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Conservatives target infrastructure, climate change and ugly developments

Boris Johnson. Image from GOV.UK

Several infrastructure announcements and a package of measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions figured prominently in the Conservative Party conference in Manchester on 29 September - 2 October, though discussions were largely overshadowed by the continuing crisis over Brexit’s delivery and form.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s speech largely focused on the Government’s attempts to successfully leave the EU despite continuing controversy, on defying "the sceptics", while also attempting to draw attention to the need to confront challenges that lie beyond Brexit through tackling division, societal and regional economic inequality.

He emphasised investments in infrastructure as one of the key means of promoting more equal growth, notably in transport, from Northern Powerhouse rail "to a huge new agenda of road improvements" and more than £200m for better bus networks. Johnson presented a vision of "a country where we level up and unify the entire United Kingdom through better education, better infrastructure and technology" including more accessible broadband. There was, though, no mention of the controversial HS2 north-south arterial project, which is currently under review, nor of how the funding for the scale of infrastructure needed would be raised.

"If the streets are safe, and if the transport links are there, and if there are good broadband connections… you enable new housing to go ahead, on brownfield sites that were never considered viable before… we give business the confidence to invest and to grow", he proclaimed.

There was a nod too to the green business agenda, with Johnson describing the UK as "a country that leads the world with clean green technology and in reducing greenhouse gases that cause climate change". He added that "in the West Midlands we are seeing a 21st Century industrial revolution in battery technology… one in five of the electric cars sold in Europe is now made in the UK". Transport secretary Grant Shapps had earlier also undertaken to consider bringing forward the 2040 date for phase-out of diesel and petrol vehicles to 2035.

Johnson’s speech also alluded to ill-founded scepticism "only a few years ago when people were saying that solar power would never work in cloudy old Britain… and that wind turbines would not pull the skin off a rice pudding". Now, he noted, "there are some days when wind and solar are delivering more than half our energy needs".

This theme was picked up too by Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom, who proclaimed that "our first priority is to lead the world in tackling climate change", noting a 42% greenhouse gas emissions reduction since 1990 had been accompanied by economic growth of "nearly three quarters". She pointed out decarbonising had already created 400,000 jobs in the low-carbon sector, and could reach 2m by 2030.

"We’re working out the path to achieving net zero emissions by 2050.  We can do it, and we will help the world to do it," she added, amid ridicule of Labour’s more ambitious 2030 target as unrealistic, "total tosh".

But less well-received was Johnson’s heavy emphasis on increased support for fusion, including the tokamak experimental fusion reactor in Culham, Oxfordshire, which he described as "on the verge of creating commercially viable miniature fusion reactors for sale around the world… delivering virtually unlimited zero-carbon power".

These claims were widely criticised as an exaggeration, given that successful commercial operation, if possible, remains at least several decades away and is therefore unlikely to contribute to the urgent need to decarbonise the UK’s power generation system by the 2030s. Fusion research is also a highly cooperative, European-wide activity, with much of the funding and expertise shared at EU level.   

Transport and infrastructure

On 30 September, Chancellor Sajid Javid announced that £29bn had been found to fund the first wave of an "infrastructure revolution" of roadbuilding over the next five years, covering both strategic and local roads, and another £5bn to extend full-fibre broadband to the 20% of the country that is harder to reach.

"Infrastructure is the foundation of everything", he declared, adding that: "We will soon launch the new Roads Investment Strategy". The first of these projects are to include upgrade of the M60 Simister Island, dualling the A66 Transpennine "and starting work on the A428 between Cambridge and Milton Keynes".

But when combined with £435m for upgrades announced earlier in September, it is difficult to see how such measures, which are bound to increase road traffic and emissions further, can be compatible with the Government’s newly-adopted flagship Net Zero target for 2050.

On public transport, the Chancellor added that the £220m allocated to buses in the last spending round "will form part of a National Bus Strategy next year", including the rolling out of "new ‘superbus’ networks", expanding the fleet of low emission buses, and improving passenger value for money.

But there was also the promise of more fundamental changes to come, in the form of a White Paper on further devolution in England aimed at bringing currently very centralised decision-making closer to communities. This would give more powers to local areas "to drive investments in the infrastructure and services they know they need".

