Don't turn off the future

The green economy in Britain is thriving - so why are politicians so reluctant to talk about it?

There is a sector where our economy is not dying, but flying. Somewhere that the UK continues to dominate the global stage, creating the deals, skills, services and products in an area the whole world is desperate to embrace. It will take until 2014 (at best) for our GDP to return to the pre-financial crisis level of 2007. In the same period, this sector will have grown by 40 per cent.

Unfortunately, this sector is the green economy. That means that, as far as some are concerned, it doesn’t count. Because green stuff isn’t meant to be about growth, only bills. In an oddly moralising way, many people seem to feel that something that does good can’t also bring economic benefits.

But it does. According to government data, last year we exported £121 million more green goods and services to Germany than we imported from them. £183 million more to India. £330 million more to China.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills tots up almost twice as many low carbon and environmental jobs - just under a million - than we have in motor trades. But, when a new car factory opens or closes it dominates the Today programme. If we’re talking about green and business in the same sentence, Nigel Lawson is released from his belfry to invade our morning bowl of cereal.

Part of the reason for this might be that the green economy doesn’t challenge existing sectors - it only strengthens them. While BIS takes a thorough and catalogued approach to their definition, the green sector is largely about changing current jobs, not replacing them.

So our green jobs can belong to people in the motor trade – such as those building hybrids in our factories. Our financial sector provides the financial and legal advice for a third of all the low carbon energy deals in the world. Green workers can be architects who design zero carbon buildings, or the manufacturers who have gone from making the iron bridges of the industrial revolution to the gears and turbine blades of the energy revolution.

When our nation decided to set out a regulatory framework supporting a low carbon agenda, we did so on the basis that those nations which moved first would receive the greatest benefit. Now we see that we have moved, and we have benefited. That’s why it’s frustrating to see that policy certainty threatened, just as the return is coming through.

This could be our way out of recession. According to the Treasury, in this financial year alone 88 per cent of our top 20 infrastructure projects are low carbon, and are worth £23 billion, compared to just £3.1 billion for high carbon projects. Some 63 per cent of this represents entirely private sector money. If you include what Treasury defines as public/private then the figure leaps to 94 per cent. By contrast, our high carbon spend for this year was 61 per cent dependant on the public purse.

The green economy is, as our recent analysis of this data called it, a UK success story. But there are worrying signals that the government may not want this success. It seems alarmingly focused on what we needed yesterday – a few more roads, a bundle of gas, perhaps squeeze in an extra airport. To this end, they are willing to sabotage something much more appealing to investors – the technologies of the future. The things that can attract far more investment because they haven’t already been developed. A letter was leaked earlier in the summer that made clear the Chancellor wants to ensure the energy of tomorrow is rejected for an expensive and outdated energy of the past. We can’t, as a nation, afford such a compromised infrastructure strategy - the equivalent of Disraeli ripping out train tracks because they threaten canals. We need to follow what we need, not what we needed, or we risk condemning this country to a policy that might run as follows – “Who needs the future when we have had the past?”

Alastair Harper is a senior policy adviser at Green Alliance, the environmental think-tank. He tweets: @HarperGA

Photo: Getty Images

Alastair Harper is Head of Politics for Green Alliance UK

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit