Outlook: Environmental dilemma for Blair

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair is asking a lot of the middle classes who voted him into power last May. Not only does he want them to surrender their state benefits, he also expects them to help the Government deliver on the ambitious environmental pledges Labour made before polling day.

And yet it is not as simple as that, either. Everywhere the Prime Minister turns these days he is confronted with a conflict between his clean man of Europe aspirations and the more pressing concern of preserving jobs and cutting prices to consumers. The latest flashpoint is the water industry where the consumer lobby wants fat rebates from the efficiency gains made since privatisation while the environmentalists want the money spent on lead-free drinking water and cleaner beaches.

When Labour was in opposition, its environment spokesman Frank Dobson never missed an opportunity to excoriate the water companies for ripping off customers and lining the pockets of shareholders. Now it is in power the Environment Minister Michael Meacher is suddenly less keen to turn on the customer rebate tap if it compromises environmental programmes or, worse still, means they have to be paid for out of taxation.

A similar game is being played out in the coal industry where Old Labour's determination to save the pits was never going to sit easily with New Labour's environmental agenda. Now we discover that the middle classes cannot save the miners' jobs even if they wanted to because the pollution curbs demanded by the Environment Agency are such that they could prevent a single tonne of British coal ever being burnt again. If Mr Blair really wants to know where his voters stand when it comes to cleaner air or lower bills he should read yesterday's survey from the Energy Saving Trust. This suggests that eight in ten motorists would drive electric cars but only if they cost less and were cheaper to run. It is not just politicians who like to have their cake and eat it.