Localism and design

This theme of localism was further developed in a parallel ministerial announcement by Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government Robert Jenrick. He pointed out there "is no accepted national standard for the development of homes, only vague documents with little enforceable power". Jenrick announced a "new design guide to deliver beautifully designed homes" that could potentially make a large difference in planning, by discouraging ugly or "thoughtless" housing development.

The new design guide "will introduce a national standard for local authorities to adhere to, with the option of designing their own applicable guides reflecting local needs". MHCLG added that "where possible, emphasis will be placed on tree-lined streets and green infrastructure, in line with the Government’s broader environmental focus".

"This new vision will enhance the roles of local authorities, combined authorities and mayors in shaping the aesthetics and development of their areas", he added. It will have "genuine clout" and will be a material consideration for planning decisions. Ministers are to lay a Written Ministerial Statement setting out its purpose and use. The National Planning Policy Framework is also to be "updated to reflect this at the first opportunity".

Jenrick said: "This new design guide will have real clout. There will be a national standard for local authorities to adhere to, but we recognise that what good looks like differs across England. So, for the first-time local authorities will be expected to design their own locally applicable guides in keeping with the national standard, which must deliver the quality of homes that we expect."

Meanwhile, at a fringe event on tackling the housing crisis organised by the right-leaning Centre for Policy Studies, Housing Minister Esther McVey said the Government will prioritise developments on brownfield sites, and that any large increase in house-building will need to be backed up by infrastructure such as schools and GP practices. Also at the event, Liam Halligan, Telegraph columnist, described housing quality in the Government’s Help to Buy scheme as "grotesquely low". On off-site construction techniques too there has been criticism of low energy efficiency specifications by many cash-strapped councils,

McVey, MP for Tatton, is unusual in the Government in that she strongly advocates brownfield first over aggressive development of greenfield sites. But her speech to the conference will be remembered for other reasons. She was lampooned mercilessly in the press for appearing to suggest long-established 3-D computer software used in design for architects was cutting-edge.

Net Zero package

More meat on the Government’s Net Zero plans ahead of CoP26 came in a parallel ministerial statement by Leadsom, Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers and Jenrick on 29 September. It announced that "an ambitious net zero package - which includes measures on transport, housing, energy and nature, will be delivered by Conservatives in Government so that we can deliver on our commitment to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better condition than we found it".

The package commits up to £1bn of investment in the automotive industry, "to support green growth and a new future of mobility in the road transport sector", boosting skilled jobs as well as slashing emissions. The new funding "will accelerate production of key technologies in the UK through major investments in the manufacturing of batteries, electric motors, drives, power electronics and hydrogen fuel cells, along with their component and materials supply chains", it said.

On the long-awaited replacement for the Zero Carbon Homes target ditched in 2016, it said: "The Future Homes Standard will see requirements of building regulations for new homes raised by 2025 to meet world-leading energy efficiency standards, with interim regulations from 2020." But while the measures proposed are ambitious, the impact of the policy vacuum from 2016 to 2025 on emissions is a deep concern.

The announcement revealed a "commitment to plant three new forests in Northumberland, with up to one million trees planted between 2020 and 2024" to "kickstart an ambitious new Great Northumberland Forest", tackling both emissions and low biodiversity.

The Government also pledged to support "a programme to create new "pocket parks" and regenerate existing ones, transforming small pieces of undeveloped or derelict land in urban areas into a green space for public use".

The statement pointed out a further 6 Gigawatts of offshore wind had been announced in September at "record low prices" without needing subsidy, but also stressed the need for future energy security in the form of a more controversial plan to develop a Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP). The project, with an initial £200m investment, aims "to develop and build a commercially viable fusion power plant by 2040, offering clean, safe and carbon-free fuel supplies". But this timetable is widely regarded as unrealistic, with the technology likely to be too late to meet the 2050 target.   

Internationally the package aims for ambition ahead of the CoP26 conference. It includes a £1bn Ayrton fund for climate science, a new £220m biodiversity fund, "extension and expansion of the UK’s Blue Belt programme, and the Prime Minister’s pledge to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss as two sides of the same coin at the G7". The UK has also recently committed to doubling international climate finance at the UN.

