Infrastructure Bill [Lords]

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 8:29 pm on 8th December 2014.

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Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion 8:29 pm, 8th December 2014

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. Upgrading the UK’s infrastructure is vital to create jobs and prepare the country for the challenges that it is going to face over the coming decades. The Government stated that the Bill would

“improve how we fund, plan, manage and maintain our national infrastructure”.

I would argue, however, that without some fairly radical amendments—above all, to take account of climate change—they will fail on all those aims. That is why I sought—sadly, unsuccessfully—to amend the Bill. What we need are priorities that will put the UK on the path to a prosperous, zero-carbon, jobs-rich economy and will improve resilience to flooding and other climate impacts coming our way.

At present, sadly, this “business-as-usual” Bill will lock the UK into high-carbon, inefficient, polluting energy and transport systems in particular—and that at precisely the moment when we should be turning around and heading fast in a different direction for the sake of both our economy and our environment.

The crucial, overarching context for this Bill is helpfully illustrated by the new climate economy report launched in September. It builds on a growing consensus on the benefits of low-carbon economic development among leading international economic institutions such as the OECD and the World Bank—about as far from the so-called green blob as one could possibly get.

In an article coinciding with the report’s launch, the head of the OECD as well as the LSE’s Lord Stern highlighted the choice that the UK and other countries must now make. They explain that if investment in infrastructure over the next 10 to 15 years is high carbon, the world will indeed “lock in” the risk of dangerous climate change. More positively, they write:

“What is now becoming clear is that reducing emissions is not only compatible with economic growth and development; if done well, it can actually generate better growth than the old high-carbon model…But governments must choose. Over recent years many governments have vacillated over climate policy. They have introduced carbon prices but then let them fall until they are near-useless. They have backed renewables but also subsidised fossil fuels. These inconsistent signals have created uncertainty for investors, damaging growth and retarding innovation.”

They go on:

“The prize before us is huge. We can build a strong, inclusive and resilient global economy which can also avoid dangerous climate change. But the time for decision is now.”

They could have been talking about the very Infrastructure Bill before us today, and as we enter the second week of global climate talks in Peru, I think it is clear that this Infrastructure Bill is sadly failing to make the right choice.

It is puzzling, because sometimes Ministers and indeed shadow Ministers go to great efforts to convince the public that they understand the benefits of transforming our economy to radically cut emissions. Last year, for example, the Prime Minister explained that

“we are in a global race and the countries that succeed in that race, the economies in Europe that will prosper, are those that are the greenest and the most energy efficient.”

I could not agree more with him on that. The Leader of the Opposition in The Independent yesterday set out a welcome and impassioned pitch for his ability to offer leadership on climate change, highlighting the increasingly stark science and the economic and social harm caused by dither and delay. Again, I agree. Yet the unswerving support from Labour’s Front-Bench team for the coalition’s new roads, whatever the delivery structure, and for fracking, however well regulated, undermines any such climate credibility. It suggests that they may be a little bit in denial about the inconvenient truth that carbon emissions do not come just from electricity generation. Crucially, for the purposes of this Bill, they come from roads as well.

Transport accounts for 25% of UK emissions and most of that is from roads, but there are many other reasons why building new roads should be at the bottom—not the top—of the UK’s infrastructure priorities. As the Government’s own figures and studies show, road building is bad value for public money, and it does not even cut congestion. More tarmac simply means more cars.

Today, the Environmental Audit Committee, of which I am a member, launched a new report that warns that air pollution from heavy traffic could be killing almost as many people as does smoking in the UK. During that inquiry, we heard that road traffic is the largest source of air pollution in most parts of the UK. To tackle the public health crisis of air pollution, we must redirect spending away from new road infrastructure, and into public transport, walking and cycling. It should be our priority to make those alternatives the cheaper, easier and more attractive options. Of course, we could also do more to improve existing local and national roads. I should like the Government to adopt the Campaign for Better Transport’s “green retrofit” programme for roads, which would be better value for money and good for local job creation, as well as having long-term benefits and undoing daily damage to both public health and our environment. I am also concerned about the setting up of strategic highways companies, a move which has been described as

“the final staging post to privatisation of the strategic road network”,

and which raises serious questions about accountability that have already been mentioned by Members

Let me now say a few words about fracking, because I know that the House would be disappointed were I not to do so. The proposals to allow fracking firms to drill beneath people’s homes and land without their permission is, to put it mildly, clearly hugely controversial and deeply unpopular. Ministers, however, are not listening to the public concern that has been expressed, although they keep talking about how important it is for the public to buy into fracking.

