This post first appeared on The Guardian’s Environment blog.
After years of economic uncertainty and falling living standards the 2015 election will have a defensive feel to it. The electorate will want reassurance, not big change. Whoever ends up in government will be pursuing small ‘c’ conservative ends: stability and security.
The 2010 general election was not a cautious one. The banking crisis required national renewal and David Cameron, in optimistic mode, issued a manifesto invitation for the public to ‘join the government of Britain’. All three parties promised ‘revolutions’ in green technology.
An era of defensive, protective politics
2015 will hear of no revolutions, and little of what Sarah Palin called the ‘hopey changey thing’. The winner will be whoever offers the best parenting for a fragile and unbalanced economy. Will we want strict-but-fair dad in the blue corner, or nurturing-but-disciplined mum in the red?
And what can our choice offer in terms of political leadership on green policy? ‘Join the revolution’ said the wind industry back then: it sounded like a new adrenalin sport. Such bold narratives of transition and breakthrough don’t fit an era of defensive, protective politics.
Aware of this new mood, environmental campaigners have returned to conservation. Greenpeace’s biggest current campaign in the UK is to work with landowners and communities to stop local pollution from fracking. It’s a campaign conservative philosopher Roger Scruton might recognise as a celebration of ‘ Oikophilia’, the love of home. Similarly, Friends of the Earth’s biggest success over the past year has been the emotive ‘Beecause’ campaign to protect bees from neonicitinoids.
So what might an environmental agenda for stability look like? First, it would find ways of supporting those struggling with the rising cost of living. Nothing is as destabilising as rising inequality. Finding common cause with the fuel and resource poor requires a different approach, as pioneered by the Energy Bill Revolution, which has corralled hundreds of NGOs behind its campaign to eradicate fuel poverty.
Second, an environmental agenda would focus on making Britain more resilient. It would target infrastructure, which appears to collapse every winter, and the economy, which is currently driven by volatile consumption rather than steady investment. And it would address the stagnation of large parts of the country outside the south east.
Finally, it has protect the everyday urban and suburban places that people love, as well as the best rural habitats, as these are the environments that most of us inhabit and cherish.
Three ways to reassure voters:
Cost of living
Politicians haven’t been straight with the public about how vulnerable the UK is to international commodity markets and rising global resource prices have played a big role in falling living standards. Green Alliance’s analysis shows that real wages could have actually risen over the last decade without the extra inflation caused by faster rises in international energy and food prices. The great resource price shock means that the average British household has paid an extra £1,000 a year for food and energy.
Global trade may help to smooth the upward price curve, but only resource stewardship can help to bring it down if global demand keeps on rising. We must support homes and businesses to conserve more energy, help farmers sell the 40 per cent of food supermarkets reject on cosmetic grounds, and keep the £3.5 billion of materials thrown away every year out of landfill. A coherent resource stewardship programme could start by incentivising councils to become resource entrepreneurs, recovering more of the metals, food and plastic we throw away and reinvesting the income generated into reducing household energy bills.
All parties are committed to multi-billion pound capital expenditure on infrastructure, but new runways and the dualling of more ‘A’ roads will make the UK less resilient to increasing energy prices or rebalance the economy.
Obama’s ‘fix it first’ approach in the US (fill potholes, make the railways more robust, refurbish old leaky homes and strengthen flood defences) gives a much greater return on investment than new infrastructure, and could benefit all parts of the UK. Basic maintenance is never sexy but it does quickly improve quality of life.
Another approach would be to invest in smart systems that make our infrastructure more efficient. London’s smart-ticketing system should be rolled out to our eight core cities. Micro-chips that allow electrical products to turn off at periods of high demand could be interconnected with the not- yet -smart meters that we are about to have installed in our homes. Negawatt (energy saving) incentives for business and homes could be scaled up to reduce demand on power stations.
Every government loves to champion some big kit because they want to be seen as visionary. They often struggle to deliver large scale low carbon infrastructure because it requires them to commit unequivocally to the long term. But low carbon already makes up the biggest chunk of the Treasury’s pipeline of planned infrastructure projects. These clean energy projects are largely going to be delivered by the private sector and could stimulate the growth of new industry outside London. The electoral benefits are considerable.
If the next government is really serious about infrastructure it should hand over its capital spend to the Green Investment Bank, which has already proven it can work with the private sector, and thus avoid jeopardising the programme through ministerial interference.
Because of the sense that all of Britain land is up for grabs, the first party to identify a non-negotiable area of beauty will stand out. Nadhim Zahawi MP, a member of the No10 policy board, recently spoke out against the new National Planning Policy Framework because of widespread disquiet in rural and suburban constituencies that council planning committees now have very little ability to stop ugly or damaging development, even on public green spaces. As Oliver Letwin wrote in his seminal essay ‘About beauty’ in 2007 “a life amidst ugliness is one of the most important forms of deprivation and the search for beauty is one of the great motivations of the human spirit”. Any party that promises some real protection for village greens and beautiful views will win plaudits from both Telegraph and Guardian readers.
The next government will reflect the public’s mood by being cautious in its ends, but it could deliver greater stability and wellbeing through muscular green means. It’s time to develop positive proposals for protective government, whoever that turns out to be.