Tory Conference: the greenest government ever?

I intend to post a blog towards the end of every week, and occasionally at other times.

This week I spent two-and-a-half days in Birmingham at the Conservative Party Conference.  Here are three things that struck me.

1)   Housing

This was a big issue on the fringe, with a number of well attended meetings.    There were a few digs at the planning system – some people can’t help it – but the overwhelming consensus was that the country’s failure to build enough houses is down to finance, not planning.  The private sector won’t build if it can’t sell, and public investment is wholly inadequate.

CPRE hosted private dinners at all three conferences, jointly with the Federation of Master Builders (FMB).  The FMB’s members, small and medium-sized house builders, are able to build on small plots of brownfield land, and tend to have a reputation for quality.  But their market share has declined from two-thirds to one-third over the last thirty-odd years, and most of the Government’s recent schemes to encourage house building have excluded them.  CPRE and the FMB don’t agree on everything, but small builders have to be a larger part of the answer to meeting the country’s housing needs.

2)   Infrastructure

There may be no Plan B, but there was a good deal of enthusiasm in Birmingham for a new road-building programme.  The new Roads Minister, Stephen Hammond – a decent man with whom CPRE had a good dialogue during the NPPF saga – even supports a new South Coast motorway and one to connect Oxford and Cambridge.  Having been largely discredited twenty years as a solution to the congestion, road-building is fast emerging as a very big threat to the countryside.

But big infrastructure of all sorts is in favour as a way out of recession.  I said earlier that some people just can’t resist having a pop at the planning system.  In his conference speech, David Cameron hinted at yet another reform of the planning system: ‘There are too many of what I’d call the “yes-but-no” people.  The ones who say “yes, our businesses need to expand.  But no, we can’t reform planning”.’  He gave an example of a business ‘that wanted to open a big factory just outside Liverpool.  But the Council was going to take so long to approve the decision that they’re now building that factory on the continent – and taking hundreds of jobs with them.  If we’re going to be a winner in this global race we’ve got to beat off this suffocating bureaucracy once and for all.’

I would be fascinated to hear the full story.  Because, of course, it could just be that the Council had a good reason to question the proposal for a new factory, one with which David Cameron might have sympathised if it had been located just outside, say, Witney.

But it is nice to see people coming together, and at least the PM is likely to have support from Ed Balls, who used his conference speech to criticise ‘our cumbersome planning system’ for stopping the country building new ‘infrastructure’ (roads, runways etc.).  Our time-consuming, costly and frustrating democracy may be another problem.

3)   The greenest government ever?

The phrase ‘greenest government ever’ was not much heard in Birmingham.  As at the Labour Conference, in particular, the big debates were elsewhere.  There is little doubt that the Government has gone cool on the environment, particularly on action to tackle climate change.

But there are different ways of being green, and environmental ‘goods’ can compete – most obviously, the imperative of safeguarding a beautiful landscape vs. the desire to put a wind farm in it to produce renewable energy.  In spite of this, Britain’s green NGOs are pretty united: some have their origins in conservation, others in the radical environmental politics of the ‘60s and ‘70s; some emphasise landscape or nature, others climate change; but we share common platforms and agree on much more than we disagree.

It is clear that some of the new Conservative Ministers regard onshore wind turbines as ugly and unnecessary, and want an end to them.  In this, they regard themselves as countryside champions, guardians of the landscape, the opposite of the environmental vandals some may consider them.  There are battles ahead over onshore wind, with Ed Davey, the Lib Dem Energy Secretary, likely to resist any further cut in the subsidies for wind energy.  But listening to the openly mutinous talk by senior Conservatives, and knowing that they have the Chancellor’s tacit support, and possibly the Prime Minister’s, I predict an early end to the growth in onshore wind.  I hope we will also at last get some serious political support for putting overhead wires underground.

1 Response to “Tory Conference: the greenest government ever?”

  1. 1 Henry Best October 25, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    Tony Blair was full of greenery before becoming prime minister. So was David Cameron. Once in office politicians seem more interested in short term economic issues than in long term issues like producing enough food for a growing population.

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