Joss Garman: A Black Wednesday for the environment?

A furtive announcement late on Friday exposes the extent of Lib Dem complicity in the Chancellor’s backward thinking

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In a memorable episode of the hit US TV series The West Wing, the White House seeks to bury bad news by releasing information about sensitive stories on a Friday, to reduce their impact in the media. Josh Lyman, the President's Deputy Chief of Staff, calls it "Take out the Trash Day". Asked by his assistant Donna, "Why do you do it on Friday?" he replies, "Because no one reads the paper on Saturday." It seems George Osborne and Lib Dem Energy Secretary Ed Davey have learned all about "taking out the trash", because late on Friday afternoon, with a press release announcement embargoed until the middle of the night on the weekend before the Budget, they slipped out what is easily their most significant environmental decision since the coalition took power.

In what is the Liberal Democrats' most craven submission yet to the Chancellor's bonfire of environmental protections, Davey announced he is stripping away the simple requirement that our power stations need to become more efficient and less polluting. In a major change of course from the path followed by his predecessor Chris Huhne, Davey's decision will result in a huge increase in our dependence on burning expensive, imported and highly polluting gas. In turn, this will keep bills high, make us even more reliant on imports and, crucially, crash our carbon targets. I fear that the economically illiterate premise that lies behind this decision, that an anti-environmental agenda will get people off the dole and the economy moving, will be writ large when Osborne stands up to deliver his third Budget on Wednesday.

The Chancellor has form. At the end of last year, he launched an all-out assault on the laws that protect our country's most valued wildlife and countryside, and declared that highly polluting projects are his preferred path to economic recovery. Without any apparent evidence, he used his autumn statement to lambast the rules protecting these islands' natural heritage, saying they placed "ridiculous costs on British business". Egged on by the Prime Minister's "blue skies" policy guru Steve Hilton, he ordered the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, and the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, to go away and tear up the precious countryside safeguards he considers mere "red tape".

At the heart of this drive from the Treasury – which may be given full voice on Wednesday – has been the proposition that there must be a default "yes" to any "sustainable development" – supermarkets, roads, power stations – irrespective of local opinionor the damage to our efforts to fight global warming. So 1,300 pages of planning guidance will be cut to 52 pages, and climate-wrecking projects such as the expansion of Stansted and Gatwick, which were kicked off the agenda by Cameron before the election, are put centre stage.

Fortunately Osborne's assault on the natural world has already provoked a hornet's nest of opposition, and I find it striking how the environment is fast becoming a key source of tension in the coalition. Since Chris Huhne stepped down with a strong green legacy from his time in office, there is an increasing recognition on the part of the Lib Dem leadership that the party needs to build on these achievements, to draw out this tension and deploy it as a not-so-subtle electoral weapon. Perhaps that's why the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, told his recent spring party conference: "I am going to confront the old-fashioned negative thinking which says that all government needs to do to generate growth is cut worker and environmental protections."

And the fightback is coming from some unlikely quarters. I've learnt that Pickles, usually seen as the flag bearer of the Tory right, is fighting alongside Spelman and Nick Clegg to resist central planks of the proposed changes to the planning rules, because he sees the changes as fundamentally anti-democratic and running counter to the localism agenda he believes in so strongly. And I'm told that, together with Clegg, it was the Transport Secretary, Justine Greening, who recently held her ground and saw off an attempt by Cabinet colleagues to reopen the Heathrow third runway debate.

Beyond Westminster, Middle England is mobilising too. Britain's biggest two mass membership organisations, the National Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, are leading a grassroots campaign to stop the planning changes becoming a developers' charter. Martin Harper, conservation director for the RSPB, told The Independent last week, "We are fighting hard to avert a Black Wednesday for the environment ... If this goes the wrong way, we are going to be picking up the pieces for the next decade."

As he seeks to cut countryside safeguards and make environmentally damaging projects easier to approve, Osborne's rhetoric is, ironically, knocking investor confidence in the UK's valuable and fast-growing clean energy sector (growing at 5 per cent a year and outpacing the anaemic growth in the rest of the economy). Billions of pounds of investment in wind energy manufacturing jobs in the UK have now been thrown into doubt, with international businesses such as Siemens, General Electric and Mitsubishi now looking elsewhere, because George Osborne and a vocal minority on the Conservative backbenches are sending the message that Britain isn't open for clean-tech business. This was evidenced in leaked documents last week showing the coalition is lobbying to water down EU proposals that would boost the share of renewables in our energy system, and could be seen again with the announcement slipped out on Friday night.

Billions of pounds of investment in wind energy jobs in the UK are now in doubt, with international businesses such as Siemens, General Electric and Mitsubishi now looking to other countries, because Osborne and a vocal minority on the Conservative back benches are sending the message that Britain isn't open for clean-tech business. This was evidenced most recently in leaked documents last week showing the coalition lobbying to water down EU proposals to boost the share of renewables in our energy system.

Counterintuitively, among those who have publicly written to the Chancellor to urge him to give greater support for moves to a low-carbon economy are big polluters such as Shell and Tesco. Similarly, Sir Richard Branson said of this week's Budget: "We must ensure it encourages investment rather than create uncertainty and delay further serious investment in the renewable sector."

It comes to something when such firms and people are campaigning for some of the same things as Greenpeace: for example, greater powers for the new Green Investment Bank. But in blindly refusing to take renewable energy seriously, and in shifting the energy goalposts at the behest of the big six energy utilities, the Chancellor and his Cabinet allies are getting on the wrong side of the growth argument.

During the Second World World War, when one of his ministers proposed cuts to arts spending, Winston Churchill reportedly responded: "Then what are we fighting for?" Like the arts for Churchill, the countryside and a future for our planet are the things we cherish and live for. With sadness, I believe Osborne's proposals will not make us richer, but will certainly make us poorer. When he stands up on Wednesday, there will be many who see in him a certain austerity of the soul.

Joss Garman is a senior campaigner for Greenpeace UK and co-founder of the climate action group Plane Stupid (@jossgarman on Twitter)

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