Green Agenda — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:51 pm on 12th January 2012.

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Photo of Viscount Hanworth Viscount Hanworth Labour 3:51 pm, 12th January 2012

My Lords, I am in a position to repeat and summarise some of what has been said today in the course of this debate. I particularly appreciate the remarks of my noble friend Lord Judd. However, my own appraisal is by no means as sanguine as some that I have listened to. Also, the tendentious attack on the science of the IPCC that we have heard has filled me with despair.

In the run-up to the most recent general election, the Conservatives made some remarkable commitments that undoubtedly improved their image in the eyes of the electorate. They claimed, for example, that the NHS would be safe in their hands. They proposed immediately to curb the power of the bankers. They promised to take steps to foster industry and enterprise by favouring small and medium-sized businesses. However, perhaps the most remarkable of the Conservatives' promises was that they would become the greenest Government ever. Of late, it has become clear that every one of these promises has been broken. Today we have been discussing the Government's retreat from their much proclaimed green agenda. It might be debated whether these pre-election promises were made in a spirit of cynical bamboozlement or were instead the products of self-deception. I should imagine that they were a mixture of both ingredients.

However, if the espousal of a green agenda was a marketing ploy, it was a brilliant one. We know that, from a right-wing perspective, a concern for the environment is often seen as a preoccupation of wishy-washy sentimentalists and nostalgic romantics. It must have seemed to many that if it could adopt a green agenda, the Conservative Party had surely changed out of all recognition. Such a seemingly changed and reinvented party could easily divest itself of the unpopularity of previous Conservative Administrations.

A clear indication that the Government have relinquished their green pretences came from the Conservative Party conference in May 2011. There, the Chancellor, George Osborne, roundly declared:

"We're not going save the planet by putting our country out of business".

In effect, provisions that are crucial to our long-term survival were being regarded as luxuries that we cannot afford. George Osborne's dictum summarised his attitude to the environmental policies and protections that he and his allies are keen to dismantle. Some recent examples of the effects of this attitude should be mentioned.

The Government have proposed a new National Planning Policy Framework in which, in their own words, the presumption should be in favour of the developer. They have proposed to sweep aside the accumulation of planning laws and regulations that date back to 1947, which have served over many years to protect and preserve the rural environment. They wish to allow developers to exploit land that had hitherto been off-bounds but which has not benefitted from the ultimate protections of the existing system. This is at a time when an unprecedented number of brownfield and post-industrial sites are available for development.

Under the cover of an urgent need to consolidate and simplify the existing planning regulations, the Government are proposing a wholesale deregulation. Natural England, which is the wildlife watchdog, the Environment Agency and the Forestry Commission have all been told that they are forbidden from commenting on the policy. They have, in effect, been subject to gagging orders. This has not prevented other organisations not under the control of the Government, such as the National Trust, English Heritage and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, among many others, from voicing their concerns.

We should not forget either that long before the issue of these planning laws arose, the Government had intended to sell the woodlands owned by the Forestry Commission in England. There had been no mention of this idea in either the Conservative manifesto or in the coalition document. Public outrage stopped these plans.

A further weakening of environmental protection is an inevitable consequence of the Government's recent Localism Act. The Act aims to transfer power from central government to local authorities and local communities. The Act removes responsibility from central government, and does nothing to ensure that local authorities will assume the responsibility instead. One wonders, for example, how the overriding commitment to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide can be maintained when councils are free to pursue local priorities and when they are accountable only to local residents. In times of economic stringency, it is inevitable that local priorities will take precedence.

The Localism Act enshrines one of the cornerstones of a conservative political philosophy. This is the belief that individuals and organisations, if left to pursue their own ends, will be led, as if by an invisible hand, to promote the interests of society at large. This is a central tenet of neoclassical economics, which was famously expressed by Adam Smith. Those doctrines may have had some relevance to the conditions of Britain in the middle of the 18th century, but they are dangerously out of touch with modern realities. There is nowadays a pressing need for strategic thinking and for concerted action to deal with modern environmental problems and to take the necessary initiatives to sustain a competitive modern economy.

Given the increasing cost of carbon-based fuels and given the manner in which their consumption threatens the global environment, a modern economy must be based increasingly on carbon-neutral and fuel-efficient technologies. It is in this connection that the Government seem to be failing to live up to their promises and our expectations in almost every respect.

Early in July 2010, the Government announced cuts of £34 million in the support provided to low-carbon technology. Capital grants to support the development of offshore wind farms were reduced by £3 million. Support for biofuels was cancelled, saving £4.7 million. The technology trials of the Energy Saving Trust were to be curtailed and the low-carbon building fund, which was to provide grants to help householders to install small-scale renewable sources of energy, was to be withdrawn, saving £3 million. These are very small sums serving important purposes, and it is absurd to withhold them. It seems that some much bigger expenditures have been deferred. We suspect that these deferments are really cuts in disguise.

The plans for the green investment bank, which was intended to make loans to households and businesses to enable them to invest in carbon-reducing measures including insulation, have effectively been suspended. George Osborne has drastically limited its powers by ensuring that it cannot borrow funds until the Government have completed their deficit reduction plans in 2015 or later.

The Government have drastically curtailed their subsidies for solar power-first they imposed a cap on the available finance, then they slashed the feed-in tariff for big installations over 50 megawatts so as to concentrate the subsidy on householders. Now they are planning to halve the subsidy for them and for everyone else. They intend to reduce it even further for multiple installations and to specify that buildings must meet high energy-efficiency standards before they qualify for a rebate. These cuts threaten to have a fatal impact on Britain's solar industry.

From my own point of view, one of the most distressing spectacles recently in Westminster has been the announcement in the House of Commons of the outcome of the Durban climate conference. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Chris Huhne, was able to tell the Commons that talks had resulted in an agreed plan to begin negotiations for a new agreement. This agreement would not take effect before 2020. The goal of limiting average temperature increases to below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels had been relinquished. Notwithstanding the evident satisfaction of the Secretary of State at the outcome of the conference, which had seemed to be in doubt until the eleventh hour, the long delay before any effective international agreement can materialise is a frightening prospect. The Chamber of the House of Commons was virtually empty on that occasion. Very few Members from the Conservative Party were present. This speaks of an extraordinary insouciance in the face of the pre-eminent threat to the global environment.