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

Share

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)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
The report will embarrass the Home Secretary, Theresa May  

Surprise, surprise: tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have 'dropped off' the Home Office’s radar

Nigel Farage
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'