For me, the bottom line is that an effective response to climate change requires a complete shift to a carbon-neutral energy system within a generation in all the major economies, including Britain. We know how to do that: we have the technology and engineering capacity to do it, and we can afford to do it. All that we need is the political will, because we cannot do it while making ourselves more, not less, dependent on any kind of fossil fuel. According to the United Kingdom’s former top energy and climate diplomat, John Ashton,

“You can be in favour of fixing the climate. Or you can be in favour of exploiting shale gas. But you can’t be in favour of both at the same time.”

The Bill also provides for a duty to maximise the economic recovery of UK oil and gas. That flies in the face of the need for us to leave the vast majority of existing fossil fuel reserves unburnt if we are serious about tackling climate change. There was a growing amount of cross-party consensus on that imperative during last week’s debate on fracking. I hope that the Minister of State followed that debate, and I hope that his views on unburnable fossil fuels—and the financial risks of the carbon bubble—have changed since we debated such matters two years ago, when he maintained that my concerns were

“not only outside the mainstream, but, arguably, on the very fringe of the debate.”

That was his normal courtesy. I am only sorry that he is not present to hear me respond to it. He then he told me that I should

“think again about the Government’s position.”—[Hansard, 18 December 2012; Vol. 555, c. 828-30.]

Given that the Governor of the Bank of England is now among those who are agreeing that most existing fossil fuel reserves need to be unburnable and need to stay below ground if we are to keep climate change below 2° C of warming, I hope that the Minister himself has had an opportunity to think again.

Meanwhile, the potential of UK renewables is huge. The sector already supports more than 100,000 jobs. Solar PV, which is just one of many diverse technologies that are at our disposal, could alone support nearly 50,000 jobs by 2030, and could power the equivalent of 18 million homes. A thriving home-grown renewable energy sector should be a top priority for the Bill, but, apart from the references to community energy rights, it is entirely absent. I think that we should replace the duty to maximise oil and gas exploitation with a duty to maximise sustainable energy generation from the UK’s wind, wave, solar, tidal and other renewable sources.

As for housing, energy efficiency should be the United Kingdom’s top infrastructure priority, and there should be funding to match. Retrofitting the UK’s leaky housing stock is the only permanent solution to fuel poverty and high energy bills, issues that I know are a high priority for my constituents. It is essential if we are to meet carbon targets, and it is also an economic no-brainer. Research for the Energy Bill Revolution campaign shows that an ambitious energy efficiency programme could create 108,000 new jobs, and would generate £1.27 in tax revenues for every £1 invested.

We need that retrofit programme, but new housing is important as well. The Bill, however, introduces an unforgivable dilution of the zero-carbon homes standard, and an exemption that could mean that up to 80% of new homes in some areas will not have to comply. That might be good news for the profit margins of developers who have been lobbying for it, but it is definitely bad news for carbon emissions, bad for home owners who will face unnecessarily high bills as a result, and bad for British businesses that would otherwise see a stable and growing market for on-site solar power and other renewables.

The Government’s arguments simply do not stack up. The UK Green Building Council and the Royal Institute of British Architects have pointed out that the exemptions will result perversely in higher costs for small-scale developments. They have also pointed to the dire lack of evidence to back up the Government’s claim that the exemptions would bring forward more house building activity from small builders.

Finally, I shall briefly put three areas of remaining concern in headlines, as I know others want to speak. The Bill fails to include measures to strengthen the UK’s resilience to flooding and other climate impacts such as urban heat waves. The provisions on invasive non-native species need to be rethought if they are not to threaten much-loved species such as beavers and barn owls. The changes to the planning system raise serious concerns that the quality of decision making and the rights of local people to have a meaningful say over development in their area are being sacrificed, along with so much else, on the altar of corporate convenience and speed.