your ministers get their feet under the desks over the next few days they will face a daunting series of environmental challenges - and a
few exciting opportunities. Their - and your - response will show whether or not you meant your campaign promise to form a green
government. To help bring these issues into sharper focus, may I suggest 10 topics you really ought to consider? Yours sincerely, Geoffrey Lean
FLIGHT FROM THE CITIES
Every day for the past 25 years, 300 people have moved away from Britain's major cities. Every year, an area of countryside the size of Bristol is built over to provide houses, offices, shops, supermarkets and roads for the new rural refugees.
As the housing market revives, housebuilding will take off again, sparking off new outbreaks of NIMBYism (for Not In My Back Yard) all over the country, just as in the late 1980s. The Department of the Environment has estimated that 4.4 million new homes will be needed by the year 2016 in England alone. Meanwhile the noise of urban life penetrates ever more deeply into the countryside: Britain has lost an area of tranquillity the size of Wales since the 1960s.
The new Government should concentrate on revitalising the towns and cities where four out of every five Britons still live, a policy that would benefit both urban and rural dwellers. Three quarters of all new housing should be built on previously developed land and financial incentives should encourage this (as one example, VAT could be removed from the refurbishment of old properties). Developers wanting to build in the countryside should be required to demonstrate that the facilities could not be sited on urban land instead.
ALL THREE parties said during the election campaign that global warming is the most important environmental issue. This year will decide whether the world will address it: vital negotiations in Kyoto, Japan, in December will determine whether industrialised countries will make serious cuts in their emissions of carbon dioxide, the main cause of the crisis.
Ministers will be particularly influential in the talks, because Britain has, uncharacteristically, been in the vanguard on this issue over the last two years. It is one of only a few countries likely to fulfil an existing treaty to level off emissions (more by accident than through green policies, because of the decline of coal and the dash for gas). Labour promised a cut of 20 per cent by 2010, about the minimum needed to provide a chance of controlling climatic change. The Liberals promised more, the Tories less, but all agreed cuts were essential. Now we need action - saving energy and using less fossil fuel.
Meanwhile 19 million Britons have to breathe air more polluted than World Health Organisation standards allow (mainly caused by gases from car exhausts: one-pollutant, particulates, alone kills 10,000 people in this country each year). Reduction targets have been fixed for 2005; they should be brought forward and a programme set for meeting them.
UNLESS it rains an awful lot, soon - and maybe even if it does - the new Government's first environmental crisis is likely to be over water. The last 24 months have been the driest for over 200 years, and all but one of the 35 major rivers monitored by the official Environment Agency are abnormally empty. Groundwater supplies are low - and areas that particularly depend on it, like the south, the south-east and East Anglia, are likely to face difficulties.
Confidence in Britain's privatised water industry has dried up even faster, driven by the companies' combination of record profits and under-investment, and of their bosses' vast salaries and readiness to blame the public for greed in using their product. Twenty years ago, in the mid-1970s drought, when water was publicly owned, 90 per cent of Britons responded to pleas to economise. Now - after being told they are in a commercial relationship - people expect to use what they have paid for.
The companies will press for new reservoirs (six are proposed in south and east England alone), and to take more water from rivers and the ground, even though precious chalk streams and over 350 key wildlife sites are already drying up. The Government should insist that they first deal with leaks from their pipes and the overall waste of water. They should be set mandatory leakage targets and told that it is cheaper to give customers water-saving equipment for free than to exploit new supplies.
BRITAIN'S nuclear-waste policy is not so much in disarray as in meltdown, after John Gummer's decision - just before the start of the election campaign - to refuse the go-ahead for initial work on a disposal site near Sellafield riddled with geological faults. More than a decade and a half of searching for somewhere to put intermediate-level waste - which remains dangerous for 250,000 years - lie in ruins, as does the credibility of Nirex, the nuclear industry company in charge. A complete rethink and a new independent body are needed.
The fiasco is almost certain to end Britain's two decades as the world's "nuclear dustbin", and force ministers to send vast amounts of waste back to Japan and Germany. It threatens to wreck the already dodgy economics of Sellafield's controversial Thorp reprocessing plant. A decision on the future of the plant, which was only narrowly given permission to start up three years ago, is heading for ministers' desks. BNFL, which runs it, has applied for permission for increased radioactive discharges - which will reopen the whole question of whether its operations can be justified. The Government will also have to decide whether to license a possibly even more dangerous process at Sellafield: this would put plutonium - the raw material for bombs - into nuclear fuel, which could then be shipped around the world, potentially falling into the hands of terrorists.
BEING Transport Secretary used to be one of the most boring jobs in government; now it provides one of the Cabinet's hottest seats. Roads protests have escalated. So has anger at the deterioration of public transport.
The last government moved a long way from Mrs Thatcher's extolling of the "great car economy" to its admission, in last year's Transport Green Paper, of the need "to reduce dependence on the private car". The roads programme was heavily scaled back - though more because this was an easy way to cut public expenditure than as part of any thought-out new strategy. Unnecessary schemes remained, and the money saved from the cuts was not put into public transport, cycling or traffic reduction.
The new Government must wrest transport policy away from the obsession with cars and roads to a balanced approach that produces a national strategy for public transport, sets targets for reducing traffic, and reduces the need to travel (by, for example, curbing out-of-town supermarkets). The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which set the transport debate alight in 1994 by advocating such a switch, will produce a new report in the autumn. Meanwhile, ministers face an early test in the Salisbury bypass - which should be scrapped.
