CROSSBOW: What Happened to Green Conservatism?

Sustainability and Environment
Thursday, September 19, 2013
Graham Godwin-Pearson

There was green promise pre-2010, with a commitment to clean energy, protection of green spaces, habitats and wildlife and reduced animal testing, but not much of it seems to have come to fruition. How can the Party show that it cares?

“Vote blue, go green” was the slogan dreamt up to encourage voters that the Conservative Party, under the new leadership of David Cameron, was modern, compassionate and environmentally conscious. He encouraged the entire shadow cabinet to switch to green energy suppliers at home. He even posed with a husky on a glacier in Norway to prove that he cares about climate change.

But since then, something has changed.

These days, in the Westminster village, you could be forgiven for thinking that ‘green’ is a marginal word, almost trivial compared to the mountainous economic crisis that we inherited from the last Labour Government.

Perhaps upon reaching Parliament, the truly dire state of the economy meant that ideological, environmental ambitions were put aside while the Government deals with more immediate problems.

It’s not a Party split. Labour MPs are more concerned about bashing the Government on the NHS than on green issues. In fact, the 2010 intake brought with it some of the most eco-conscious MPs we have ever had, but they are small in number.

Energy and Climate Change

Soon after becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron called the coalition the “greenest government ever”. Standing side-by-side with Chris Huhne, he pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 10% in the first year of government.

At the time, the Liberal Democrats wanted to build 15,000 new wind turbines and the Conservatives had promised an investment in ‘clean energy’ (albeit left to the market to decide which).

Twenty short months later, with household energy bills soaring, George Osborne broke away from the green agenda, blaming environmental laws and regulations in his Conference speech. Cameron subsequently made just a passing reference to “green technology”. Emphasis had clearly shifted from “going green” to “getting real”.

The cuts to feed-in tariffs in 2011 were very bad news to the renewables sector and no large installations have been built since. FITs were introduced by none other than Ed Miliband during his climate change brief days and voters might be forgiven for thinking that the economic importance of renewables and the potential for Britain’s global leadership in the sector have been largely ignored by the coalition.

With the nuclear new build going ahead and obstacles to investment removed, the Liberal Democrats have made their biggest U-turn, having opposed nuclear altogether before 2010. While many left-wing activists abhor the thought of nuclear, far more in the centre ground see it as the ‘least-bad’ option, when presented with the alternatives of an energy gap or more fossil-fuel power stations. The Conservatives may not have lost any friends over the issue but they haven’t made any either.

Local communities have new powers to block wind farms. From a localism point of view, the sentiment is good, but it’s vulnerable to nimby-ism and will make renewables targets (e.g. the pledged 15% renewables by 2020) difficult to measure and to meet.

However, the 2013 Budget also incentivised shale gas exploration and Balcombe was briefly top of the news agenda this summer as a result. To stand a chance of avoiding cries of duplicity, the government must offer the same local veto. Local opposition to fracking, which releases toxic chemicals into the ground, pollutes water and discharges methane, is considerably stronger than that against wind farms. Strangely, David Cameron has pledged to “win the argument” on fracking, which makes the much larger investment in renewables appear lower on his priority list. In fact, he hasn’t spoken in public about climate change or decarbonisation since becoming Prime Minister.

Then Tim Yeo’s energy bill amendment, to decarbonise the UK energy market by 2030, was lost at the vote. Individual MPs have come under fire for not backing the amendment and although the matter passed without the press interest that such an important topic one might expect to have commanded, the green lobby is extremely disappointed and Labour has been handed a platter of tangible ammunition.

One way or another, decarbonisation has to happen within Yeo’s schedule. Britain can and should lead the world in sustainable energy, micro-generation and target setting. The alternatives are a Labour government leading the way, or worse, the international community imposing limits upon us, as a small child is force-fed vegetables.

Planning

Conservative councillors around the country have, in many places, built good reputations for working to protect green spaces, instead promoting development on brownfield sites.

Last year though, the Government received negative press for what was perceived as a relaxation of planning regulations. Many thought this was carte blanche for new housing estates all over the green and pleasant land.

Until house building picks up and ugly, derelict industrial estates are replaced with shiny new starter homes, the perception will endure.

