Queen's Speech — Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:10 pm on 10th December 2008.

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Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour 5:10 pm, 10th December 2008

My Lords, I would like to speak today mainly about the environment and transport. In that context, I declare an interest as campaign director for Future Heathrow.

I yield to no one in my concern about climate change. I wrote my first article about it at least 20, possibly 25, years ago. If noble Lords read it they would see that I was in something of a panic mode, as many people are today. I went through that phase and learned vividly from the wonderful novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that the best advice when you are faced with a really serious situation is "don't panic". That is an important part of the message that I want to talk about today in relation to climate change.

Climate change is probably the most serious problem that we face, but at the moment, I am afraid there is a tendency to throw out some good ideas that are necessary both for our general welfare in this country and for dealing with climate change. At the same time, one or two people make the mistake of believing that there is a simple answer: that we should revert to a pre-industrial society, where, to use the phrase of Thomas Hobbes, life for many people was "nasty, brutish and short". Returning to a pre-industrial society or anything remotely like it is a bad, bad idea.

I also remember losing my faith in the Greenpeace movement to a large extent when it abandoned the scientific and technological approach. I got very angry when the Brent Spar oil rig was going to be sunk in the mid-Atlantic trench. All the scientific and technological evidence was that that was the best thing to do. That was ignored by the Greenpeace movement and sadly we ended up with a policy that was counterproductive for the environment. There have been many other examples since then of some people—by no means all—in the green movement being anti-scientific and anti-technological in their approach. We need to get rid of that because otherwise we fail to address an important argument.

There is a danger of arrogance, too, when I read people in the green movement talking about everyone else being liars, hypocrites or at best fools. I simply comment that they might not actually be listening to the argument. My feeling generally is that people in this country and increasingly in the world are acutely aware of the problem but, like so many of us, struggle to find the best way of dealing with it. That is not always immediately apparent.

I was reminded the other day when talking to a scientist that the climate change issue is essentially one of pollution. It is a profoundly serious issue of pollution, much more important than many others. It is worth remembering that a few years ago we were all rightly concerned about the decline in the ozone layer because of the use of CFCs. We have largely solved that problem now because the ozone layer is building up again, but we did not solve it by stopping people from using refrigerators or other items that required CFCs. We changed our methods scientifically and technologically. Some noble Lords, like me, will clearly remember the great smogs in London and other big cities in the 1940s and 1950s. They were very enjoyable on one level because you never got home from school without finding several cars up on the pavement and so forth. We solved them not by stopping people from heating their homes, but by introducing smokeless fuels and a variety of other fuels that enabled people to carry on heating their homes. In other words, we overcame the problem by using science and technology.

Putting a price on harmful emissions is clearly a good policy. We ought to encourage it and that is why emissions trading is so important. Enabling people to insulate their homes is also a good policy and we ought to be putting as much money as we can into that to enable it to happen. It is beneficial in so many ways and is a particularly good policy.

Those are policies that I want to encourage; there are many others. I particularly like the Government's approach, referred to in the Queen's Speech, of introducing a variety of measures over time. I would like to see us paying people for microgeneration, which is now increasingly common and popular, and is one of the reasons why I welcome the Planning Bill so strongly. It is not only the Infrastructure Planning Commission that is profoundly important in leading the way. Some of the minor changes—or what appear to be minor changes—to planning issues should make it easier to do that.

The other area of policy that I think is very good and has links to transport is an integrated transport system. To a large extent we have forgotten that phrase, which is sad. It was very much the policy of the Labour Party, supported to a limited extent by the Liberal Democrats and less so by the Conservative Party, which tended to see a free-market approach as necessary. My own strong view is that this country's problem with transport policy is that we have ceased to integrate the public transport systems, including aviation, not just rail and road, which is how this argument has evolved recently. In all European countries, and most other countries that I know about, an integrated transport policy is regarded as meaning all public transport: rail, road and air. According to the European Union document that I quoted a month or two ago, all countries are integrating air, rail and road. This is why the hub airport argument is so important in that context.

It always strikes me as remarkable that the Liberal Democrat party, with its claims to be more pro-European than any other, is doing more to lock us out of the European economy by its attack on the hub airport concept and its importance as a central part of the emerging integrated European market. When people say that they do not want the expansion of Heathrow, I say, okay, we will keep aircraft flying around London for 10 or 15 minutes, waiting for a chance to land. Is that what we mean by "good for the environment"? If we stop people travelling by air through Heathrow, they will simply fly from Manchester, Glasgow or Edinburgh to Amsterdam, Paris or Frankfurt. That will not help climate change either. If you look at what the Europeans have done, in Amsterdam and elsewhere, their integrated transport systems are designed to be more environmentally progressive than ours. That is why I quoted from the website. We are not doing that, and we need to start doing it again.

Finally, and I say this very strongly, this country led the world with the Industrial Revolution. People tried to stop the expansion of the railways. The Duke of Wellington famously said that the trouble with the railways was that they encouraged the lower orders to travel. That is dangerously similar to those who say that they do not like low-cost airlines. The spirit of the Duke of Wellington is alive and well in some quarters. I simply say this: we are quite capable of solving the problem of climate change. An integrated transport policy should be part of that and we should learn from our European colleagues on this. Do not take the simplistic approach of saying that aviation is worse than rail, or that rail is worse—or better—than road. Technology changes. That is why railways, which were initially opposed for environmental reasons, ended up being supported. The same will happen to aviation, and to cars when they become electric. Do not forget our history. Do not forget how we led in science and technology. We can do it again, but we need to be part of the European and global economy. To do that, we need an integrated transport system, which we also need for the sake of our environment.


John Byng
Posted on 11 Dec 2008 2:21 pm (Report this annotation)

Lord Soley is right to say that we need more emphasis on the integration of transport systems. But that integration and strategic planning should be directed towards minimising the environmental and resource depletion impacts of transport. Instead of making individual travel and goods transport easier we need to plan to make it less necessary and to discourage use of the most damaging forms of transport.

Walking and cycling need to be encouraged. Buses and trains need to be given priority as the next best choices. Local production for local consumption needs encouragement to reduce goods transport. Shipping and air transport (particularly air) need to be discouraged urgently. The need for urgency arises because the more heavily reliant we become on unsustainable modes of transport the more difficult and expensive it becomes to change. If we wait until climate change and oil depletion forces change the economic and social consequences will be horrific.

Again Lord Soley is right to say we must avoid turning against technology. We need technology to make the changes necessary to reduce the need for transport and to minimise the impact of necessary transport. But it is foolish to imagine that technology will enable us to continue with the growth in transport that has created climate change and depleted the earths resources so rapidly.