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Environment (Deep End)

As four years of the Coalition approach on 11th May, this week we examine its record to date in five key policy areas. In the first piece in the series, Peter Franklin looks at environment and local government. 

Peter is a former adviser to Greg Clark MP, and the author of ConservativeHome’s The Deep End.

The 1922 Committee has five policy groups – on the economy, foreign affairs, home affairs, public services and, finally, environment and local government.

This last on the list might look an ‘odds and ends’ category, but these policy areas did once come under one ministerial roof – that of the old Department of the Environment which lasted from 1970 to 1997. This one roof was actually three – belonging to the notorious Marsham Towers. These monstrosities were commissioned in the 1960s to house three separate ministries. By the time they were complete in 1971, the ministries had been merged into one. Thus it was that the new department – a department of the environment – found itself housed in a complex that physically obstructed joined-up government and which was composed of the ugliest buildings in London.

In 1992, Michael Heseltine announced that the ‘three ugly sisters’ would be demolished – and a mere decade or so later they were. Metaphorically, the Department of the Environment was also demolished, paving the way for a bewildering sequence of successor departments which Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had to keep reinventing in order to (a) give John Prescott something to do and (b) give the policy areas he’d messed up to someone more competent.

Thus in 2010, the Coalition inherited thirteen years of New Labour mess, built on a foundation of decades of faceless, bureaucratic, centralising government.

Crucially, environment and local government policy was also the focus of David Cameron’s boldest promises – to run the “greenest government ever” and to build a “Big Society”. So, four years on, what progress has he made towards these transformational goals?

Let’s start with the green stuff – or, as a senior Downing Street source described it last year, the “green crap.” Nothing provides a better example of David Cameron’s slapdash approach to policy making than the self-orchestrated destruction of his green credentials.

As usual, it all started with a panic – in this case sparked by Ed Miliband’s opportunistic and unworkable promise to freeze energy prices (made at the Labour Party conference last September). After a lot of hyperventilating about ‘green taxes’ on our energy bills, what Number 10 decided to remove was a levy to pay for energy efficiency improvements to the poorest homes. In theory this work will be paid for from general taxation instead – but in practice it probably means less support for the cheapest way of meeting our future energy needs, at the particular expense of those who find it hardest to pay their energy bills. Genius.

This was far from being the only example of a Downing Street panic on environmental policy – as the recent floods were to prove. The wettest winter since records began was always going to be a challenge. The sheer bad luck of the Environment Secretary’s detached retina made things even worse. With Owen Paterson incapacitated, a leadership gap opened up into which Number 10 attempted to insert Eric Pickles – together with a nakedly cynical strategy to blame the whole thing on the Environment Agency. The result was to turn a natural disaster into a political fiasco.

This episode illustrated another big weakness in Downing Street policy making – one best summarised by HL Mencken when he said that “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” On flooding the “clear, simple and wrong” answer is dredging. As with the use of badger culls to control the spread of bovine TB or genetically modified crops to solve world hunger, dredging is a crude, top-down intervention which even if deployed optimally (and it won’t be), diverts us from the things we really need to do in order to understand and manage a multi-faceted and unpredictable natural system.

The latest policy wheeze to emerge from the leadership is a plan to get ‘rid’ of wind farms. On closer inspection, what this amounts to are measures to curb the spread of new onshore wind farms by giving people a greater say on planning permission and by reducing subsidies. This supposedly big announcement is a bit of a con – onshore wind subsidies are already coming down (because the costs of the technology are coming down) and almost all the sites that the wind industry wants to develop in England have either been developed or are in the process of being so.

The only real difference that the new wind policy is likely to make is to embolden local opposition to the development of Britain’s shale gas resources. Anti-fracking protesters have played close attention to anti-wind farm campaigns – and what they’ve learned is that in the absence of determined government action to reconcile legitimate interests, obstruction lobbies can achieve their goals by gumming up the planning system and filling up MPs postbags with angry letters.

Public opposition to fracking is already running way ahead of public opposition to wind farms, so the government needs to act fast if shale development isn’t to be delayed for years. Despite emphasising the strategic importance of shale gas before the election, Conservative ministers have yet to propose a comprehensive deal on environmental safeguards and financial compensation that would secure local support for fracking.

Looking back over the last four years of environment policy, there’s not much to celebrate. This isn’t really the fault of the ministers in the relevant departments. For the most part, they’ve done their best within the remits they’ve been given. Rather the blame attaches squarely to Downing Street, which has deliberately trashed its own green image without putting anything positive – let alone authentically conservative – in its place.

It’s a happier story when it comes to local government and localism in general. However, this is also no thanks to the Conservative leadership. After winning power, it didn’t take long for David Cameron to dump his defining theme of the Big Society. Fortunately, other ministers have taken up the baton of decentralisation and made real changes.

Key reforms include the Localism Act, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and the City Deals programme (the Government’s best-kept secret). The bureaucratic apparatus through which Labour micromanaged local government is either going or already gone – including the Audit Commission, the Regional Development Agencies, the Government Offices of the Regions, the Regional Spatial Strategies and a large number of targets and budgetary ring-fences.

Away from the Department of Communities and Local Government, we’ve seen other ministers devolve power to local institutions. Especially worthy of mention is Michael Gove, whose tireless promotion of Academies and Free Schools has transformed the provision of state education in this country.

It’s not all good news, though. The biggest blow (apart from the neglect of the Big Society) came early – with the loss of all but one referendum to introduce elected city mayors. Unlike in London, the powers that the mayors would have had were never properly defined. Even worse, local government boundaries outside London tend to divide, not unite, our cities.

On both the reorganisation of local government and the reform of local government finance, the Coalition has erred on the side of caution. Yet despite these limitations, councils have done much more to cut their running costs than Whitehall has managed to do so far. They have, of course, had little choice given the front-loaded cuts to their funding from central government – but they’ve proved that decentralising the state can go hand-in-hand with reducing its size.

Four years into the Coalition, how should we score its achievements on the environment and local government? Before giving an overall mark, let’s start with separate scores for environment and local government, and also for departmental ministers and Downing Street.

So, firstly on the environment: five marks out of ten for departmental ministers (leaving aside Chris Huhne’s unique contribution) and no marks for Downing Street. And on local government: eight marks out of ten for departmental ministers and three marks for Downing Street.

Overall, 4 out of 10 – and that mostly thanks to progress on localism.

6 comments for: Peter Franklin: How has the Coalition performed on the environment and local government? Four marks out of ten

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