accidents and achievements: the Conservative environmental record

Published in Green Alliance publication A greener shade of blue? Reflections on new Conservative approaches to the environment. Published on 17th May 2007.

Finding myself working for a Conservative government was one of the more unexpected turns in the thirty five years I have spent as an environmentalist. This was not a predictable fate for a former member of the Labour Party’s national policy committees on both energy and the environment. But it did give me a matchless opportunity to observe close up how the environment was dealt with by government. It also confirmed the enduring truth of a remark by the historian, Macaulay, who warned us to “Remember that argument is constructed in one way and government in entirely another.”

There are a limited number of tools available to government to achieve its environmental objectives. The most important of these is cash. Governments can spend money to achieve their goals. They can regulate to control unacceptable behaviours. They can appoint people to public offices of one kind or another. Often overlooked is their ability to create – and sometimes destroy – institutions. They can develop policies that set out their environmental goals and the paths they intend to follow to achieve them. These policies may or may not be derived from general ideological positions that define their broad approach to tackling the problems in question. They can also simply shout at people – exhorting them to do better. Finally, though not properly a tool of government, real progress can be made by accident.

The importance of this latter point should not be underestimated. When Ted Heath led Britain into the then Common Market in 1973 improving the environment was far from the top of his reasons for doing so. Yet, arguably, Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) has been, and remains, the most significant political decision ever taken to protect our environment. This will become increasingly apparent as Gordon Brown continues to vandalise the planning system. The fact that Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation are defined by European legislation and protected from whimsical repeal by the European Court of Justice is a powerful barrier to expedient policies. Ironically, it was a Conservative environment secretary, Michael Howard, who discovered, empirically and expensively, just how powerful a defence this could be. He granted planning permission to a development on a protected site and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds went to the Court and won.

Mrs Thatcher’s abolition of the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) and defeat of Arthur Scargill during the miner’s strike are more examples of the power of political accidents to protect the environment. It was certainly not her intention in privatising the electricity industry to kill Britain’s nuclear industry. Yet, that is what she accomplished. Investors took one look at the CEGB’s books and, much more loudly and effectively than environmentalists, said ‘Nuclear Power, No Thanks’. And they continue to hold this view, despite the current government’s desperate search for a way of covertly bribing them into taking the risk. Mrs Thatcher’s attack on the miners was purely political in motivation but one of its wholly unintended consequences was to reduce Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions way beyond what they would otherwise have been.

If Conservative political accidents have accomplished much for the environment, the same cannot be said for their willingness to spend cash. In fact, an area of surprising, if tacit, agreement between all of Britain’s political parties, has been the belief that a high quality environment can somehow be achieved without much public expenditure. In the days when the very rapid and, for many, painful re-structuring of Britain’s economy was bringing massive windfall benefits in terms of improving air and water quality, this may have had some justification. Those days are, however, long gone.

Total public spending on the environment has barely increased in real terms under both Conservative and Labour governments. We currently spend about £8.5 billion a year on environmental protection. This compares rather badly with the £89.4 billion a year that we spend on health and the £67.9 billion that we spend on education.

The Conservatives have been luckier than Labour though. During their long period of dominance in the eighties and nineties they were dealing with the easier politics of the environment. These could be managed largely by regulation. The harder environmental politics of the 21st Century, as we struggle to maintain the productivity of the ecological foundations of the economy, will require an as yet undiscovered willingness to make large public investments. For example, the only real test of a government’s climate change policy is to ask how much, on what, by when. When we see Conservative and Labour politicians competing with each other over how much we need to spend on the environment, as they currently compete to out do each other on welfare spending, the environment really will be at the centre of politics.

Public institutions embody, promote and protect values. Policies come and go as governments and times change. Institutions remain. Over time, their mission becomes clearer and their capabilities grow. Conservative environment policy has a good track record of institution building. It was Ted Heath that brought together the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, whose  remit included public works and planning, to create the Department of the Environment (DoE) under Peter Walker in 1970. This endured as an increasingly powerful piece of government machinery until its destruction by Labour in 1997.

Prior to this, environmental policy was in the hands of a small unit, the Central Unit on Environmental Pollution, in the Cabinet Office. Making the DoE a big spending department gave it real political clout and ensured that its leadership was in the hands of a senior politician. Furthermore, by giving it control of planning policy it placed in its hands a powerful and effective tool for managing the environment on a small and very crowded island.

This bore fruit as the environment inched up the political agenda and the DoE became an ever more attractive perch for ambitious politicians and civil servants – both of the current cabinet secretary’s predecessors were permanent secretaries at DoE. It also stands in marked contrast to the current confused, diminished and demoralized arrangements surrounding today’s Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). It is an unexpected paradox that we now have weaker institutions to manage our environment than we did ten years ago, despite Labour’s much more vocal and consistent commitment to green issues.

The creation of the National Rivers Authority (NRA) was a not quite accidental outcome of water privatisation and another example of how important membership of the EU has been to the environment in Britain. Water privatisation took control of Britain’s freshwaters out of the hands of local authorities, who had taken to exempting themselves from having to comply with water quality regulations that they found overly burdensome. The Conservative government’s original intention however had been to make the newly privatised water companies responsible for the enforcement of pollution controls. To the Council for the Protection of Rural England this was clearly an attempt to sell the police force to the mafia. Their threat of a judicial review backed by counsel’s opinion that this would be a breach of European legislation was enough to cause a hasty retreat by the DoE.

