Monday, 16 May 2011

The Greenest Government Ever?

When it came to power the incoming coalition government made the pledge that it wanted to be the “greenest government ever”. So, twelve months later, how is it doing?

The early signs were good. The coalition had its own ideas, and also seemed to be prepared to make good use of changes that were already underway. The South Downs National Park was designated under Labour, but the new coalition has overseen (rather than undermined) its progress to full function. The Lawton Review and the National Ecosystem Assessment (see my blogs around were started under labour but have been continued under the coalition and as a result a new Natural Environment White Paper will soon be published.

However, if we look at some of the broader background then there are real concerns that the government is getting off track in its environmental performance.

One of its earliest acts was to disband the Sustainable Development Commission, the mix-up over the Forestry Commission is now well-known and we have sever concerns about the direction planning is taking. In a sop to the development industry, government is now taking the approach of “whatever the question the answer is yes”, setting the scene to allow more environmentally damaging development and (perhaps more significantly) creating a situation where environment and planning become more antagonistic. We now also have the “red tape challenge” in which, despite assurances to the contrary, protection of the environment is listed alongside all other regulation as up for grabs.

The coalition government seemed to start with a desire for a green economy – one where the economy and the environment work together in complementary ways rather than being seen as opposites to balance against each other. The idea of “green growth” was discussed – environmentally benign or beneficial businesses being the ones that drive future economic growth. What’s more, through the work of the National Ecosystem Assessment, we were going to appreciate the economic value of the services provided by nature.

One year later, however, it all seems to have got too difficult and we’re back to an approach that would not look out of place in the middle of the 20th century. The economy comes first and the environment is just seen as a cost or a “burden”. We’re back to ignoring the economic value of nature, and care for the environment is increasingly being portrayed as an act of charity rather than an act of both responsibility and economic necessity. We are seeing the combating of climate change portrayed as a cost to society (rather than a benefit) – something that has to be compromised until the economy is back on track. The more complex reality is being ignored in order to fall back on artificially simple solutions.

This is the background to an open letter sent to David Cameron on 14th May – the coalition’s first anniversary. Chief Executives from 15 leading charities, including the Wildlife Trusts, wrote to the Prime Minister warning that he will have to ramp up his efforts to make this the “greenest government ever” (

At present the prognosis is not good but David Cameron and Nick Clegg can act now to get back on track. The forthcoming Natural Environment White Paper presents an opportunity. With other areas environmentally flagging, this must provide an ambitious vision for the future to be signed up to by all government departments and followed by a clear plan of action for delivery. I am looking forward to its publication in June!

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