright study looks over roof tops.   

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 was influenced by Sir John Hicks, also a Nobel laureate, who had been based at All Souls during his retirement.

‘I started off with two of the greatest economists ever,’ he says, still evidently astonished at his good fortune.

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.

Having undertaken research for the then Department of Trade and Industry, he asked how much he would be paid. He was told he would be paid the academic rate. Out of curiosity, he asked how much he would be paid if he were a consultant.

‘It was three times the academic amount,’ he says. ‘I came back to Oxford, set up a company and billed the DTI for the consultancy rate.’

‘No one was doing that at the time,’ he says. ‘But all around the world, people wanted research, and they were not going to academics.’

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, not reducing people to ‘utilities’ or looking at narrow questions, but looking at the ‘big questions of our time’.

‘Mainstream economic doesn’t interest itself in these things [such as climate change]. I have argued for years that we need to have a course in the economics of the environment,’ he says.

‘Rather than just obsessing about GDP, we could look at how trade fits together, look at climate change,’ he says, exasperated. ‘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 2015, Professor Helm has written five major works on 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.’

But he has not made a leap in politics itself. His father told him that his own life, growing up in Germany in the 1930s, had been ruined by politics, and he wanted to make sure his son could not go into politics, so he gave him a German name.

‘Germans were hated in Britain at that time. The British were fed on a permanent diet of war films where the Germans are evil. It was not a nice legacy for a child,’ he says in sad recollection.

‘It worked, though,’ says Professor Helm wryly. But, whatever his father’s motivation, his son has probably wielded more impact on policy than many politicians. As a consultant and as the chairman of the Natural Capital Committee (from 2012 to 2020), he has had an impact on both the Environment and the Agriculture Bills. 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.  The Bills are both the consequence of Brexit but, adds Professor Helm, a fierce opponent of leaving the EU, ‘That’s democracy…it needed to be done.’

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.’

The plan has established the need for such a policy, he says, ‘Civil servants kept being asked what was in it, but the point was, it was accepted that there should be such a plan. That was accepted.’

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, with operations in six countries. 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 further, 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. What I do would not be possible in a university post. With a college, anything is possible.’

But is the current government rejecting economics and economists, when they talk about rejecting the ‘Treasury orthodoxy’?

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 will have borrowed £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 change the rate of growth is sheer hubris, [as is cutting taxes in an inflationary period?] …Rishi (Sunak) was right about that [at least] …the chickens will come home to roost.’

Clearly not an optimist about the current administration, he maintains, ‘There is no such thing as Trussonomics. You have to see this Government as anti-Gove [Michael]. Anything he did, is wrong, according to them – although he was the most impressive politician I have ever worked for. When he was at Environment, he was talking at Cabinet about the need for sustainable power and she said something like “We’ve had enough hot air from Defra”. Shocking.’

Professor Helm is an admirer of what the former Environment Secretary did in terms of climate change and is very concerned about the new administration’s possible negative impact on the environment, ‘It’s fair to say, [the Prime Minister] is not notable for her commitment to green policies…but [he adds, with intended irony] fracking won’t happen in the Cotswolds. It will happen somewhere in the north, perhaps.’

He continues, ‘What worries me as well is that they will water down EU regulations on air and water quality…it’s going to end in tears.’

Whichever government is in power, Professor Helm is focused on whether the UK will be able to achieve its climate goals – and he is not optimistic. He says bluntly, ‘It will not be possible to get to net zero on the current path, not with COP, not with current agreements.’

He maintains radical action is needed, involving a lower standard of living, 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 them from the economy – that affects everything you’re wearing and everything you eat.’

Returning to the current management of the economy, he completely torpedoes any chance of a call from No10, ‘The strapline is, it’s not sustainable. It’s nonsense.’

Given Professor Helm’s proven ability to see which way the wind is blowing, it is interesting to note the odds have shortened on a Labour majority after the next General Election – with next year seen as the most likely time for a Poll.

Picture credit: University of Oxford