Energy and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 4:24 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Zac Goldsmith Zac Goldsmith Conservative, Richmond Park 4:24 pm, 27th May 2010

I am grateful for this opportunity to speak. I must admit that I am surprised to be here, not just today but generally. I cannot pretend that my campaign team and I were brimming with confidence in the run-up to the campaign. In fact the bookmakers shared that view, as I was still 2:1 with Ladbrokes until the last moment. I therefore thank the residents of Richmond Park and north Kingston for giving me the very real honour of representing them in Parliament. After three years of campaigning, I hope that they know that I will do my utmost.

I wish to pay tribute to my predecessor, Susan Kramer. Our campaigns clashed, sometimes very noisily, but on a personal level we developed a good relationship and I have great respect for her record as a constituency MP. She was diligent, hard-working, well liked and respected. I wish her well wherever she goes from here.

It is customary for MPs to praise their constituency in their maiden speech. While that is a duty, in my case it is also a pleasure; I am sure that everyone will say the same. I had an interesting conversation yesterday with a former Labour Minister, just outside the Chamber, and he told me that had he been given an opportunity to stand in Richmond Park he would have crossed the Floor to do so. That was a hell of a compliment to the constituency, and I absolutely go along with that. It is where I grew up, I live there now, and it is the only constituency that I would ever seek to represent.

Richmond park is the heart of the constituency, and gives it its name. It is one of London's greatest jewels, being raw, beautiful and not overly managed. I am told that it has more ancient trees than all of Germany and France combined. That may be an exaggeration-I am often told that it is-but I am happy to indulge in it. It is not the only jewel, as we also have Kew gardens. If they are not the world's greatest botanical gardens they are certainly among them, and are rightly a world heritage site.

Like all constituencies, Richmond Park has its threats and pressures, to which-as its MP-I will have to stand up. We have now dealt with the third runway, thanks to the intervention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. That was one of the major threats overhanging the entire community, but we need to maintain the pressure and ensure that we protect runway alternation, which offers residents a much needed respite from the relentless noise of aircraft flying overhead.

Other threats include those from developers, which affect many of the constituencies in the area. In the last few years, huge pressure from developers has led to the rapid erosion of our green spaces. Residents will look to this Government to introduce measures to protect what remains of our playing fields and gardens. Those measures are on the cards: they were in the Conservative manifesto and also, I believe, in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. I look forward to seeing those proposals become reality in the coming years, and that will certainly be appreciated in my constituency.

We have a shortage of school places at every level, and I believe that the plans of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education will resolve that problem rapidly.

Richmond also has pockets of real deprivation, and that is something that most people do not associate with the constituency, because it is generally an affluent area. But for that very reason, those pockets of deprivation tend to be overlooked. As an MP, my job is to address the threats to the community and ensure that they do not materialise, as well as to stand up for the entire community-something that I am absolutely committed to doing.

I hope that during my time in this House, however long that may be, I will be able to contribute to some of the wider concerns that have an impact on my constituency and every other constituency. One of the great challenges for this Parliament is rebuilding trust in the institution. Ronald Reagan used to tell the old joke, frequently repeated, that politics is the second oldest profession, but it can often look like the first. I do not believe that I am the only person who encountered people on the campaign trail who would buy into that line. People can regard politicians with something close to contempt, we have to address that. It is tempting to blame it all on the expenses scandal, but the reality is that people were disengaging from politics long before that, and the data on voter turnout and allegiance to political parties back that up. I do not think it has anything to do with the expenses scandal; it has something to do with how we deal with politics in this country.

Politics at every level has become far too remote. On the European Union level, how many people in this country genuinely believe that when they cast their vote in a European election it will have any impact on how Europe is structured, on what decisions will be made within the EU, or even on the quality of those decisions? I do not think that many people believe in voting in those elections, and one of the reasons is that increasingly decisions are being taken by people who are not elected, and are therefore insulated from any kind of democratic pressure.

Nationally, we have a choice-a limited choice-every 1,500 days or so, and in between there are very few authentic mechanisms for ordinary people to influence how decisions are taken. At the local level, I would say things are even worse. Local authorities have been stripped of powers over such a long time and to such an extent that even on genuinely local issues-local planning matters, local supermarkets, incinerators, for example-more often than not local authorities find themselves overruled by national quangos that are also unelected.

This Parliament needs to act decisively to shorten the distance between people and power. That should be one of our priorities. One of the best, cleanest and most effective ways to do that is to introduce much more direct democracy. It should be possible for people to earn the right to trigger a referendum on important local and national issues. It should be possible for people to recall and eventually possibly boot out councillors and MPs, not just for committing crimes but simply because they have lost the trust and respect of their constituents. If we introduce those mechanisms and turn increasingly to direct democracy, the quality of the national and local debates will improve, we will see much more engagement and we will have a much more politically literate country.

There is another challenge-there are endless challenges, but I thought I would focus on two-that has been the subject of the discussions today. The environment is the defining challenge of our era. It goes without saying-I hope-that without a healthy environment, we have no economy or future. It is the defining, underlying issue, and the basic maths tell us that we are heading in a dangerous direction: a growing population combined with an increasing hunger for resources means that the cost of living will at some point go up. If we take that to its logical conclusion, we will reach a point when conflict is almost inevitable.

We need only look at the facts. We can argue about climate change and our exact contribution to it, although I will not do that now, because other people have already done so today. The world's bread baskets are being eroded. That is not a matter of opinion; it is a matter of fact. There is the destruction of the world's forests, the loss of species and habitats and the collapse of the world's great fisheries. These are real issues, and they are not subject to debate; they are matters of fact. They are not niche problems, but fundamental problems. I hope it also goes without saying that as we undermine the natural world and natural systems, we eventually undermine the basis of our own existence.

The cause of many of those problems is also, fortunately, the solution: the market. But if the market is blind to the value of valuable of things, if it is blind to the value of natural systems, and if it fails to put a cost on those things that should have a cost, economic growth can only be an engine of environmental destruction and a process that effectively means cashing in on the natural world until there is nothing left. Nevertheless, the market is the most powerful force for change that we know, other than nature itself. It is a tool, and if we allow the natural world to be plundered, it is simply because we have failed to understand how to use that tool. We need to put a price on pollution, waste and the use of scarce resources, and we need to invest the proceeds in alternatives. I do not think that green taxes should ever be retrospective-we have seen too much of that-and I do not think that the green agenda should ever become an excuse for raising stealth taxes. We have seen too much of that as well. However, whatever we introduce must be real, not synthetic. We need rapid change.

I want to read out something that Margaret Thatcher said 20 years ago-she was well ahead of her time on this issue-so I hope that hon. Members will indulge me:

"Many of the precautionary actions that we need to take would be sensible in any event. It is sensible to improve energy efficiency and use energy prudently; it's sensible to develop alternative and sustainable energy sources; it's sensible to replant the forests which we consume; it's sensible to re-examine industrial processes; it's sensible to tackle the problem of waste. I understand that the latest vogue is to call them 'no regrets' policies. Certainly we should have none in putting them into effect."

Margaret Thatcher was way ahead of her time, but she was also following a long but occasionally forgotten tradition in the Conservative party of paying tribute to and understanding the importance of the environment. It is a tradition that goes all the way back-as far back as anyone wants to go-to Edmund Burke, who said:

"Never...did Nature say one thing and Wisdom say another."

Stewardship; looking out for future generations and recognising limits, particularly nature's limits; providing security-these are core Conservative values. For as long as I am able to stay in this House, they are values that I will stand up for.

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