ANOTHER once-quiet government backwater that has become a storm- tossed sea over the last few years as a result of BSE, E.Coli, and other crises. Food safety - even more important with the advent of genetically modified crops - must be one of ministers' top priorities. An independent agency must be set up without delay.
The underlying crisis is the intensification and industrialisation of agriculture that has also been driving people out of work and destroying the traditional British countryside (over 95 per cent of our flower-rich hay meadows have gone over the last 50 years, for example, while enough hedges to circle the world three times have disappeared over the last decade). This has been going on since the end of the Second World War, but has been accelerated by the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Things must change in Brussels as well as in Whitehall.
Ministers have a rare opportunity to push CAP reform when Britain takes over the presidency of the EU at the beginning of next year. Subsidies for intensification should be cut, while grants for environmentally friendly agriculture which strengthens rural communities should be trebled. Meanwhile policies must change at home too, introducing, for example, much stronger protection for hedgerows.
MINISTERS should also use the EU presidency to lead the conservation of Europe's rapidly diminishing fisheries. Seventy per cent of cod in the North Sea are caught before they mature, and numbers have fallen by two-thirds over the last 30 years. Meanwhile plaice stocks have been cut in half.
Outrageously, both Government and Opposition have preferred, over the last few years, to beat the xenophobic drum - blaming foreigners for stealing "our" fish. The crisis is caused by overfishing, a great deal of it by British fishermen, and long predates the EU's Common Fisheries Policy. Indeed, the tonnage of Britain's fleet has almost doubled since the policy came into effect 10 years ago. Though, like other EU countries, we agreed targets for reducing the number of our boats, we have done less than almost any country to meet them. Quota-hopping by foreign boats - which the last government insisted had to be resolved before it cut the British catch - occured because ministers refused to use EU money to compensate fishermen who wanted to give up, forcing them to sell abroad.
An outbreak of responsibility needs to start at the meeting of EU fishery ministers next month. Ministers should meet Britain's commitments, cut the catch, compensate fishermen - and end the jingoism.
Green tax reform offers the Chancellor a way to square the financial circle. It provides a means of raising revenue while reducing income tax - and of cutting pollution and boosting employment.
Now, through income tax and national insurance, governments tax jobs (which we need more of) at between 33 and 50 per cent. This has helped to increase labour productivity - and to create structural unemployment. Meanwhile they often subsidise the use of energy and other resources (which we should use less of, both to conserve them and to cut pollution). Gradually switching the tax burden from "goods", like jobs, to "bads", like the overuse of energy, would - the Institute for Public Policy Research concluded last year - create over 700,000 jobs over the next nine years, while cutting carbon-dioxide emissions by nearly 10 per cent. An EU study has calculated that a similar "double dividend" would create 4 million jobs throughout Europe.
Ministers endorsed the idea of green tax reform in the run up to the election; now they should put their money where their mouth was. While they are working out how best to make the change they can put right some anomalies that send exactly the wrong signals. They can bring VAT on energy- saving materials down to the same level as on fuel (it is now twice as high) and eliminate it from water-saving equipment (there is no VAT on water). And they can cut the perverse subsidy whereby company-car drivers get greater tax relief the more they use them.
THE greatest ever single threat to Britain's National Parks is now before a public inquiry in Newcastle upon Tyne. The Ministry of Defence wants to use its Otterburn Training Area in the Northumberland National Park - hitherto one of the most tranquil areas of Britain - for firing giant 45-ton AS90 guns, brought back from Germany after the Cold War. The Countryside Commission calls the scale of the proposals - which would also involve construction of roads and buildings - "unprecedented".
Ministers should set up an independent review of the military use of National Parks. They also need to introduce much tighter control of quarrying in the Parks: an important test case, Spaunton Quarry in the North York Moors, goes to public inquiry next month. And a particularly petty decision by John Gummer last year to refuse to approve a 10mph limit for speed boats on Lake Windermere will soon come under Judicial Review.
Meanwhile, more than 120 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), Britain's key wildlife sites, are damaged each year. Vast sums are legally spent by the authorities to buy off landowners who threaten to damage others. Ministers should bring in legislation to protect them. And they should speed up the designation of Special Protected Areas for Birds in Scotland, less than half of which have so far been safeguarded.
EARTH SUMMIT 2
FINALLY Prime Minister, one of your first trips abroad this summer will be to a June meeting of world leaders in New York to review progress (or, rather, the lack of it) since the Earth Summit in Rio five years ago. You have already agreed to go, and the occasion needs any fresh energy and commitment you can bring. A preparatory meeting I have just attended at the UN HQ ended in a mixture of stalemate and retreat. Where nations managed to agree, they often approved positions that rowed back from what was resolved in Rio.
The international process is falling apart because the world's rich countries have failed to come up with the money they promised at Rio to help the Third World develop in more environmentally friendly ways: the developing countries refusing to co-operate until the promises are kept. Only the summit itself can avert a crisis: failure could put international action on the environment back for years. This gives you, with the special advantage that a recent election victory always bestows, an early opportunity to make an international impact that will be popular at home. You will need to bring money to the table, but it need not take an enormous amount to transform the international atmosphere, put pressure on other rich nations and perhaps - who knows - save the world.Reuse content