Ironically this may take longer than was thought as the overhaul of planning laws also means that more people can extend their homes and therefore stay in them longer.

The Government must make the details of its planning reforms clear – that homes will be insulated, that carbon-neutral development will be incentivised and that Green Belt will not be touched.

Badger Culling

If there’s one thing that is going to get environmentally-aware voters riled, it’s a cull of Britain’s wildlife, especially an animal as iconic as the badger. Combine that with wide publicity, one of the world’s biggest rock stars and Britain’s favourite TV wildlife presenters and it’s a recipe for disaster.

It wouldn’t be so bad if culling badgers could reduce TB in cattle, but a reduction in bovine TB of just 12-16% over almost a decade is dwarfed by the results of vaccination trials, all but one of which were scrapped in 2010. These facts have been so widely reported that the cull has pitted the coalition and the NFU against scientists, the media and almost everyone else.

To make matters worse, according to the latest Defra figures, TB rates in cattle have fallen to their lowest levels in six years (3.6%, compared to 4.7% in December); this despite claims that an out-of-control badger population is causing bTB levels to soar.

Sometimes a single, ill-thought-out policy can capture the public’s imagination and more than 300,000 people have called for the cull to be scrapped.

Unlike the forests sell-off, which generated a smaller fuss, the public outcry over the badger cull has not led to a reversal – indeed, it is being executed with remarkable stubbornness that can only damage the Government further.

Culling will almost certainly be halted by Labour, should Miliband succeed in 2015, citing no direct improvement in bTB. He may not be interested in protecting wildlife, but he knows how to exploit bad decisions.

Marine Conservation Zones

One of the Party’s most promising green pledges was to create marine conservation zones (MCZs) in British waters to attempt to preserve what’s left of sea life in coastal waters.

In September 2011, following a thorough consultation process with stakeholders ranging from wildlife charities to fishermen, Defra recommended 127 zones from the North Sea to beyond the Isles of Scilly.

Of those, just 31 sites have been chosen for protection and several have even been removed from the list, with no timeframe for public consultation on the remainder. This has infuriated the conservation lobby and unravelled a sizeable amount of good will.

Expanding the public consultation to all 127 sites would restore this instantly; just announcing a Phase 2 date would go some way.

Animal Experiments

A current policy of the Party is to ‘reduce the use of animals in scientific research and end the testing of household products on animals’ before May 2015.

However, the number of animals used in scientific procedures has increased to more than 3.7m, although Section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 keeps details secret.

Many Conservative MPs are opposed to this increase, not least Cardiff North’s Jonathan Evans, who campaigns to end vivisection, but at whose local university animal experiments have increased by 34% since 2010.

It gets worse - at the time of writing, celebrities, scientists, charities and MPs (including Conservatives) have put their names to a letter to Home Office Minister Lord Taylor of Holbeach calling for an inquiry into Imperial College, where breaches of animal experimentation licenses included live decapitations, inadequate anaesthesia, staff incompetence and neglect.

University staff may lose their jobs, but anything other than a tough response from the Government to reduce animal testing and punish breaches sternly will make it look compassionless. The case of Imperial College is an opportunity for the Party to make its manifesto pledge a reality.

Communication

While the Party is keen to promote the good work it has done to protect biodiversity and wildlife, plant 100,000 trees and restore Britain’s rivers, this is communicated in the same breath as more general ‘rural affairs’ policies, which include the badger cull, expanding rural broadband, reducing water bills and boosting agriculture, none of which are going to win votes from eco-conscious Middle Britain.

The Party needs to keep climate change and environmental policies separate from ‘rural affairs’ that might or might not affect those living in the countryside, if for no other reason than the different audiences.

It’s not too late for the Conservative Party to claim back its green ground. After all, protection of what we have and improving life for future generations is fundamental to conservative ideology.

Support for the Lib Dems is weak, UKIP is silent on the environment and Labour has almost nothing to offer as an alternative - its green policies are thin and clearly low priority.

Furthermore, almost nobody considers green investment to be a waste of money – even the grittiest petrol-head can be convinced when asked what kind of world they want to leave to their children and grandchildren.

It’s time David Cameron took another trip to a melting glacier and made an impassioned speech along the lines of 2006, to reinforce his commitment to the environment, climate change, clean energy and Britain’s wildlife.