My post “What has the European Union ever done for us?” started my own countdown to the next general election by laying out the case for continued UK membership of the EU. Britain’s relationship with Europe will be one of the key battlegrounds for the next election, without a doubt, with the second being the economy. Every other manifesto promise will be shaped by each party’s response to these two issues. In many ways, I suspect, last week’s news about the continued high level of national debt and the need for continued austerity will shape the day-to-day policies of the next government (whoever that is) rather more than the arguments about Europe.
The impression I have formed over the period since the 2010 election is that many in the public sector and on the Left regard the current austerity as a relatively short-term event to be survived before business as usual can be resumed. The language of “efficiency” is still invoked to imply that service delivery continues despite smaller budget but my impression is that Government agencies concerned with environmental management are struggling to fulfil their statutory duties, let alone indulge in any strategic thinking. And the likelihood is that this situation will continue throughout the term of the next government as well. The Left faces a Faustian choice: raise taxes to fund the public services properly or radically rethink how public services are delivered. The “efficiency” mantra has a limited shelf life and promising to raise taxes will hand the election to the Right.
Roger Scruton, a philosopher of the Right, argues eloquently against interventionist approaches to managing the environment which equates to this “radical rethink”. The core of his argument is that socialism has unpicked the natural homeostatic mechanisms by which societies manage themselves and, by extension, their environments. That, in itself, is contentious and it is equally possible to argue for the damaging effects of multinational companies. Where I think he is on stronger ground is his argument that it is too easy for companies to externalise their environmental costs, as happens when a water company discharges partially-treated sewage, relying on the natural self-purification capacity of the river to finish the task for them. Downstream river users, in effect, ‘pay the price’ in terms of lost opportunities for fishing or bathing.
At present, this situation is managed by regulation, by the Environment Agency waving the threat of criminal prosecution at the water company if they fail to comply with the conditions of their consents to discharge. Roger Scruton suggests, instead, that such situations could equally well be managed by the existing common law of torts. He cites examples where this has been used successfully, most relevantly, given my example, the cases fought by the Angler’s Co-operative Association (now Fish Legal). There are, however, a huge number of problems with extending this principle, not least of which is that you need to have property owners who recognise the damage and who can act collectively. Angling clubs own riparian rights, have a clear incentive and are well organised. Where does the impetus come from if the stream has no recreational interest to be ‘damaged’ and scores of stakeholders who are not necessarily property owners and who lack the organisation to band together to confront a multinational water company? Environmental regulators may be bureaucratically-heavy but they do have the ability to act in the public interest in a way that few voluntary groups can. ‘Interventionist’, in this situation, may not be ideal, but it is likely to be more effective than the alternatives.
That’s the problem. If you want to justify ‘small government’ you need to demonstrate either that there are alternative mechanisms to delivering the services that are no longer being provided by the state or that we never needed those services in the first place. Alternative philosophies such as ‘nudge’ theory (see “More about floods …“) have their place but are not a wholesale replacement for the status quo. This leaves both Left and Right in the unenviable position of needing to devise practical approaches to environmental management that can be delivered using substantially smaller budgets than is presently the case. I await the party manifestos with interest.
Scruton, R. (2012). Green Philosophy. Atlantic Books, London.