East meets Westminster: Will economic meltdown impact Government’s green agenda?

FUNNY how the Conservative logo is a lush, green tree because increasingly it appears David Cameron might chop it down and build a runway over it, writes Richard Porritt.

The Prime Minister once claimed if he were to snatch the reins of power he would lead the “greenest government ever” – words which may well come back to haunt him if he is still in No. 10 come 2015 when the inquiry into airport capacity in the south-east returns its verdict.

Back in 2006 when Mr Cameron took over the Tories he was determined to put the environment at the top of the agenda – he even went to a Norwegian glacier and frolicked with huskies to drive home his “right-on” and very modern concerns over the impending doom of the planet.

But quickly the inconvenient truth for Mr Cameron was that while some could spend their time worrying about rainforests the average voter on the street had other concerns – jobs, pensions, prospects and financial rather than environmental disaster. Since the economic crash the PM has rarely mentioned the environment and it is highly unlikely to be a major issue in the next general election – and now Heathrow rears its head again.

Not surprisingly among the Green ranks this apparent U-turn on a promise has prompted a furious reaction. They have an MP themselves now (Caroline Lucas, Brighton Pavilion) but the credit crunch and continuing eurozone Armageddon has booted their issues firmly off the front pages.

And now, as if to rub salt in the wound, the cabinet reshuffle has done nothing to lighten spirits.

One argument goes that we need to build our way out of recession – a view apparently being backed by the Government who have announced a raft of policies to cut through red tape and boost house building. But it is an argument councillor Mark Ereira-Guyer, leader of the Green and Independent group on Suffolk County Council, strongly disagrees with.

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He said: “Prime Minister David Cameron has appointed anti-environment ministers in his reshuffled cabinet. This is very bad news for Suffolk since greener policies would boost employment in our county,” he said.

“The new Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, is opposed to wind farms which are a very important source of clean energy and of employment in Suffolk.

“The new Energy Minister, John Hayes, is curiously sceptical about renewable sources of energy in general. Energy efficiency and conservation could reduce our current energy use by up to 60%, but not under this Government.

“The chancellor is collaborating with other ministers to attack planning laws in a misguided attempt to boost construction. Worst of all for Suffolk, they are removing from those laws the requirement for a proportion of affordable or social housing on large new estates. This will worsen Suffolk’s shortage of affordable homes and increase the exodus of our young from the towns and villages where they were born.

“Developers in Suffolk already have planning permission for about 10,000 homes but are not building them because people cannot afford the mortgage to buy them. There are also another 10,000 homes empty across Suffolk. Suffolk Green Party is very concerned that this may signal another attempt to build in our green spaces and continue urban sprawl rather than make existing towns and villages sustainable.

“Patrick McLoughlin, the new Transport Secretary, has neither major aviation nor port issues in his constituency making him an odd choice. Expansion of airports is something the coalition parties cannot agree about and which is opposed vigorously here in Suffolk in respect of Luton and Stansted.

“The potential employment to be gained through greener policies will not become reality in Suffolk with this Government.”

East Meets Westminster called Mr Paterson to put to him directly the accusations that he represents an odd choice for the environment brief but it appeared he was having trouble with his mobile phone reception.

After a short introduction and the question he replied: “Hello? Sorry... erm... hello? Can you hear me? This is a terrible line.” And the phone went dead. Maybe one of the first of his policies will make it easier to build mobile phone masts? Another attempt to put the question to the Minister was not answered.

Green issues might have appeared trendy and an easy way for Mr Cameron to soften the party’s image when he took over but jumping on bandwagons has consequences.

Life in opposition is far easier than when the power parties are fighting for actually arrives. Ruling out Heathrow’s expansion was a “no-brainer” only a few years ago but now with the economy’s corpse oblivious to repeated attempts to coax it back to life Britain needs big projects – as much to tell the world “we will be back” as any financial injection they could provide.

Britain needs jobs and investment – although Mr Ereira-Guyer’s point about the green economy being ignored is a strong one – and sadly they will undoubtedly be an impact on the environment somewhere along the line.

The coalition claims it remains committed to environmental issues but they also realise that a healthier P&L (profit and loss) sheet come polling day is more likely to get a cross in their box than some policies the Green Party advocate.

No one is suggesting a shopping centre is built on top of Minsmere or the Stour Valley is the ideal spot for a hub airport. But a balancing act needs to be achieved.

Being Prime Minister is all about tough decisions – Mr Cameron is trying to make them. Let us hope they are worth it.

n Richard Porritt is on Twitter @Porritt.