By Bruce Robinson
The government has made three proposals — on planning, energy and waste — which constitute a typical mixture of green rhetoric without effective action and with new environmental threats, concessions to business, and further removal of democratic accountability to local communities.
The government proposes to hold “national debates” on large-scale planning issues such as nuclear power or airport expansion. Following this, detailed decisions on how and where these might be implemented are to be handed to an appointed commission. One aim is to reduce the time taken to come to decisions to an average of nine months with a “fast track” appeals system in place.
At the same time, the White Paper seeks to ease restrictions on industrial and commercial development and, most damning for its green claims, on out-of-town shopping centres, by removing the need to show a need for extra retail space.
This policy is based on proposals by Kate Barker, ex-economist at the bosses’ organisation, the CBI, who drew up original proposals for the government. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the CBI have welcomed the proposals as a way of cutting “red tape”.
The changes to planning tie in with the government statement on energy, which focused on the need to build a new generation of nuclear power stations. It looks as if the government has already made up its mind on the principle but has to go through a charade of public consultation, particularly after a judge ruled that the 2006 energy review consultation was “misleading”, “seriously flawed”, and “manifestly inadequate and unfair”.
There is to be a 20 week consultation process — starting now — with the DTI having already identified potential sites for new power stations where old coal and gas-fired stations will be decommissioned in Oxfordshire and the south-east including near Brighton.
Despite a verbal commitment to renewable energy, the 2006 consultation presented the choice as one between nuclear power and imported gas, supply of which, we are now repeatedly told, is not secure and subject to geo-political threats. So the nuclear option is now being presented as an immediate necessity if we want to stop the lights going out in 2015.
The third “green” announcement last week was on waste. Under an EU law local authorities face fines of £150 a tonne if they commit more waste to landfill than previously set targets. Britain uses a higher proportion of landfill than any other country in Europe. Miliband’s plans to reduce this include rewards or fines for consumers based on how much waste they produce or recycle.
There is little however to deal with the nub of the problem — the production of unnecessary packaging and the use of environmentally damaging materials by industry in the first place. There is to be an attempt to convince industry to cut junk mail and not to provide free plastic carrier bags. Both are however dependent on voluntary agreement. While some encouragement for consumers to recycle may be justified, it contrasts with the failure to talk about a strict legal regulation of business. Of course, New Labour understands nothing about the inability of a profit-based economy to take decisions that take account of the environmental consequences of the process of capital accumulation.
Each of these statements contains gestures towards dealing with climate change and other environmental problems. However because of New Labour’s unwillingness to offend its big business friends, its overall environmental policy is incoherent and will end up causing new damage.