Politics is the art of obfuscation, rather than perspicacity. It is best to keep things aspirational (and vague) rather than to announce dangerously practical, specific, measureable policies and aims. There are plenty of benefits from keeping ones options (and language) wide open – you can never be accused of breaking a promise (if it wasn’t one), or if no one can work out what on earth you meant! It helps with all sorts of things, especially re-electability.
When a new, youthful Government announces, all of a hurry, that it is going to be the “greenest ever”, it may win some temporary plaudits for bucking this trend for obfuscation and setting its sights so high. However, keener observers might anticipate that it is setting itself up for a fall. The UK Coalition Government’s environmental policies and achievements are, unsurprisingly, being measured against this ambitious pronouncement. There can be little doubt that if and when it is found wanting, the Coalition will be held to environmental account.
To be the greenest yet, the Con-Lib Government has to exceed the achievements of its predecessors, so it is worth briefly considering these. Previous Governments of the past 20 or more years might be afforded the following grades for effort and achievement:
- Thatcher – A: Recognition of the climate change threat, setting up the National Rivers Authority, enacting the Environmental Protection Act 1990, and for its seminal White Paper (Our Common Inheritance);
- Major – B+: setting up the Environment Agency. Successful stint for John Gummer as Secretary of State for the Environment;
- Blair – C: surprisingly hard to point to firm achievements for a premier who, as many know, rarely took the time to speak to his own Environment Minister!;
- Brown – A+: the enactment of the remarkable Climate Change Act with its tough legislative targets for cutting carbon makes him the most radical of all our leaders to date.
What then can the Con Lib Government point to as achievements of stature for its first year? Cutting the budget and staff numbers at the Environment Agency? Stacking up the logs for a bonfire of unpopular (but effective?) environmental regulations? Lowering the standards for zero carbon homes? Realising the folly of selling off forests, and reversing a policy which was only half thought through in the first place? Launching an uncomfortably brutal startling attack on the planning profession in the name of localism? It has not been the very best of starts.
Whilst it is hard to point to any significant environmental achievements of the Coalition Government in its first year, it is very early days. The Coalition is set to run to May 2015 so there is plenty of time for it to boost its environmental policies. Here are some suggestions:
- The Green Investment Bank will make some difference to business innovations – but not as much as it would achieve if the Bank could raise additional funds from the bond markets. If the Government is bold and gives the Bank what it needs, it will make more of a difference;
- There is much riding on the Green Deal so this needs (and seems to be receiving) priority attention;
- We could benefit from a Secretary of State with some passion for – and knowledge of – the subject. Transport Minister Norman Baker MP would be excellent. Another stint from John Gummer would be an equally welcome alternative;
- Environment and green energy are closely linked issues and would benefit from being brought under one department. Apart from the hiatus of reviewing the feed-in tariff, DECC has made a reasonable start – e.g. passing the Production and Supply of Renewable Electricity by Local Authorities (England) Regulations 2010 so that local authorities can now sell their own electricity. This has prompted some councils to consider how they can use their roofs of their multitude of buildings so as to generate solar energy and a new income stream at a time of unprecedented austerity;
- There is much to learn from others. The Mayor of London for one has some interesting ideas which are being turned into practice – e.g. sustainable transport (the bike scheme); and setting up a new Green Quarter in East London to drive commercial opportunities from environmental innovation. Talk more to Boris – he gets it!
It is to be hoped that the Government can get more into its stride in terms of developing a coherent environmental policy which is bold and informative and engages with the country to explain the challenges we face and what each of us needs to do to address them. The Government’s reticence to embark on public awareness initiatives could, if overcome, make the biggest difference of all.