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Conference diary: making the papers

Alastair Harper is Green Alliance’s senior policy adviser on Political Leadership and  roving party conference diarist.

Here his is first posting from the Conservative’s party conference in Birmingham, first published on Business Green.

Minutes after they read it on the cover of The Times yesterday morning, a private round table brought together MPs, ministers, businesses and NGOs to discuss the role of green in the recovery.

Two different letters, one leaked, one written openly, may just have changed everything. The letters said that those that want to invest into this country, cannot without greater certainty from government on the green agenda.  To the people at yesterday morning’s discussion – insurers, investors, energy companies, members of the supply chain – it was obvious that the green economy is not a cosy niche, but a promise of what the economy is to become. But by too many people outside the business sphere, it’s  thought of as an act of politeness. A bit of tidying up before the real work is done. Too many politicians and journalists thought companies were paying lip-service when they said the green economy was the key to their future.

However, as one of the letters’ signatories made clear to the room, they really meant it. It required significant provocation for businesses to cross-examine the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the day of his conference speech, but they didn’t feel as though they had much choice.

So what’s the source of the fatal uncertainty that prompted those letters? The Conservatives present at yesterday’s discussion clearly understood the importance of this sector – they were engaged and educated about the main issues.  But there was difference about the nature of the solution to the lack of investment. Some felt it just needed one more push, and then the changes in the Energy Bill would give businesses the neccersary confidence to invest. Another minister argued that his party had so far lacked a clear vision of a Conservative industrial policy, in which they could show a radical smart grid leading from a big six energy companies to a big sixty thousand.  He wanted a way to show that this new economic model wasn’t about green versus cheap, but something much more exciting – about opportunity versus stagnation.

Some other politicians questioned the need for yet another target, as called for in yesterday’s letters. Do we need sub-level targets? But an investor explained they already place their energy investments in mainland Europe because the UK had too much risk. Another added that they now needed protection from recent political rhetoric – that was why  a carbon number was essential for investment, rather than just the icing on the cake.

Owen Patterson, the new Environment Minister, spoke at a fringe event on Sunday night, where he showed himself more than capable of rhetoric. He is apparently “delighted” that he may have shale gas in his constituency, as he told the audience. It had a “spectacular” effect on the American economy, where the locals only noticed it because of the improvements to their infrastructure, he said. It would help us reduce emissions as well, he believed. A role for gas beyond 2030? “Why limit anything?” he said.

When asked whether this view was in line with the legal requirements set out in the Climate Change Act, he said that the Act may have targets, but whether we can meet them is a different question.

While Mr Patterson is new to his brief, yesterday morning’s meeting showed that ministerial talk matters. It also showed clearly that this kind of conversation isn’t where the party needs to be – careless talk costs investors.

A senior Conservative made it clear that he shared the frustration of the businesses that signed the letter. He found it particularly challenging that some in his party seemed to notice the Conservative values inherent in the proposed solution to climate change – the state sets a regulatory framework in which individual businesses provide the change, profiting as they do so. The idea of waiting until things are more desperate and the state has to get more directly, and financially, involved, puzzled him. It was hoped it would occur to the new environment minister soon.

Photograph: NCVO/flickr

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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