This is the third general election that has taken place during the lifetime of this blog and, looking back at the posts I wrote in the run-up to the 2015 and 2017 elections, I see one overwhelming difference. In both 2015 (see “A plague on both their houses”) and 2017 (see “How green is my party?“) I lamented the lack of focus that the major parties gave to the environment. The same is not true this time, though the way that the major parties approach the issue varies considerably.
I’m not going to go through the manifestos in detail: there is a good comparison of environmental policies on the BBC website that already does this. Instead, I want to take a step back and look at the broader context and, bearing in mind the present lead that the Conservatives have in the polls, I think it is appropriate that their environmental pledges get the closest scrutiny. As is always the case, manifestos are glossy brochures that can be frustrating documents for anyone interested in the nuts-and-bolts of implementation. However, in the case of the Conservatives, we have a better idea of what their promises will look like in practice as their Environment Bill was working its way through Parliament when the election was called. The implication from their manifesto is that this will be picked up again (perhaps with some modifications) if they are re-elected.
Greener UK, a coalition of environmental organisations in the UK sees “many welcome measures” in the Environment Bill, but has a number of concerns (summarised in this briefing paper. There was a hope that some of these could be addressed during the second reading and committee stages but my fear would be that a Conservative government with a Parliamentary majority would be in a position to drive through the bill without taking these concerns into account. One of my key concerns (shared with Greener UK) is that the proposed Office for Environment Protection is not sufficiently independent from DEFRA to be truly independent (see “(In)competent authority”).
My major concern, however, is not what the Conservatives promise to do, but whether they will provide the administrative infrastructure that allows this to happen. Earlier this week, I spent a day in a meeting with representatives from the Environment Agency, Natural England, a utility company and a rivers trust, considering the actions needed to manage one catchment in northern England. There were ten of us around the table, all bringing different perspectives and expertise to the discussion. This is a timely reminder that, whilst the politicians might want to present a series of neat prescriptions to drive environmental improvement, the reality will always be more complicated. Conservative (and Labour, Lib-Dem and Green) promises need to be backed up by the resources (and adequate staff) to allow the ambition encapsulated in the manifestos to be fine-tuned to local circumstances.
And this is where the Conservative manifesto falls down. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has looked at the spending pledges of all the major parties and found that neither Labour nor the Conservatives have spending plans that are in line with their manifesto commitments (you can see an analysis of the IFS report by the BBC’s Reality Check team, based on the IFS report here. However, whilst Labour and the Lib-Dems are, at least, honest about the need to raise extra revenue through taxation and borrowing (even if Labour’s sums don’t add up), the Conservatives actually make a promise not to raise rates of income tax, VAT or national insurance. That might play well, at a purely superficial level with voters with a libertarian bent, but will lead either to a gulf between ambition and delivery or to broken promises.
As 2020 dawns, the manifestos will be largely forgotten and newspaper headlines will focus on the crisis in the NHS. We’ll still see articles about the climate emergency but, unless provoked by extreme events such as flooding, concrete pledges on spending will be few and far between. The Environment Agency will still be limping along with senior management trumpeting a “more with less” ethos whilst their Poor Bloody Infantry will, if the polling is accurate, have barely enough resources to make the shrewd interpretations of the limited data now available that are necessary for effective decisions at a local scale.
At the root of my concerns is a question about whether the preoccupation of neoliberals with “small government” can ever be compatible with environmental management. Turning this around, the reason why academics and environmental professionals tend to be pro-EU is that they understand that the scale of the problems facing us is such that the broadly Keynesian, interventionist approach that the EU espoused was more likely to bring changes than laissez-faire economics. That is not to say that the EU gets everything right (the Common Agricultural Programme, for example, the Common Agricultural Programme, for example, desperately needs an overhaul), just that it is going to be difficult for the UK to achieve the goals set out in all the major party manifestos unless we are prepared to pay for a public sector with a budget that is proportional to the task in hand.