Osborne's assault on our environment

Posted by Richardg — 6 September 2012 at 12:46pm - Comments
Greenpeace activists climb onto the top of a plane at London Heathrow Airport
All rights reserved. Credit: Nick Cobbing / Greenpeace
Greenpeace activists climb onto the top of a plane at London Heathrow Airport

The Cabinet reshuffle could unleash an unprecedented assault on our environment. It’s time mainstream politicians put their differences aside and worked together to stop George Osborne.

The reshuffle is breathtakingly provocative and will enflame tensions with the Liberal Democrats. Consider aviation policy. The Prime Minister has removed Theresa Villiers and Justine Greening from the Transport department, each of whom fought hard against the third runway. Both MPs have London constituencies; a U-turn on Heathrow could cost them their seats.

As William Hague said this week, the facts on Heathrow haven't changed - so there's no reason for the third runway to be back on the agenda. Yet whilst Cameron has once again ruled out a third runway “before 2015”, by replacing such vocal anti-runway MPs he is sending a strong signal that he might reverse ferret before the next election, betraying his promise to Londoners and all those who want to defend our environment.

There are new faces at the Department for Energy and Climate Change too. Charles Hendry, one of the few MPs who understands the upcoming Energy Bill, has been replaced by John Hayes. Hayes once told the BBC that "renewable energy needs to pass the twin tests of environmental and economic sustainability and wind power fails on both counts".

Caroline Spelman, who was running the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs, has also cleared her desk. Her replacement, Owen Paterson, is a prominent hater of wind turbines. Like the climate sceptic Lord Lawson – who described Paterson as “a man of sense and reason” – he is reported to want to expand airports and to keep the UK hooked on polluting gas, and is a firm advocate of gas fracking in the UK. Worryingly, Paterson’s department runs the Environment Agency, which is responsible for regulating fracking.

Such a radical shake up suits the Chancellor, George Osborne, who is determined to undermine support for renewable energy to make way for gas. He is obsessed with expanding airports and wants to make it easier for developers to pave over the countryside. Ministers who disagreed with Osborne – or who understood their brief well enough to challenge the Treasury’s meddling – have been replaced with pro-gas, anti-green MPs and the sort of politicians who’ll put career before countryside.

It’s not too late to stop this. The Chancellor and his agenda remain deeply unpopular with the general public. Conservative polling shows that attacking the environment turns off voters. A fresh assault on the countryside is already uniting readers of the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian; reviving the third runway will bring together the same heady mix of direct activists and West London residents that gave Gordon Brown such a hard time.

Liberal Democrats and sensible Conservatives need to recognise that Osborne’s extreme position is political, economic and environmental madness. Labour needs to remember how seriously British voters take conservation and protection of our environment, and stop using the number of new roads built as a measure of the government's commitment to growth.

There are signs that this fight-back is starting. Today, Labour leader and architect of the Climate Change Act, Ed Miliband, attacked Osborne for "posing the environment and the economy as alternatives" instead of putting green growth and green businesses at the heart of our economy. But MPs will need to go farther and tackle Osborne head on.

Like the fast-melting Arctic ice, this reshuffle is a wake-up call for mainstream politicians to put aside party politics and defend our countryside, our environment and the clean energy industries that could provide the economic boost our country needs.

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