By Tim Montgomerie
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The environment is becoming a new source of potential tension within the Coalition and within the Conservative Party. David Cameron and the Liberal Democrats have tended to emphasise climate change as central to their green agenda while local Tory councils and Tory supporters have been more focused on local and micro-environmentalism. This has meant Tory councils have often led the agenda on recycling and energy conservation, for example*, but have either opposed or been reluctant supporters of action on climate change if it means the installation of wind farms.
Perhaps the biggest clash between the two green worldviews will come over HS2. The PM and his Coalition partners see high-speed rail as an essential way of reducing demand for short haul air travel but Tory voters across much of England see the planned railway as devastating for the beauty of the countryside. Sources tell me that the Treasury is sounding ever louder warnings within Whitehall about the escalating estimated costs of the project. There is a lot of sympathy for the view put forward in the Alternative Queen's Speech that we should forget HS2 and upgrade existing rail infrastructure and get a cheaper, quicker hit.
George Osborne has been leading the counter-attack against the climate change agenda since last autumn. His former Chief of Staff Matt Hancock MP is writing a paper on energy bills in another sign of what is preoccupying Team Osborne. Yesterday's Observer reported that the Chancellor wanted a 25% cut in the subsidies that the renewable energy industry needs. He is unlikely to get the policy changes he seeks because Ed Davey and other Liberal Democrats regard policy on climate change as non-negotiable. Mr Osborne's interventions may, nonetheless, have an impact. The IPPR think tank warns today, for example, that the way in which ministers are blowing hot and cold over energy policy is discouraging companies from investing in green technologies. Another impact of the Chancellor's muscular approach may be to encourage Tory councils to introduce presumptions in their planning guidance against windfarms. This is what Lincolnshire County Council is now doing.
Conservative MP Tim Yeo, Chairman of the House of Commons' Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, appeared on this morning's Today programme to say that he was concerned at the "backlash against onshore wind at the moment". If we don't steadily diversify our energy supply now, he warned, it would be much more expensive to do so at speed in the future. Britain needed, he argued, a diverse mix of nuclear power, energy from waste as well as solar and wind sources. He warned that offshore energy – which some industrialists believe Britain could become a world leader in – was currently twice as expensive as onshore windfarms which, he added, were becoming gradually cheaper. A ComRes poll in today's Independent notes that 68% of the public wants more windfarms. Opposition – surprise, surprise – arises when those windfarms are proposed for people's backyards. Tim Yeo suggested that one way of resolving this issue might be to give local communities cheaper energy if they agreed to a development.
The 105 Tory MPs who signed a letter against onshore win are unlikely to agree. The organiser of that letter Chris Heaton-Harris blogged last week that renewable obligations are increasing fuel poverty and decreasing growth. "Across the world," he wrote, "more and more countries are understanding that there a simple choice between subsidising expensive renewable energy sources, like onshore wind or economic growth. They are all choosing growth. So should we."
* Remember Vote Blue, Go Green?