My biggest fear for the environment in this coming election is not that it won’t feature as a major issue. That may be a blessing given the quality of the debate so far. It’s that our next government won’t have a plan for what it wants to do. So my big question to the parties is ‘What’s your green programme for the first year of government?’
As it happens, I think the groups behind the Greener Britain proposals will have had some success at influencing the manifestos, but any commitments made will only be place holders, not implementable programmes.
This election has been unusual because the parties have been too busy fighting for votes to put much time into planning for a win. Government officials will have a busy summer teasing out ministerial priorities and the programme for the first 100 days may end up taking the first half of the parliament to deliver. The civil service has lost much of its capacity to horizon scan and to develop detailed options ahead of time. This is great news if you run a think tank like Green Alliance with the ability to do this, but it’s not necessarily the best way to do government.
What’s behind the headline commitments?
Our Greener Britain hustings on Monday offers the best opportunity we have before the election to understand what the parties will do after it. I expect Ed Davey, Caroline Flint, Caroline Lucas and Liz Truss to convince us that they care personally and to offer greener times ahead if their party gets into power. That will make us all feel better but I’m afraid it will not be enough. Government doesn’t run on good intentions but on money and legal power.
I want to know what will be their programme for government beneath their headline commitments. If they are ambitious for the environment they will have to define their rationale, the benefits and spending their plans entail, and explain how they will win support across a number of ministerial portfolios. The government’s Electricity Market Reform did this, despite its shortcomings: everyone understood its ambition to reduce the cost of capital for low carbon power generation, there was a credible process and cross party support, which meant that DECC ministers were able to win the budgets needed to deliver new contracts.
Defra’s approach to the natural environment is a less happy example. Caroline Spelman settled early in the 2010 spending review, which left her department with above average cuts and insufficient staff and spending power to deliver on her excellent Natural Environment White Paper.
What are they prepared to save in further cuts?
No party has committed to protect DECC or Defra’s budgets, so on current plans they will suffer deeper cuts than before. The party spokespeople need to explain to us how that will be compatible with their green priorities; and which spending or staff capacity they will fight for and which they are prepared to let go.
It is also critical that we understand their legal and regulatory priorities. The greatest gains for the environment have come from long, loud and legal regulation which has driven business innovation and investment. EU vehicle standards have shaped the global car market, saved British motorists hundreds of pounds in fuel costs and allowed the UK to develop a competitive advantage in low emission vehicles. Where will the next legislative leap forward come from? Will the next government push the European Commission to jump start a new era of repairable products through this summer’s EU circular economy package? Will they commit to higher environmental standards for the next government’s house building programme?
Will they give the public more power over sustainable local development?
Given that the government can’t deliver a greener Britain alone, we also need to know what they think the role of civil society and citizens should be. No future minister wants to confess to being against decentralisation, but sometimes they can be reluctant to give up power having worked so hard to gain it. So what new deal will they offer local authorities and citizens to engage in a greener economy, to give them power over, and responsibility for, sustainable local development?
Everyone predicted hard times for the environment when the recession hit, but we are back in growth now and the government is expected to balance its books within the next few years. We have the opportunity in this next parliament to regain lost momentum on greening our economy and to redouble efforts to stop nature’s decline. That means creating the means to achieve greener ends. And it means we need a clearer view from the parties of what their programme for government will be. I look forward to learning more on Monday.
The Greener Britain Hustings, chaired by Tom Heap, is on Monday 23 March at 6.30pm. The event is now full but you will be able to watch it live online here and submit questions via Twitter#GreenerBritain.