Green questions have been ducked, says Kennedy

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Indy Politics

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, set green issues at the heart of his party's agenda for the local elections yesterday and attacked Tony Blair's commitment to the environment as "pathetic".

He took the unusual step of devoting the whole of his keynote speech to his party's spring conference in Plymouth, Devon, to regaining the initiative on the environment after the departure of his predecessor, Paddy Ashdown.

In an attempt to reposition the Liberal Democrats as the dominant party on green issues, Mr Kennedy said politicians - himself included - had ignored the environment for too long and "ducked" questions on it. "We haven't talked about the environment nearly enough in the past few years," he said. "Even we, Liberal Democrats, too many of us, certainly myself included have ducked some tough questions."

The Green Party, holding its own spring conference at Scarborough, North Yorkshire, accused Mr Kennedy of "blatant opportunism". A principal speaker, Mike Woodin, an Oxford city councillor, said: "The environment should be at the heart of policy making... The hallmark of Liberal Democrat MPs and councillors is inconsistency. The Liberal Democrats have supported road-building and out-of-town shopping complexes all over the country over the years and are currently vocal in their support of Heathrow terminal five."

Mr Kennedy called on the Government to announce a five-year moratorium on commercial planting of genetically modified crops, and for family doctors to prescribe home insulation to "promote better health, save heating costs end fuel poverty in 15 years".

He also sought to edge his party away from Labour, which was welcomed by traditional Liberals in the audience. "He is showing he is listening to his party more than Paddy Ashdown. It went down very well," one veteran of the party said.

Despite an amicable meeting with Mr Blair last week, Mr Kennedy is keen to distance his party from the Government on taxation, public spending and green issues.

Mr Kennedy was joined on the conference platform by the Cheltenham MP Nigel Jones, who was injured in a sword attack in his constituency office in January which led to the death of Andrew Pennington, a party worker and his close friend . Denying reports that the MP would be standing down because of the shock of his injuries, he said Mr Jones would be standing again for Parliament at the next election.

But the denial came as police confirmed that Mr Jones's son Sam, 18, was treated in hospital for minor injuries after being attacked in the centre of Cheltenham, on Friday night. Another man was also injured.

Inspector Keith Hodges, of Gloucestershire Police, said two men were arrested and taken to Cheltenham Police Station shortly after the incident. They were later released after being cautioned for causing an affray.