13 September 2007

Blueprint for a Green Economy

"If we are to create a way of living that we can sustain, then water, waste, transport and energy, as well as farming, food, fishing and the built environment, have to be thought of as a whole."

Launching the Conservatives' Quality of Life Policy Group report, a day after the price of crude oil reached a record $80, former Environment Secretary John Gummer is surely right to place the emphasis on sustainability.

At the end of the day, for all the uncertain predictions about an imminent big freeze or, conversely, a global heatwave and for all the questions about the extent to which man has exacerbated the planet's natural cycles of climate change, one thing is certain: the world's reserves of fossil fuels will one day run out. Whether we make them last 50 years or 100 years, or even 200 years, won't ultimately affect mankind's carbon footprint. What our rate of fossil fuel use will affect is the timeframe available in which we can invest in the research and development of renewable sources of energy — during which we can answer the really big question: How can we sustain life and civilisation as we know it? Or, as the report puts it, given that there are plenty of other symptoms of the damage wrought by humans' modern lifestyles — such as desertification, soil erosion, and the destruction of forests — can we continue to be an economically successful nation and, at the same time, an environmentally and socially healthy one?

Does the report provide a satisfactory answer that is "entirely consistent with long-standing Conservative principles"? The introduction notes that "Instead of wanting the State to intervene and control, Conservatives seek only to ensure that the market framework is capable of delivering the nation’s requirements and that people, communities, and organisations, whether for profit or not, are empowered and trusted to play their proper and fullest role." Yet, about aviation, it complains:

"Growth in demand is heavily concentrated in short-haul leisure flights taken by UK residents. Between 1994 and 2004, 70% of the additional international trips that occurred were UK residents going abroad for leisure. From the perspective of the UK economy, this is arguably the wrong sort of growth. Shorthaul leisure flights exacerbate the country’s tourism deficit – the difference between what overseas visitors spend in the UK and what British citizens spend abroad – which already stands at around £15 billion. Today, over half of all air trips arriving or departing UK airports are UK residents travelling for leisure, and this proportion is set to increase." (p.355)
Thus, some of what are already its most criticised recommendations, such as no further airport expansions, rethinking Heathrow's proposed runway, and no new runways at Gatwick or Stansted, seem to burst with big state interventionism. The authors argue that "Scaling back airport expansion plans would lead to more efficient use of existing capacity, and accelerate the allocation of flight slots to parts of the market that value them most" and that this "does not mean that there would be a diminution in the cheap flights already available," but it is hard to see how such an approach could not but damage Britain's economy and international competitiveness.

I am happy to accept the premise that no government can be neutral in matters of wellbeing and we should therefore shift taxation policy towards the taxation of pollution — from 'pay as you earn' to 'pay as you burn.' However, if the shift is to be managed in an orderly manner, the Government will need to ensure that the alternatives that it wishes us to embrace are adequate. There is no point trying to tax us from flying if the rail network doesn't have the capacity to cope with the additional passenger loads. I would probably even be willing to accept that the best way of retuning growth to take account of environmental health is "by pricing carbon into the equation as the most effective surrogate for environmental cost" — so long as this genuinely is not used as a means to increase the total tax burden.

I agree that "It is time to debunk the myth that we must choose between the environment and the economy. In truth there is no either/or between environmental protection, social stability and sustainable economic growth." So, its discussions about energy efficiency — for instance in the context of the household sector discussed earlier in the week by Zac Goldsmith, which include the rejection of the Home Information Packs (HIPs) regime — are to be welcomed. In the related context of planning and also of rural life and Defra, its recommendation that "the localism agenda be used to empower the very lowest of levels of government, nearest to the people whose lives they affect" is also strongly welcome. This also applies to the subsequent discussions about reform of Europe's infamous Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy, "to shift the CAP across Europe from production-related subsidies (Pillar 1) to a system of paying farmers for the public goods and services they provide (Pillar 2)." As it says, "The more complex the world gets, the more globalisation seems to remove power from people, politicians, and even nations, and the more it is important that individuals feel they have a real say about the future of their own community." It is high time that this process should be reversed.

Given that I also believe we should "tilt the balance back from ‘economy-friendly families to family-friendly economies,’" I would also not oppose the suggestion for the planning system to "prioritise the protection and enhancement of ‘town centres’ and ‘local neighbourhood shopping centres’ over and above out of town/edge of town retail development." If we wish to strengthen our local communities, then it seems vital that we maintain the economic and social viability of our towns. I expect that some of you might disagree, but I think this is an area where Margaret Thatcher's "Never call me laissez-faire" quote is probably relevant: "Government must be strong to do those things which only government can do."

Lastly, back on transport, I was pleased to see the call for increased carriage of freight by inland waterways and, in relation to proposed national road user charging, the willingness to "seek simple and transparent ways to achieve our ends and avoid grandiose schemes that rely on unproven technology and huge investment."

In conclusion, does the report tell us how we can continue to be an economically successful nation and, at the same time, an environmentally and socially healthy one in a way "entirely consistent with long-standing Conservative principles"? Given that these are merely proposals that will all go into the melting pot containing the many recommendations from each of the other policy group reports, then I believe we have to conclude that it does as least help illuminate the way forwards. The next challenge will be for the Party to compile a coherent manifesto around a single Conservative vision for the twenty-first century...