Credibility gap

But overall, the Government is in a difficult position on climate and environment policy. Its flagship Environment Bill, intended to plug key gaps in environmental protection post-Brexit and praised as ambitious, continues to cause concern to stakeholders, notably due to insufficient powers for the new Office of Environmental Protection.

The bill has now been lost and is to be reintroduced in the next Parliament. But in the event of departure from the EU on 31 October, there will now be a highly problematic interregnum in large areas of environmental regulation until it is passed. Key policies on more integrated landscape and biodiversity protection under the 25-Year Environment Plan and planning policies such as the biodiversity net gain concept are embodied within it, though net gain is also integrated within the updated National Planning Policy Framework. A key bill on agriculture embodying a number of environmental reforms has also been paused.

Despite reassurances to the contrary, there are persistent concerns among environmental NGOs that environment, climate and low-carbon energy policies could be watered down as the influence of the predominantly pro-Hard Brexit right of the party grows, particularly in the event of No Deal with the Government entering a race to the bottom to urgently secure new trade deals.

But even if the latest EU Withdrawal Deal proposed by Johnson on 2 October is accepted, painstakingly negotiated level playing field non-regression safeguards on environmental standards originally included have now been dropped. Commenting on the plan, Green Alliance Executive Director Shaun Spiers said: "It looks pretty grim for the environment. Getting rid of the Backstop means getting rid of the environmental protections in the Withdrawal Agreement."

For its part, the Government’s highlighting of its desire to maintain high standards post-Brexit sits uneasily with its deregulatory rhetoric via the Brexit Red Tape Challenge, albeit more circumspect than the outright environmental hostility from parts of the right wing of the party.

In her speech at the conference, Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom said "I want to see a better environment for business, less red tape and lower taxes to incentivise them". Chancellor Sajid Javid argued that with an independent trade policy "we’ll be able to replace inefficient EU programmes with better, home-grown alternatives… And from retail to green tech, we’ll have the opportunity to design smarter, more flexible regulation".

But aside from lofty rhetoric, the current reality on the ground is very different. There is a serious lack of progress on natural capital, on air pollution, with 37 out of 43 zones in the country still failing to comply with EU standards on nitrogen dioxide pollution. Both the Environment Agency as regulator and Natural England are chronically underfunded, and unable to fully discharge their duties.

Natural England does not have the resources to carry out basic duties such as monitoring and biodiversity protection, let alone promote nature recovery under the 25-Year Environment Plan. While growth in international biodiversity funding has been welcomed, public biodiversity funding in the UK itself has reduced 29% over the last five years. Alistair Taylor, senior policy officer at the RSPB, stresses that "Government expenditure on biodiversity in the UK, in the midst of an ecological and climate crisis, is in freefall".

Even on climate policy, where the UK claims a lead, it has - despite impressive previous progress - failed to fully rise to the challenge, with both the fourth and fifth carbon budgets out to 2032 likely to be missed without new, long-awaited policies. Adaptation planning is also well behind.

The advisory Committee on Climate Change (CCC) reported in June that the Government "has delivered just one policy action out of 25 recommended by the Committee in 2018", and that "of 24 indicators showing underlying progress, just seven were on track in 2018". The annual rate of emissions reduction needed to meet the UK’s new Net Zero target will need to be at least 30% higher than that achieved on average since 1990, much of that heavily dependent on closure of coal-fired generation that is nearing completion, with far less progress in other sectors. The UK’s credibility as host of crucial CoP26 climate talks in 2020 and a leader in adopting the Net Zero target for 2050 will be under threat unless action on the ground can be brought back in line with carbon budgets.

Even so, announcements on the green agenda, infrastructure and planning punctuated a conference otherwise marred by the Brexit crisis. Heated rhetoric over Europe also masked a very busy schedule of activities in fringe events involving professional bodies, industry groupings and NGOs such as the increasingly active Conservative Environment Network. These explored issues ranging widely, from meeting Net Zero to infrastructural development, tackling the housing crisis, offshore wind expansion, biodiversity to the hydrogen economy, though these ideas have yet to feed into firm proposals.

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