Newspaper reports that David Cameron is “going round No. 10 saying ‘we have to get rid of all this green crap’” in reference to the environmental taxes on energy bills have been played down by Downing Street. Whether true or not, they do point to a very real challenge to politicians of all hues as they struggle for sustainable economic growth. A central tenet of the free market economics that David Cameron and his conservative predecessors espouses is freedom of choice yet much environmental policy necessarily necessitates a command-and-control approach to governance. We manage the aquatic environment by regulating the activities of businesses (backed up by the threat of prosecution) and we manage landscapes by packages of subsidies to farmers. Moreover, much of the legislation comes from Brussels, which is itself a threat to our national sovereignty, if many politicians on the right are to be believed.
At a superficial level, Cameron’s alleged comments can be seen as the latest salvo in his ongoing campaign to appease the right-wing of his own party and gain ground in the battle with UKIP. The energy companies are, themselves, playing a devious game by focusing attention on the taxes rather than the other elements of people’s utility bills. But it is too easy to just dismiss this as political wrangling. How, in the midst of a recession, do we find a balance between the need for sustainable use of resources in the long term, and to ease the burden on hard-pressed householders?
My own travels have convinced me that sustainable environment policies can’t exist without either strong central government or a healthy economy. Politically, of course, this is the no-man’s land between libertarian and socialist ideologies that few outside of Scandinavia seem to have achieved. The Scandinavian example is not straightforward because their relatively low population densities ease the pressure on the environment, when compared to more densely-populated regions of Europe, including the UK.
That the price we pay for a healthy environment might be a major issue in the next election points to a further challenge. That politicians can present this as irrelevant or too expensive itself is a sign that the environmental profession is doing a poor job of communicating benefits to the wider public in terms that they can understand. We can win over individual groups of stakeholders (see Bring on the Dambusters …) but, too often, we act as a priesthood, taking a “tithe” of public spending as of right and dispensing it on projects according to criteria that mean nothing to all those householders struggling to pay their energy bills. Like him or loathe him, David Cameron is one of the most astute politicians I can remember, and if he would not contemplate taking on the green lobby unless he had done his homework first.