I’ve been taking a passing interest in the recent election debates, and the manifesto launches, just in case one of the parties surprised us all and pulled an interesting green rabbit out of the proverbial policy hat. With one exception, no such luck.
The Tories in particular were rather predictable.
Just two months before the general election, Conservative MP Phillip Lee, a member of the energy and climate change select committee, claimed his party had no clear energy manifesto in place. Speaking at the Energy Institute, he claimed energy was a long way down the list of priorities, way behind media-friendly issues like tax, immigration and health.
Quite an admission, but given the Coalition’s record on energy over the last five years , is this apparent downgrading of its political importance really a surprise?
In 2010 David Cameron pledged to lead the ‘Greenest Government Ever’. Not surprisingly perhaps, the Conservatives quote a number of measures they believe confirm he has been true to his word; setting up the Green Investment Bank; agreeing to build the first new nuclear plant in a generation; increasing renewable energy generation threefold and committing £1bn to developing carbon capture and storage.
But given the Prime Minister has suggested the public are ‘fed up’ with the idea of onshore windfarms and has confirmed plans to phase out subsidies for new onshore wind turbines in the next parliament, how green can we really expect any new Tory-led coalition to be?
Labour, on the other hand, have had a little bit more to say, and they also had the imagination to launch their manifesto exactly 9 years (to the day) after David Cameron hugged a husky for the cameras in the Arctic. Nice timing.
Ed Milliband pledged to end the current uncertainty for investors, by giving the Green Investment Bank additional powers to increase investment in green businesses and technology.
Labour also want to create an Energy Security Board, an idea welcomed by many if it is to be truly independent and allowed to plan and deliver the energy mix the UK needs, including renewables, nuclear, green gas, carbon capture and storage, and clean coal. The debate over fracking appears to have been dealt with in a single sentence, with Labour promising to; “establish a robust environmental and regulatory regime before extraction can take place” – quite where the problems lie with the current system is less clear from Labour’s manifesto.
It is also pleasing to see Labour focus on the green economy, with a promise to create a million additional green jobs, delivered with the help of even more ambitious carbon reduction targets here in the UK and a major energy efficiency programme.
But I wonder if focussing attention on the two main parties is a mistake. With almost every pundit pointing to a hung parliament, and issues of the economy, health and immigration stealing the limelight, the necessary give-and-take required for the Government to get important policies voted through could see some lower profile policy areas influenced by the minor coalition parties. And these areas could include some of the key energy and climate change topics.
Which is why I was delighted that it took the Lib Dems to really catch my attention – and like Labour, they had an eye on the history books. This time, the anniversary was the 800 – of the first Magna Carta, in 1215, of course.
Given due prominence in their manifesto is the so-called Green Britain Guarantee, or as Ed Davey has called it, the Green Magna Carta. This idea envisages five new “green” laws: a Nature Act, a Resource Efficiency and Zero Waste Britain Act, a Green Transport Act, a Zero Carbon Britain Act and a Green Buildings Act.
It has to be said, the idea of a clear framework of legislative measures for the environment that (perish the thought) might just be complementary and coherent is appealing. I’ve got a soft spot for the green lobby, and have a handful of regular renewable energy clients (but also a shale gas developer, as I like to hedge my bets), and I also like the emphasis in these Lib Dems plans on energy efficiency. A Green Magna Carta also has a nice ring to it; although as it happens, the Magna Carta only gets a plug in the freedom and equality pages of the Lib Dem manifesto and not at all in the environment section. So Ed’s big rebranding idea for his five green laws was clearly a step too far for his colleagues.
Shame, because it’s hard to distinguish the competing guarantees and pledges from our politicians right now, and a Green Magna Carta certainly stands out.
It also has some personal appeal, and not just because I’m a lawyer. My wife and daughter are directly descended from King John (via younger brother of Edward I), and have the family tree to prove it. In contrast, the Whiteheads have, regrettably, been humble peasants for centuries. The Magna Carta therefore has a little personal resonance, even if vicariously.
But, in whatever context, it has to be said it’s galling to see one of the Coalition parties hijack the “Great Charter of the Liberties” for political gain, when the Government’s record on legal aid “reform” has seen justice disgracefully denied for many vulnerable people. That’s another topic that has not seen enough airtime in the political debates in recent week, and a blog for another day….
* Andrew Whitehead is the Senior Partner at Birmingham and London law firm SGH Martineau LLP.