A lot has changed since Green Alliance was founded 35 years ago. Most of the people who partied with us at our celebration last night were still at school, and some hadn’t been born. So let’s just remind ourselves: in 1979 we had one lumbering energy giant – the Central Electricity Generating Board– providing electricity to all of our homes and offices, the majority of which was generated by coal. We now have 600,000 homes that generate their own electricity from the sun, thanks in part to the solar feed-in tariff introduced by one of our speakers, Ed Miliband, when he was energy secretary. We have halved the coal content of our power supply, thanks to the dash for gas precipitated by Margaret Thatcher’s energy market liberalisation, with a large dollop of help from EU air pollution legislation
Good green policy has made Britain better
35 years ago a trip to the beach involved swimming in water contaminated by untreated sewage. You can now go surfing without the same unpleasant surprises. This is thanks to the actions of Michael Heseltine, the predecessor of our other special guest Oliver Letwin. And a large dollop of help from the European Union Bathing Waters Directive.
Good green policy has made Britain better and healthier. It’s at the centre of everything Green Alliance does. As our new strategy makes clear, we have concluded that to achieve better policy in the next era we have to address some new challenges.
The need to tackle our dysfunctional relationship with nature
First, the acceleration in the decline in wildness and wildlife. We may have 100 years of wildlife protection policy under our belt but, at best, it’s only slowing down the precipitous loss. Our relationship with the natural world is deeply dysfunctional. If it were healthy we would not be pruning autumn leaves from the trees outside parliament in the name of efficiency. We would not be promoting a housing estate on the site of the country’s largest nightingale population. Our response to this malaise is to set up a natural environment programme. Its aim will be to try and make the politics work better for the policy. We’re talking to partners about how best to do it, but expect some announcements in the next couple of months.
More voices in support of green infrastructure
Second, we need to build a large amount of new infrastructure to decarbonise our economy and create greater circularity in the use of natural resources. Environmentalists made their name stopping the most damaging infrastructure. But, these days, most of us spend far more time trying to get the best infrastructure built, and it’s a huge task. We are making progress. Some good decisions from this government and the last mean that the green economy continues to grow, and did so throughout the economic downturn. However, there are some big decisions coming up in the next parliament, like the future of public funding for clean energy in the 2020s, where politics will struggle to make a good decision without lots of backing from the silent majority who support it. We are going to be using our advocacy skills to help our partners mobilise more voices in favour of clean energy.
Open up decision making to the public
One of the reasons we have to do that is because of a third big challenge: policy is becoming less stable. As public trust in representative politics declines, politics finds it harder to deliver stable policy, and politicians are occasionally to be found weakening existing green policy in the face of criticism.
Remember last year’s perverse decision to reduce energy saving funding because of concerns about rising energy bills? We can try to combat such regressive decisions but the real solution is to strengthen politics and make it less vulnerable to flip-flopping of this kind. We think this means opening up decision making to people.
Whether it is having a greater say in how our local environment is managed through devolution, giving people a chance to shape the vision of what new infrastructure should deliver, or giving them a chance to put their savings into clean energy schemes, we think green issues offer a chance to rekindle the relationship between citizens and politicians.
So we’re making the case for policy making to be less technocratic, encouraging politicians to use the UK’s huge infrastructure programme to bring citizens in and put the public back into public policy. With a more open process ministers will make better decisions and create policy that sticks.
Our new strategy lays out the ways in which we hope to work with our partners over the next three years, to shape the next era of good green policy, but it also invites everyone to join us in helping to overcome the barriers to better politics. Judging by the hugely positive response we had last night we’re in great company, and it’s going to be a stimulating ride.
Creating a greener Britain: strategy 2015-18 (Green Alliance, November 2014)
35 for the 35th: see what 35 people from politics, NGOs and business have said about the difference Green Alliance has made since it was founded in 1979.