Back in January, I promised to scrutinise the election manifestos as they appeared, and to evaluate the promises made by the major parties regarding environmental protection (see “122 days to go …“). My worry, three months ago, was that the election campaign would be so dominated by the economy and the NHS that the environment would be largely pushed to one side. Now that I have seen the Labour and Conservative manifestos, I fear that my pessimism was well-founded.
The problem is that few of us would argue with the core arguments laid out by both of the major parties: that we need to reduce the fiscal deficit whilst, at the same time, increase spending on health and education. Every other promise in both manifestos has to be evaluated against this backdrop and there is frustratingly little in either manifesto on which to make a decision. The Conservatives make more reference to the “environment” (15 references to Labour’s 4) whilst Labour are ahead, in rhetoric at least, on “climate change” (14 references to 5 in the Tory manifesto). Labour give very few details of environmental policy in areas other than climate change; on the other hand, the Conservative pledge to “spend £3 billion from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to enhance England’s countryside over the next five years, enabling us, among other things, to clean up our rivers and lakes …” sounds impressive until you bore into the details. Elsewhere in the manifesto we learn that the plan actually is to push for reform of the CAP as well as to “liberate farmers from red tape”. Is this a funded proposal or a negotiating position with Brussels? It is not clear.
A little further on we read that the Conservatives will be “… building 1400 new flood defence schemes, to protect 300,000 homes.” Flood defence is an expensive business, and a responsibility of DEFRA so if this is a firm pledge, we have to expect other activities in DEFRA to be curtailed. Floods are also classic examples of “Black Swan” events in that they are both devastating and unpredictable (see “Black swan #2: McEcology and Steve Earle“). However much is spent on flood protection, there is no guarantee that the next monumental downpour will sidestep these altogether and flood a different catchment. We are still paying the price for the floods in early 2014 which had the temerity to hit marginal Tory constituencies disproportionately (see “Beware the modern day Cnuts”).
Labour also fall into the trap of playing a populist card arguing that “[the] water industry, too, also requires reform.” Fair enough, up to a point, but they go on to say that this will be achieved by strengthening “the power of the regulator to change licenses, limit price rises and enforce industry standards.” First of all there are three regulators of the water industry (OFWAT, Drinking Water Inspectorate and Environment Agency), not one. Second, there is general recognition (underpinned by European legislation) that the costs of environmental improvements should be passed on to consumers because all of us are, ultimately, polluters. The quid pro quo for limiting price rises will be less investment in sewage works and, ultimately, limited improvements to our rivers. But, to be fair to Labour, they make no concrete promises to improve our environment so there is no internal contradiction in their manifesto. Just a nagging fear that things are probably not going to get better.
Next time, I’ll look at the manifestos of the minor parties. If the pollster’s predictions are correct and neither Labour nor the Conservatives will win an outright majority, then policy areas such as the environment may become useful bargaining chips during negotiations following the election itself. Spoiler alert: my dissection of UKIP’s environmental policy will, by necessity, be brief.