Published in The Guardian, on 21st June 2011.
The minister is rightly frustrated at an attack on regulation by the Tory right based on flawed notions of freedom and growth
There is a great deal of debate these days about the real David Cameron. Is he a genuine moderniser with a strong personal commitment to green issues battling skilfully to contain a nasty right wing? Or is he simply a superior PR man who has successfully cloaked his, and his party’s, unreconstructed Thatcherism in a soft green miasma?
The forceful attack by Chris Huhne, the energy secretary, on the deregulation mania currently raging in some parts of the Conservative party brings these questions into sharp relief. It was to his department that the prime minister went on his first day in office to declare that this would be the “greenest government ever”. It was also Cameron’s personal intervention that overrode his senior colleagues to commit the government to the carbon budgets proposed by the climate change committee.
On the other hand, it is his government that abolished the Sustainable Development Commission without a moment’s thought. It produced a Public Bodies Bill that would give ministers the authority to abolish or change the powers of regulators such as the Environment Agency or Natural England at will. It has let Eric Pickles run rampage through the planning system.
Then there is the “Red Tape Challenge” that so provoked Huhne. This invites the public to say which of the 278 regulations on the environment “should stay, which can be merged, which can be scrapped”. It goes on to promise: “Ministers will have three months to work out which regulations they want to keep and why.” Either this is nothing more than a populist gimmick or the government really does mean to review the value of six decades worth of environmental law in three months.
Governments often indulge in policy cannibalism, seeking to drive down the price of energy to reduce fuel poverty at the same time as driving up the price of carbon to tackle climate change, for instance. But this government’s effort to be the greenest government ever while simultaneously dismantling its capacity to manage environmental outcomes scales new heights.
To leave the public confused as to whether you are totally hypocritical or merely incompetent is a sorry state for any government to have reached after only a year in office. In this case the truth is, both. Quite large factions in the Conservative party have never shared the prime minister’s green convictions but were happy to shelter under them to get elected. The government’s inability to turn good political intentions into deliverable policies is now apparent well beyond the environment.
The roots of this dysfunction are deep. Once upon a time the Tories set their incremental pragmatism against Labour’s theoretical utopianism. Now the boot is on the other foot. The deregulatory mania that has gripped the Tory right seems to be driven by two deeply felt, but largely evidence-free, ideas: environmental regulation is a barrier to growth and an unwarranted intervention in freedom.
Neither idea stands even a cursory examination. Britain’s businesses are not deterred from investing by environmental regulation. They are defeated by the credit-choking consequences of banker’s behaviour following Margaret Thatcher’s big-bang deregulation of the City. They do not move abroad to avoid regulations, they move abroad to follow lower wages.
Your freedom to smoke in public places takes away my freedom to avoid cancer. The freedom of a company to do what it will with its wastes takes away my freedom to bring up healthy children or live a long life. We created environmental regulation precisely to arbitrate these conflicts in the general interest.
One of the great accomplishments of the past half century has been to subjugate reckless environmental behaviours to the rule of law. The populist gimmickry of the government’s “Red Tape Challenge” is more than a danger to the environment. Its deepest impulses are identical to those also manifest by the last government. In both cases if there was a choice between maintaining the rule of law or bowing to the demands of the tabloid headlines, the headlines win every time.
Paradoxically, this is exactly what is not good for business. Real businesses with real customers need government to ensure two things above all with regard to environmental regulation. First, that it be predictable in its development and second, that free riders are prevented from getting unfair advantage. Deregulation defeats both. Huhne’s attack on the indiscriminate drive to deregulate the environment is not just good for the environment and the Lib Dems, it is pretty good for business too.