Don’t let the faux greens sell off our environment

People like Chris Huhne are willing to talk the talk while in office, but they will usually capitulate to business interests.

In February 2012, the BBC’s then environment correspondent, Richard Black, described Chris Huhne’s departure from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)as “the exit of a minister ... generally regarded as having fought tenaciously for ‘green’ policies”. It was a view echoed by many mainstream, business-friendly “greens”, who were presumably impressed by Huhne’s readiness to talk the talk while in office.

“One abiding set of values that all Liberal Democrats share is a respect for our environment, natural systems and sustainability,” he told the Lib Dem conference in 2011, adding that, with its backing, “We will hold course to be the greenest government ever.” Some may have been less impressed by his promise, a month later, that: “Renewable energy technologies will deliver a third industrial revolution. Its impact will be every bit as profound as the first two.” Apparently it had not occurred to this champion of natural systems that it was the fallout from those previous industrial revolutions that got us where we are in the first place; or, as Robert Burns noted, on a visit to the Carron iron works in 1787: 

We cam na here to view your warks 
In hopes to be mair wise, 
But only, lest we gang to Hell, 
It may be nae surprise.

Still, compared to many of his coalition colleagues, Huhne was at least pro-renewables – well, maybe not solar – so his heart seemed to be in the right place. But was it?

After the DECC, Huhne seems to have had second thoughts about our natural systems. Now we all know about his lucrative consultancy post with the Texas-based company Zilkha Biomass Energy, whose website contains such priceless (if rather alarming) comments as: “Today we let much valuable forest resource go unmanaged. A managed forest, compared to an unmanaged forest, is able to sequester much more CO2, making trees better solar batteries.” And recently, unburdened by the need for conference-friendly rhetoric, Huhne seems to be letting his true colours shine through.

He has never opposed fracking (“Shale gas may be significant,” he wrote in 2011; “If it comes good, we must be ready to take advantage of it”), but talking to John Humphrys on the Today programme last September, he came over as something of an enthusiast, at least for importing cheap, US-produced shale gas.

His disregard for natural systems became most apparent on 19 January, when he called for more greenfield sites to be given over to development. “The brave political promise would be to recognise that the supply of housing land and sites – brownfield or greenfield – is ultimately the government’s responsibility,” he wrote in the Guardian. “The tougher the planning controls, the higher are house prices.”

Huhne’s words were carefully chosen – we cannot help but agree that people need houses – but history teaches us that calls for the relaxation of planning laws are never about homes, as such; they are always about development – and the consequence, always, has been the loss of woodland, meadow and wetland habitats: “our” natural systems.

As Fiona Reynolds remarked in 2011, when she was director general of the National Trust, what little we have left of those systems “has all been protected through good planning and the moment you let good planning go, it’s lost forever”. Recent developments, such as the Trump Organisation’s Scottish government-backed destruction of the dunes at Menie, in Aberdeenshire, show that what our environment needs is more protection, not less.

But then, that wouldn’t be business-friendly. And, as every politician knows – faux greens such as Chris Huhne included – to be business-friendly is everything.

Paradise lost: Menie in Aberdeenshire in 2007, where Donald Trump recently built a golf course. Photo Jeff J Mitchell/Getty.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The seven per cent problem

Show Hide image

Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496