September has been an environmental rollercoaster. Government proposals earlier in the month to scrap laws to protect water quality in some of the most environmentally sensitive areas in England turned out to be an omen of what was to come, and many now fear crumbling government resolve on the environment.
Through its backtracking on net zero, the government has put the cross party consensus, which has held firm since the 2008 Climate Change Act, at risk. Instead, it seems intent on using the environment as a wedge to distinguish its policies from opposition parties. This has attracted criticism from senior Conservatives and marks a new paradigm in which the environment is treated as a pre-election commodity.
Government plans to scrap water pollution rules failed
‘Nutrient neutrality’ laws were devised to protect water quality in areas affected by high levels of pollution, mitigating effluent from new housing developments, for instance by creating new wetlands to stop the overall level of pollution getting worse.
The government chose to try and implement its plans, which were hastily concocted without consultation or evidence gathering, and against the advice of its nature watchdog, in the Levelling-up Bill, near the end of its parliamentary passage.
This late introduction meant that if the House of Lords rejected the plans, they could not be brought back in the final stages of the bill’s passage. By convention, it’s unusual for government amendments to be rejected. But that’s exactly what happened when peers from across the House reinforced concerns expressed by many that the plans were ill thought through, broke government promises not to regress on protections and turned the polluter pays principle on its head.
The debate was a fine example of parliamentary scrutiny, aided by advice from the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) that the proposals would “reduce the level of environmental protection provided for in law and amount to a regression”.
Conservative Lord Deben called this “one of the worst pieces of legislation I have ever seen” and said it was “entirely unconservative”. This did not stop the government accusing the Labour Party of blocking house building when, in truth, the opposition was from across all parties. Labour rightly concluded there are “far better ways” to build the homes we so desperately need.
Within minutes of the lost votes, Conservative Campaigns HQ shared a video and the levelling-up secretary Michael Gove shared a prepared graphic, both criticising Labour’s stance. The defeat was clearly anticipated, given the cross party opposition and widespread concern from environmental groups, the OEP and those spearheading the emerging nutrients credit market. But, unlike the view of the i’s Paul Waugh, it’s unlikely the government deliberately lost the vote, based on analysis of similar voting numbers and patterns; it just knew that defeat was coming.
The government lost no time in suggesting it will try again. The irony that news of this was published on World Rivers Day was not lost on those whose disbelief is growing at the government’s tactics and its disregard for its own environmental laws and expert advisers.
Ripping up environmental protections would be a curious priority to have for a government which claims it is still committed to high ambitions on the environment. It was, after all, a central plank of the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto.
Action to cut electricity bills is being rolled back
Since the nutrient neutrality vote, the government’s environmental currency has plummeted further. Last week, the prime minister dropped pledges on net zero, condemned by all party groups, the National Trust, businesses and consumer organisations, amongst many others. The backdrop for that announcement was the promise to scrap policies which had never existed in the first place, for example a meat tax and foisting seven recycling bins on every household (the latter was debunked by the government itself in a statement from Defra).
The abolition last weekend of the energy efficiency taskforce adds to concerns that the government is ignoring fuel poverty and the need to bring down people’s electricity bills. Over the coming months we will see whether the government maintains this electorally ill-advised direction of travel. There are many things on the watchlist. High up is whether the government will attempt to further muzzle the nature watchdog Natural England which has become a target for a growing caucus of Conservative backbench MPs, irate at its work to protect nature (although in a recent adjournment debate on Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), only one MP bothered to turn up to voice those concerns).
The government’s response to the first official enforcement action by the OEP on untreated sewage is also one to watch, especially as the initial reaction from Defra suggests the government is ready to dispute the OEP’s considered conclusions. If a resolution cannot be agreed, the next step will be for the OEP to issue a decision notice, potentially followed by court action in 2024. Surely the government would not welcome the very literal muckraking of its track record on sewage pollution being pored over as the election approaches?
There is concern the government is ignoring the advice of the relatively new OEP in other areas, for example on maintaining important air quality protections and on the regressive effect of its proposal on nutrients and planning. There’s little point in setting up a body to hold the government to account if its recommendations are repeatedly disregarded. A respected parliamentary committee has recently criticised the government’s “complacent tone” and “cursory approach” to the vexing problems of water pollution.
As the government considers its plans for the fifth and final session of this parliament, this stark reminder from former Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher is worth revisiting:
“It’s we Conservatives who are not merely friends of the Earth—we are its guardians and trustees for generations to come… The core of Tory philosophy and for the case for protecting the environment are the same. No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy—with a full repairing lease. This Government intends to meet the terms of that lease in full.”
It’s not too late for Rishi Sunak to follow her lead and champion the moral case for action on the environment. If he does not, he will find himself on the wrong side of history which is a legacy no prime minister wants to leave.
[Image: HM Treasury and The Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk via Wikimedia Commons]