You can tell a lot about what matters to a party from what its manifesto addresses first and in most depth. The Conservative manifesto for the 2015 General Election focuses on giving a fairer deal to much-mentioned ‘hard working families’. The NHS, childcare, home-ownership, tax, welfare, and pensions feature strongly. The environment gets two pages, with a further two on energy and climate change, starting from p54 of the 80 page document.
The coalition government hasn’t the strongest track record on the environment, despite early aspiration to be the ‘greenest government ever’. Recycling rates have stalled, fossil fuels have been promoted and the planning system seems to have turned against onshore wind. So does their agenda for the next parliament signal a return to huskie-hugging, or business as usual?
Energy and Climate Change
The Tories’ key message on energy is security of supply and predictability of pricing. They say they will relieve families and businesses, currently “at the mercy of fluctuating oil and prices” – principally by exploiting the UK’s remaining fossil fuel reserves. It seems no-one at Conservative HQ has noticed that UK fossil fuel prices are set on the global market.
They claim credit for stimulating fresh investment in North Sea gas through tax cuts and for fostering the shale gas industry, which form the core of their energy plans for next Parliament, along with new nuclear capacity, off-shore wind and tidal power.
Nuclear is the linchpin of the Tories’ commitment to low-carbon energy production, but far from environmentally uncontroversial. Shale gas can also be seen as helping to reduce CO2 emissions, but only where it takes the place of more carbon-intense sources such as coal and oil.
Firm support for shale gas and North Sea fossil fuels contrasts with funding only for renewables “that clearly represent value for money”. It isn’t clear from the manifesto what this might rule out. On-shore wind farms are amongst the cheapest sources of renewable energy, but the Tories seem to perceive them as unpopular, and DCLG has blocked many new developments over the last couple of years. They now pledge to end any new public subsidy for onshore wind and give local people the final say on wind farm decisions.
The trade body RenewablesUK has described the Tories’ stance against onshore wind but in favour of value for money as “breathtakingly illogical and therefore idiotic”. They point out that the manifesto claim that windfarms “often fail to win public support” isn’t backed by survey data, which reveals shows two thirds of people support onshore wind, while opposition declined to only 10% in the latest research.
The Tories seem to put their value for money concerns aside when it comes to their favoured projects. The £17.6bn subsidy for Hinkley C nuclear power station is being challenged by Austria, which doesn’t consider nuclear to be environmentally or economically sustainable. The Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon is one renewable energy scheme the Tories support, but the £1bn project has been branded “appalling value for money” by consumer watchdog Citizens Advice.
Climate change receives paltry attention. The Conservatives do commit to supporting the Climate Change Act 2008, which means meeting some challenging emissions targets. Internationally, they would push for a strong global climate deal at Paris in December, and will support the world’s poorest people in adapting to it, while calling for greater attention to be given to its impact on polar wildlife. However, there are no specific figures or new targets.
Green Grade: D. It’s hard to know what to make of policies so riven with internal conflict. How the Conservatives propose to meet our carbon emissions targets while expanding oil and gas production, opposing onshore wind and ditching other renewables that fail an unspecified value for money test is anything but clear.
The Tories herald improving transport as an integral part of their economic programme, and they promise the ‘biggest investment in rail since Victorian times’, and a freeze in commuter fares in real terms for the whole of the next Parliament – though off peak fare increases aren’t discussed.
Across the parliamentary term, £38bn is committed to railways, mainly on big projects such as High Speed 2 and 3, electrification of railways, completion of London’s East-West Crossrail link, and pushing forward with a London North-South Crossrail 2. There would be much-needed new trains in the North and shorter journey times from London to East Anglia.
However, roads get the next biggest slice of funding, with £15bn to be spent on 1,300 extra lane miles. While the Tories claim credit for scrapping the fuel duty escalator, they now propose a £500m cash injection into reducing vehicle emissions, with an aspiration to make almost every car and van ‘zero emission’ by 2050. They aim to double the number of journeys made by bicycle and will invest £200m to make cycling safer.
Green Grade: C. It is encouraging that rail investment heavily outweighs that in roads, and the aspiration on low emission vehicles is impressive – if a long way off. However, rail commuters in the South East seem to be the big beneficiaries, while there’s nothing on improving buses or public transport connections.
All parties seem to have made delivering affordable housing a key deliverable, and like others the Conservatives plan to unlock brownfield land for development. They will require local authorities to develop registers of land and ensure 90% of brownfield land has planning permission for housing by 2020, with brownfield developments supported through implementation of new Housing Zones. They will safeguard the green belt (in unspecified ways) and introduce a local Green Space planning designation to allow neighbourhood plans to give added protection to valuable areas.
Green Grade: D. It’s reasonable as far as it goes, with the protections that survived the last five years largely continuing – although it’s worth remembering it took strong public and ministerial opposition to stave off fracking in the UK’s AONBs. There are few new safeguards to crow about, and no discussion of what will be done where brownfield land can’t meet housing demand. There are no clear commitments to minimising the environmental impact of new development.
Pollution and Conservation
The countryside is one of the manifesto’s environmental winners. A pledge of £3bn of money from the Common Agricultural Policy to enhance England’s countryside makes good on plans put forward in the coalition’s 2012 White Paper on the Natural Environment. Rivers, stone walls, hedges and bees are the expected beneficiaries. There will be a 25 Year Plan to restore the UK’s biodiversity.
In addition to the green belt, a ‘blue belt’ will be developed to protect marine areas. The newest of these is to be the world’s largest Marine Protected Area around the Pitcairn islands, which they pledge to follow up with a string of MPAs in the UK’s 14 Overseas Territories and more Marine Conservation Zones around the UK. However, it is unclear whether these will offer more meaningful protection than current schemes.
The practice of discarding edible fish will be banned, while quotas will be reformed so that all at-risk species are fished sustainably by the end of the next Parliament, and to favour smaller, local fisheries.
The only measure proposed to tackle water pollution is the Thames Tideway Tunnel, a mega-sewer for London preventing overflow from sewers from discharging into the Thames, which is already under way. There are no specifics on air pollution.
Green Grade: C. The Tories offer some clear commitments towards enhancement of the countryside and biodiversity. Some of the measures on marine protection lack substance, and there’s next to nothing on pollution.
Waste and Resources
England’s forthcoming 5p charge on some single use carrier bags may have been announced at the Lib Dem’s conference, but the Tories are happy to take the credit in their manifesto. They propose to review the level of fixed penalty notices for littering, and to introduce fixed penalties for fly-tipping.
Green Grade: E. Can the party of Eric Pickles really have nothing to say on waste?
Other Notable Policies
The Conservatives adopt a strong line on animal welfare, whether on farms, in circuses or in laboratories. They state their opposition to poaching, and to any resumption in whaling. However, their concern only stretches so far: they back the badger cull and would allow a free vote on repeal of the Hunting Act.
The Conservatives pledge to hold an in-out referendum on the EU by the end of 2017. It is unclear whether the Conservatives would retain EU-derived environmental legislation in the event that the UK votes to go its own way.
Green Grade: D. This certainly isn’t the manifesto of a party aiming for the title of the ‘greenest government ever’. Its internal tensions on climate change are worrying, as is the omission of policies on both recycling and pollution. Some redemption lies in their advocacy for conservation and rail travel, but a shortage of specifics to back up their environmental aspirations inspires little confidence.
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