Leading article: A failure of imagination

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The Independent Online

Before the election, David Cameron made much of his party's newfound enthusiasm for the environment. Under the Tories there would be no airport expansion or attacks on the green belt. Then, after the Conservatives joined forces with the Liberal Democrats, the greenest of the three main parties, many people justifiably hoped that the new Government was about to make the environment a top concern.

There has not been much sign of that so far. On the contrary, in the name of austerity, the Government seems intent on making a bonfire of green agencies, which in turn raises profound questions about the coalition's commitment to a green agenda. A list of agencies has been earmarked for abolition or decimation. The Sustainable Development Commission, set up to advise Government on reducing carbon commissions, is to go. Likewise the Commission for Rural Communities, established to give a voice to neglected rural counties. Whether its ghost of a successor, a "policy unit" buried inside Defra, in Whitehall, will have any clout, is unclear.

Other agencies survive in much reduced form. Last week we revealed that Natural England, the wildlife watchdog and a thorn in the side of developers, will have to shed 800 of its 2,500 employees, which many fear will jeopardise important schemes aimed at bringing endangered species back from the brink. Animal Health, the agency monitoring livestock diseases, and the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, are to be merged.

Announcing the cuts, Caroline Spelman, the environment secretary, said many of the issues that these quangoes dealt with had become so "mainstream" that they no longer required their own agencies. An alternative explanation is that having ring-fenced spending in other departments, the Treasury is bearing down on the environment in predatory fashion. Ms Spelman talked of greater efficiency, but the scrapping of agencies set up to ensure that Britain meets its environmental commitments will inevitably be seen as a sign that the will to do so is fast weakening.

This all points to a failure of imagination. Britain should be leading the way in the development of green technology. The low-carbon energy sector should be seen as an area of potential growth, generating cutting-edge research jobs that will greatly benefit this country and indeed the rest of the world over the long term. What a disgrace that the short-sighted Treasury seems to have instead decided that the environment is simply an easy way of saving money.

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