Business needs clear government policy on the environment

Published in the House Magazine, June 2007.

Crushed hopes have been a hallmark of Labour’s ten years in office. Across a wide range of public policies the best of intentions, commanding widespread public support, have too often not brought the intended outcomes. This is especially true on the environment.

When published in 1994, ‘In Trust for Tomorrow’, New Labour’s formal statement of its environment policy, was widely, and rightly, welcomed as setting out a comprehensive and radical programme for environmental action in government. A decade later few of its authors would claim that those high aspirations had become lasting achievements.

The retreat began early. John Prescott’s White Paper on transport was loaded with groundbreaking ideas for tackling the intensifying conflict between the environment and our national passion for movement. Its proposals received neither Parliamentary time nor budgets. It remains, like Bill Rodgers equally innovative predecessor in 1974, a textual monument to what might have been.

Green taxes were tried rather timidly then swept away in the tabloid hurricane that accompanied the lorry fuel protests. Each subsequent budget has been a paler green. Largely through simple carelessness we now have weaker institutions to manage the environment than we possessed when Labour came to power.
DEFRA was the accidental creation of a botched re-shuffle. The separation of environment from planning and local government simultaneously down graded the environment and took away its primary tool for preventing environmental damage. As a result we are still building homes on flood plains. A high powered Department, attractive to ambitious Ministers and officials alike – two of the last three Cabinet Secretaries were Permanent Secretaries in DoE – has become a career graveyard.

It also entangled the environment in the financial and administrative chaos of the old MAFF. There will be savage cuts in DEFRA’s capacity to develop robust environmental policies in the next expenditure round, not because of any political intent, but simply because some fool thought the environment was a rural issue. It is unclear what clever aspect of joined up government is being demonstrated by cutting back on the environment to pay for the agriculture ministry’s failure to pay farmers on time.

Recently, the publication of the Energy White Paper and the proposals to dismember the planning system have deepened fears that however close the environment might once have been to Labour’s soul it is not part of it now. Both seem more concerned to reinvent a failed past than stride bravely forward to a more sustainable future.

This is a government that more than most has measured its political virility by its spending announcements, frequently repeating the same announcement several times in order to make its point. In 2006, this Government spent £407 billion on maintaining the social conditions for prosperity, that is on health, education and welfare. It spent £61 billion on internal and external security, that is on the police, armed forces and security services. Spend on the environment amounted to just £8.5 billion, rather less than the £11.4 billion we spend on recreation and culture.

Money talks. It is not obvious that these are the right priorities to ensure the prosperity, security and wellbeing of Britons in the face of the rapidly mounting pressures on the natural resource foundations of the economy. Among those pressures perhaps that on the climate is the most urgent of all

This has been the issue on which Labour, and in particular, Tony Blair, has done most for the environment. There is no doubt that without Blair’s personal commitment climate change would not have the prominence it now has on the global political agenda. Al Gore’s inconvenient truth would have been a lot less inconvenient were it not for the political impetus Blair created with the success of  his combined G8 and EU Presidencies in 2005.

Without British leadership, the EU would not be driving the global response to climate change. Without the huge political clout of the world’s largest market moving aggressively towards a low carbon economy there is no prospect that the rest of the world would ever get there.

However, there is a price for prominence. The rest of the world is now looking increasingly closely at what Britain is actually doing on climate change. What we have accomplished so far is to set the global agenda. This is no small feat.  But what we do is more influential on the actions of others than what we say.

We cannot achieve climate security for 60 million Britons without the willingness of the rest of the world to act. To persuade others that we take this problem seriously, we must be seen to be taking it seriously ourselves. This means that our foreign and domestic climate policies are inescapably entangled. What we do on the climate at home establishes the boundary conditions for what we can achieve abroad.

The Climate Bill, currently undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny, is by a long way the most advanced climate legislative proposal anywhere on the planet. It will establish in law a very ambitious target for emissions reductions in Britain. It would require that target to be met in a series of five year periods. It would create an independent committee to oversee the achievement of the targets. It would have the effect of making the Environment Secretary the second most important voice on domestic policy after the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The fate of this Bill will be watched everywhere as a measure of how serious the Government is about climate change. If it passes into law without being significantly watered down it will truly define Britain’s seriousness of intent on climate change. If it is watered down, it will confirm the widely held impression that we have a Government more concerned to manage the headlines than the problem. This will not only weaken our own response to climate change, it will undermine efforts to tackle the problem everywhere.

Climate change is so overwhelming an issue that there is an increasing risk that it will mask the rest of the environmental agenda. This danger must be avoided. There will be complex interactions between climate change policy and other aspects of environmental policy. The rush to biofuels, for example, if not carefully managed, risks creating a biodiversity nightmare accelerating agricultural intensification and tropical deforestation..

Managing these interactions, delivering the high quality environment that Britons need, want and expect, will mean rebuilding the lost confidence in this Government’s green credentials. The arrival of a new Prime Minister with a reputation for substance is an opportunity to do just that. There are some easy wins.

The first would be to publish a White Paper on the environment. There has been no formal statement of the Government’s overall policy on the environment since it came into office. This makes it more difficult for businesses, local authorities, communities and other organisations to play their full part in delivering better environmental outcomes. If you do not know the government’s environmental priorities it is harder to set your own.

Publishing a regular state of the environment report would also be a good idea. Sorting through the current mass of disparate statistics published at different times in different places makes it impossible to know whether the overall quality of our environment is getting better or worse.

As David Cameron has recognised, the Labour Party has a weak political flank on the environment. Failing to be seen as a defender of the environment in the fierce land-use battles that lie ahead could be electorally costly. What Mr Brown does on the environment in his first hundred days in office will matter.

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.
This entry was posted in Domestic. Bookmark the permalink.