Janet Street-Porter: On green issues, Gordon Brown is a failure

He seems determined not to make tax concessions to those who conserve energy
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The Independent Online

What would it take to turn Gordon Brown green? Is the Chancellor more in love with cash than climate change, and more enamoured of any scheme that raises revenue rather than saves energy? Or, to put it bluntly, is protecting the environment something the Treasury thinks we can't afford?

As Mr Cameron cleverly flaunts his eco-credentials by commissioning an environmentally-friendly architect to redesign his house, takes his own rubbish to the recycling bins and cycles to work, Mr Brown seems determined not to budge an inch by making tax concessions available to those who conserve energy, waste and water. In this he is at one with the Prime Minister, who has again rejected the idea of a tax on airline tickets, at a time when cheap travel has meant that more fuel is being used by airlines than ever before. The fact is, many people will only change their behaviour when they can see a cash incentive, which is why the latest report from the Green Alliance and the respected think-tank the Policy Institute is so attractive.

The report suggests ways in which consumers can be encouraged to build energy-conscious homes, conserve water, produce less waste and buy more efficient products, by imposing taxes on wasteful products and creating tax incentives for householders who minimise rubbish and install domestic systems that use less fuel and water.

Given the recent pictures of the low water levels in the Thames and at reservoirs throughout Kent and the South, there is no time to be lost. The Green Alliance have timed their proposals so that they can be considered in the run-up to the Budget and the comprehensive spending review, but judging by Mr Brown's past record, they might as well have turned them into paper darts and flown them past the windows of Number 11, for all the notice he will take.

The Government might set all sorts of targets for energy conservation, but there seems to be a reluctance to admit that drastic measures are needed if Britain isn't going to run out of water, green spaces and unpolluted air within 20 years. Domestic households produce over 28 per cent of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions and, in spite of any government initiatives, the figure is steadily rising. Domestic households consume over 50 per cent of the water used in Britain, and 10 per cent of the waste.

There will always be a core group of middle-class, educated, concerned people who will trek to recycling dumps, separate their rubbish into different bags, wash out and reuse plastic containers and opt for long-life light bulbs. But at some point, we all need a bit of a shove, and surely the easiest way to hammer home to people the environmental crisis that is looming is via their pockets.

It's worth remembering that the Government is planning to build millions of new homes, particularly in the South-east. Unless these new homes are energy conscious, the result will be an environmental catastrophe. Many people think that the proposals to build all these homes are based on questionable research about population growth, and that radical alternatives such as huge tax breaks for inner-city development should be encouraged instead.

At the same time, our "energy-conscious" government allows more than 280 companies to pump more than a billion litres of water from the Thames. It hardly makes sense, does it?

Throughout 2002 and 2003, the Treasury and Defra held a series of consultations about tax incentives for household energy efficiency and, as the Green Alliance points out in its report on sustainable housing, very few were taken up. The Warm Front initiative funds insulation in the homes of the poor, but the Treasury has rejected reducing VAT on energy-saving materials from DIY stores and the use of energy-efficient products by contractors, on the grounds they would need EU agreement for varying the rate of VAT. In fact the Government has not instituted one single policy aimed at reducing the amount of energy domestic consumers use in Britain, while still waffling on about self-regulation, being sensible and, of course - the inevitable word - "objective".

The Green Alliance proposes a series of charges to be levied on energy-inefficient products such as some dishwashers, freezers and light bulbs. During the initial consultations with the Treasury, the Fuel Poverty Action Group gave assurances that this would not have a huge negative impact on the poor, because the most inefficient devices were not necessarily the cheapest. Even more ridiculous, the Social Fund forces benefit claimants to buy inefficient second-hand products, which are generally more expensive than new ones to run. Nothing materialised. Clearly, some joined-up thinking is desperately needed here.

Rising fuel bills have not led to any decrease in consumption, so other ways of conserving energy need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. We have the ludicrous anomaly whereby new building is zero-rated for VAT, and refurbishment (clearly more environmentally friendly) pays the full whack of 17.5 per cent. The Treasury has been totally reluctant to change its policy about new-build because it means giving up a VAT zero-rating for ever. At present the EU does not allow different VAT rates for energy or water-saving products - surely a matter for urgent reconsideration.

The Treasury was asked to consider giving a tax break to businesses installing energy-conserving home improvements. Many of these are sole traders, and at present there is a serious labour and skills shortage. There was huge support for a scheme which would give these small businesses tax breaks to offset the time and money they lost training new workers. Mr Brown refused to countenance this proposal back in 2003, and has never given his reasons why.

There is to be no council tax reform until 2010, and one of the Green Alliance's proposals is that local authorities can impose variable charging depending on how much rubbish they have to collect. But clearly the Government is reluctant to shoulder any extra costs incurred in the short term.

Finally, the Green Alliance has proposed that water meters should be compulsory. The Government thinks they should be voluntary. Folkestone and Dover Water (facing a serious drought) have applied to the Secretary of State to make meters mandatory - but you won't be surprised to discover they aren't going to get an answer till the end of the year. That tells you how seriously the Government takes the current situation. When it comes to the next election, Mr Brown might be unpleasantly surprised to discover just how important voters think green issues are.