The NRA, under the leadership of a former Conservative cabinet minister, Lord Crickhowell, went on to become a widely respected and effective protector of the environment. Indeed, so powerful did it become that part of the political motivation for later merging it with the Pollution Inspectorate to create the Environment Agency was to clip its wings. Nevertheless, whatever the motivation, the creation of the Environment Agency established a powerful and independent body that is able to manage a wide range of environmental regulations on air, water and wastes free of short term political interference.

As the environment rose up the political agenda, particularly during the somewhat scary moment in the late eighties when the Green Party in Britain secured 15 per cent of the vote in the European Parliament elections, the temptation to exploit the elision of Conservative and conservation was too great for many Conservative politicians to resist. This was not enough however to save the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC), the body then charged with protecting Britain’s biodiversity, from the wrath of Environment Secretary Nicholas Ridley. Under the chairmanship of William Wilkinson, a former banker, the NCC had become a potent and authoritative champion of nature and a significant thorn in the government’s side. In a deliberate, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to weaken its voice, Ridley discovered a previously unrecognised appetite for devolution and broke the NCC up into four separate bodies in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

When politicians talk among themselves a dominant topic of conversation is who gets what job. Control of local government finance gave the environment secretary considerable clout with constituency party chairmen. This, together with control of the planning system, made it a desirable office for an ambitious politician. Michael Heseltine, Michael Howard and Chris Patten were among the leading Conservative politicians of their generation to hold the post. John Gummer, a former party chairman, held the office for four years and left with his wider political reputation much enhanced when his contemporaries were having theirs diminished. Not all were remembered kindly. Nicholas Ridely remains to this day one of the worst environment secretaries ever and some, like Kenneth Baker, are barely remembered at all.

Profile in the headlines is not always a good measure of progress. John Major is an unlikely candidate for any green political award. Yet, with his support, Britain played a leading role in the run up to the 1992 Earth Summit, even going so far as to provide a $1 million bail out to the NGO forum that accompanied it. Michael Howard’s negotiating skills were central to bringing the United States into signing the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was the most important success of the summit. In Europe, John Gummer set out to, and succeeded in, reversing the ‘dirty man of Europe’ label that had been attached to Britain during the previous Labour and Conservative administrations. By the end of the Major years, and unnoticed by the media, Britain had become the leading promoter of the environment globally.

Substantive environment policy has always presented Conservative thinkers with something of a problem. The primary tools of environmental management are public spending, regulation and taxation. If you are ideologically disinclined to use any of these tools it is difficult to get beyond piety and exhortation. This vacuum drove Conservative environmental policy to develop the use of market based economic instruments to achieve environmental goals. These are mostly nothing more than rather inefficient regulations and disguised taxes but they sound more compatible with a business friendly approach.

Mrs Thatcher embodied this unresolved tension in Conservatism; wanting simultaneously to glorify the market and return to Victorian values. She never understood that economic opportunity corrodes social ligatures; that an expanding realm of individual choice leads to a triumph of transactions over relationships. The creative destruction of the market is inherently anarchic. The aspiration to Victorian values reflected a desire for order and predictable behaviours wholly at odds with this impulse. The current prime minister’s neo- Thatcherism makes the same error, just as he finds himself driven to ever more draconian and intrusive measures to correct the social consequences.

Dealing with a shared environment requires collective action above all. The economy and its markets, which are its most powerful instruments, rest on ecological foundations. These are the six bio-geophysical systems that provide us with all the goods and services not provided by fossil fuels and non-fossil minerals – croplands, rangelands, forestlands, freshwaters, oceans and the atmosphere. Undermine the productivity of these six systems and you ultimately undermine the productivity of the economy and the ability of markets to deliver.

Meeting this challenge sits oddly with a political philosophy that asserts the imperial authority of individual choice. It is a more comfortable fit with an older strand of Conservatism which recognises, values and seeks to sustain the richer complexity of relationships embedded in culture and tradition. The environment poses a deeper and more defining challenge to Cameron’s Conservatives than simply coming up with some popular, headline catching policy prescriptions.

What the Conservatives did manage to do, for the first time in Britain, was to set out a comprehensive policy for the environment. The Chris Patten white paper, ‘This Common Inheritance: Britain’s Environmental Strategy’ was the first attempt to bring together both the resource and pollution aspects of the environment into a comprehensive statement of public policy. It is an achievement that ten years of New Labour has not managed to repeat. Michael Heseltine’s creation of the MINIS system of public reporting on the achievement of DoE goals also created a much missed device for monitoring government performance. For the late editor of the Environmental Data Service, Marek Myer, it was a gift that he used relentlessly to expose the gap between rhetoric and reality.

There is much that David Cameron could learn from the track record of his predecessors. Institution building has been a Conservative strength and he could win many friends by promising to restore a proper Department of the Environment with a clear mandate and the tools, especially management of the planning system, to do the job. The lack of any clear statement of the government’s overarching environmental policy is one of the many reasons why Defra is such a feeble player in Whitehall. A promise to produce an early white paper on the environment is another easy win for Cameron to exploit the vacuum left by Labour.

Restoring Britain’s leading role in Europe will be more difficult for him, as will finding a way to raise and spend the large sums of public money that will be required if we are to meet the 21st Century’s environment problems, especially climate change, with any hope of success.

Euro-scepticism is not readily compatible with environmentalism, but environmental taxation, provided it delivers environmental outcomes, will create opportunities for tax cuts, as well as new spend. Cameron has been right to identify the environment as an issue on which he could win an argument with Labour. So far, he has used this opportunity well. But the proof will be in how he governs, not in how he challenges a weak opposition.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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