Appeared on the Green Alliance’s Catalyst Forum, on 26th July, 2011.

Yes, but we must be clear about what makes growth green

No-one should doubt the government’s current appetite for growth. The economy grew by a mere 0.2 per cent in the last quarter. The accuracy implied by a number as precise as 0.2 per cent is wholly misleading when it comes to the economy. In reality, all we know is that it did not grow a lot but nor did it shrink very much.

Nevertheless, such is the government’s hunger for growth of any kind that it is now proposing to throw out more than sixty years of successful planning in its pursuit. This will not generate ‘green growth’ and may not generate much growth of any kind. But it will certainly destroy the government’s claim to be ‘the greenest government ever’.

The government’s proposed National Policy Planning Framework will create a presumption in favour of sustainable development. This sounds green enough but is in fact just a cynical wordplay dreamed up by a malign alliance of Treasury mandarins and Murdoch-trained spin doctors. As the rest of the document makes clear, any development not specifically forbidden will now be approved.

What the government actually means by ‘sustainable development’ is the tired old Treasury mantra of ‘sustained growth’, that is, growth that goes on for ever. It definitely does not mean growth that recognises environmental risks and constraints.

Nor is this a policy based on any evidence worthy of the word. It is actually a demonstration of an insight that Goebbels understood: if you repeat a lie often enough it will be mistaken for the truth. The planning system has not been a significant constraint on development in Britain, now or in the past, no matter how many tabloid friendly anecdotes are thrown up in shabby surveys from business associations.

The main constraints on development, and thus growth, in Britain, are stagnating real incomes, the exhaustion of personal credit, the reluctance of banks to lend and the collapse of confidence in public policy on too many fronts to remember. If you under-invest for decades in competence and capacity in local and central government you should not be completely surprised when it takes longer and longer to get anything at all done.

We know exactly what we need to do the generate growth that is really green. Investing in the infrastructure for a carbon neutral, resource efficient economy will both kick start the growth that is currently missing and make our economy resilient to the price shocks of an age of scarcity.

We need to spend many billions of pounds on the grid enhancements, high-speed rail network, carbon capture and storage pipelines, distributed generation technologies, integrated recycling plants, energy efficiency improvements and electric vehicle charging networks that are the platforms for green growth of the economy as a whole. These will underpin national prosperity in the 21st century in exactly the way the motorway networks underpinned prosperity in the 20th century and the railways in the 19th century.

We are not short of the capital, skills or technology to do this rapidly and to scale. But we are short of the political vision. And we are blinded by the dominance of a Treasury ideology incapable of seeing beyond the end of its deficit nose.