The prime minister has announced an ‘infrastructure revolution’, as he promises to put jobs and infrastructure at the heart of the government’s economic growth strategy. Drawing comparisons with Roosevelt’s New Deal, the government promises to ‘unite and level up’ the country. Infrastructure projects are to be accelerated, with a National Infrastructure Strategy and wider reforms promised later this year.
To protect the UK’s natural infrastructure, the prime minister has reiterated tree planting targets – 75,000 acres of trees every year by 2025 – and pledged £40 million to boost local conservation projects, including establishing Conservation Rangers, perhaps a nod to Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps.
But this is a far cry from the sustained green recovery that many have been clamouring for, and misses many of the important ingredients needed to invest in net zero infrastructure and restore nature. This message will be reinforced today by the thousands of people who will be joining a world-first Virtual Lobby of Parliament for a green, fair and healthy recovery.
Where does this leave the government’s flagship environment legislation?
The Environment Bill has already been recognised by the prime minister as a lodestar by which we will guide our country towards the cleaner and greener future he wants to see. Its reintroduction to parliament is now a matter of considerable urgency as it will lay important foundations for policy makers. Without clear governance, there is a risk that infrastructure planning will be done in an environmentally haphazard way.
At the heart of the bill, a new home-grown watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, is set to keep watch over our environmental laws. Principles to protect our environment and our health, such as acting with precaution and avoiding environmental harm, will be guiding lights to government ministers as they make policy. New Environmental Improvement Plans, which explain where and how environmental action will be taken, will provide a clear direction of travel for business and investors, as well as the wider public.
In such uncertain times, the private sector and, more broadly, society need the predictability the bill will provide if we are to meet the government’s commitment to leave the environment in a better state within a generation.
Good infrastructure planners need environmental regulations
As some commentators call on the government to drive “a tank through planning regulations”, this will inevitably give courage to those parts of government who believe that infrastructure planners should be absolved of their responsibility to factor in environmental considerations. That would be a mistake. Any forthcoming planning reforms must learn the lessons of countless previous reviews of environmental regulations, which consistently demonstrate that, if implemented well, these laws can guide good development.
The Environment Bill shows that planning and environment can act in concert to enable essential development to take place and enhance the environment, through the proposal that new development should lead to a net gain in biodiversity. The bill however misses a trick as this welcome measure does not include major infrastructure projects. It would be a severely backward step if other parts of the bill, for example the requirement on ministers to follow environmental principles, were to follow suit and give major infrastructure a free pass.
Rumours that other mainstays of environmental protection such as the Birds and Habitats Directives are in the firing line risk undermining public confidence in the government’s plans. While, of course, the government will be free to make new regulations in the future if it so chooses, this must be well justified, done in the public eye and with proper consultation, not conjured up solely in the corridors of Whitehall.
Why the government’s environmental ambition must be realised
As well as a commitment to ‘levelling up’, the election manifesto also committed the government to have the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth. These are not loose words tucked away on the back cover, they are a meaningful and visible pledge to the electorate.
As the government appears keen to draw comparison with Roosevelt’s New Deal, it’s worth remembering that this was not just a plan for the Great Depression; it was also engineered to tackle the Dust Bowl, the environmental and public health disaster which darkened cities, buried homes and killed livestock, causing many people to suffer ‘dust pneumonia’.
The Roosevelt Administration sought to address the root causes of the environmental degradation that led to the disaster through soil conservation, tree planting and new farming techniques.
There are similarities with our own environmental crises: the decline in nature threatening our precious wildlife, toxic air choking our cities and making us sick, and climate change causing fundamental destabilisation of the natural systems on which we depend. To be truly transformative, any UK ‘New Deal’ must set its sights on tackling the root causes of these crises alongside the economic challenges of responding to coronavirus.
Margaret Thatcher once said that “The core of Conservative philosophy and of the case for protecting the environment are the same. No generation has a freehold on this earth.” The belief that conservation is at the very heart of Conservatism holds true to this day. Embedding environmental as well as economic goals within the prime minister’s ‘infrastructure revolution’ would be a welcome reflection of this and help to ensure that the response to the coronavirus pandemic leads to the better world we are all hoping for.