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Mixed outlook for key energy, climate and environment posts

Theresa Villiers

Incoming Prime Minister Boris Johnson has fulfilled expectations by selecting his new Cabinet from staunchly pro-Brexit colleagues from the right of the Conservative Party, where climate and green issues have tended to receive low priority compared to under Theresa May’s administration.

His choices for the two principal climate and environment departments broadly follow this pro-Hard Brexit trend, but experience tells us that positions on other issues at least can sometimes shift once in post.

At DEFRA, Theresa Villiers takes over as secretary of state from Michael Gove, another arch-Brexiteer who surprised environmentalists by championing a Green Brexit focused on an ambitious 25-Year Environment Plan, the principle of Net Gain in planning, and pushing through a new Environment Bill aimed at setting up an Office for Environmental Protection  regulatory body, though the likely effectiveness of these measures have been the subject of intense debate.

Villiers will face the challenge of implementing this agenda, including securing adequate funding, and will need to work hard to garner the same respect from stakeholders as Gove during his 18-month stint. His move from DEFRA to Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, with responsibilities for coordination of Brexit policy as well as estate management, will be regretted by many sceptical stakeholders he had won over. The job will take Gove close to the Brexit negotiations, having been a key figure in the Vote Leave campaign, but will also give him a wider role in policy formulation that could potentially benefit environment and climate policy.

Theresa Villiers, appointed Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on 24 July, was previously Secretary of State for Northern Ireland until July 2016 in David Cameron’s administration, and minister of state for transport up to 2012. She studied law at University of Bristol and Jesus College, Oxford, trained and practised as a barrister, lecturing at Kings College, London. She was elected Conservative MP for Chipping Barnet in 2005.

Her green credentials for the post are mixed to say the least, based on analysis of her voting record since 2012. Most notably, her strong support for a No Deal Brexit is potentially deeply damaging for environmental policy and green business overall.

Most notably, she has generally voted against tighter regulation of fracking, against tying Green Investment Bank lending to low-carbon targets, against setting a target for greenhouse gas reduction in 2013, mostly against lower fuel taxes, and in favour of the Government’s deeply controversial 2015 move to extend the Climate Change Levy to cover renewable energy. She has often opposed incentives for low-carbon generation, occasionally supported them.

She consistently supported a deeply unpopular attempt to sell off England’s state-owned forests in 2011, has supported culling of badgers, but is a strong advocate of animal welfare and opposes live exports.

Villiers has previously been critical of Heathrow expansion on environmental grounds, notably the risk of worsening already poor air quality, and supports taxes on carbon-intensive aviation.  

This year, she has also signalled her support for decarbonisation of the power sector through closure of coal-fired plant and growth of renewables, and she supports initiatives such as the One Home low carbon lifestyle project.

The other powerhouse for green policies through the Government’s Industrial Strategy, Clean Growth Strategy, renewable generation, heating and energy efficiency programmes, underpinned by the Climate Change Act 2008, carbon budgets and ambitious new Net Zero target for 2050, is the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Here, Andrea Leadsom has replaced No Deal critic Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Greg Clark, who has left the Government.  

Leadsom has previously served as Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons from June 2017 to May 2019, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from 2016 to 2017, Minister of State (2015 to 2016), and Economic Secretary to the Treasury. She stood unsuccessfully against May in the 2016 leadership election, stirring controversy in the style of her campaign, and has frequently criticised press behaviour.

She read political science at Warwick University, and went on to a 25-year career in banking and finance, most recently as Head of Corporate Governance and Senior Investment Officer at retail fund manager Invesco Perpetual. She has served as Conservative MP for South Northamptonshire since 2010.

Leadsom’s voting track record on climate, energy and environment is again very mixed. She has mostly opposed climate measures since 2011, mostly opposed incentives for low-carbon generation, supported lower fuel taxes on road vehicles, consistently backed attempts to sell off publicly-owned forests and mostly backed badger culling. She has consistently voted for higher taxes on air travel, and generally opposed HS2. She has backed fracking as often as she has opposed it.

The challenge for Leadsom will be to maintain momentum following successful rapid emission reductions in the power sector through the Government’s commitment to closure of coal-fired generation by 2025 and rapid growth of renewable generation. The Committee on Climate Change has sharply criticised UK lack of progress on decarbonisation outside the power sector, without which Net Zero is impossible.

Whether the UK maintains its climate policy leadership internationally will depend on whether it succeeds in implementing delayed and new policies in these areas by the time it co-hosts CoP26 with Italy in 2020. This will also be a major challenge for Claire Perry, popular former clean growth minister at BEIS, now set to work closely with the prime minister on delivering the Government’s climate programme as CoP26 president.

More widely, Leadsom will need to ensure success of green and low-carbon business and export growth, not least through the various industrial sector deals such as promotion of battery storage and EV technologies. Her experience in banking could be an advantage as the UK looks to implement its Green Finance Strategy.

While these two new appointments appear less than promising overall at first glance, their record is mixed, and the outcome in post may yet prove different.



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