Is this the end of the "greenest government ever"?

Campaigners say coalition is "the most environmentally destructive government" since birth of modern

It was always questionable that a government which cut fuel duty, hit the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with the biggest cut in Whitehall, and turned a carbon-cutting incentive into a stealth tax could justifiably continue to claim it was the "greenest ever".

But let's just remember for a moment that the good intentions were there. When David Cameron came to power, pledged to make this "the greenest government ever", he said that he "cared passionately" about this agenda, and appeared to genuinely believe that there were possibilities in boosting environmental initatives:

We've got a real opportunity to drive the green economy to have green jobs, green jobs and make sure we have our share of the industries of the future.

Predictably, this has not been borne out. As soon became clear, the Green Investment Bank, oft-cited by ministers stressing their green credentials, will not be able to borrow for years, while George Osborne's Budget earlier this year cut fuel duty, and the government slashed subsidies for solar power.

Last week's Autumn Statement offered no improvement, with Osborne almost directly contradicting Cameron's earlier statement:

We are not going to save the planet by shutting down our steel mills, aluminium smelters and paper manufacturers. All we will be doing is exporting valuable jobs out of Britain.

In addition to this support for heavy industry, he spoke of the "ridiculous cost" that EU intiatives on the environment were imposing on firms, and emphasised the burden that green policies were placing on the economy. Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat Environment Secretary, is said to be furious, having not been consulted.

It seems that this marks the end of the "greenest government ever" fallacy -- and a wide-range of environmental groups and activists have written to the Observer to mark their disapproval. One letter, from the heads of Greenpeace and the RSPB (among others) says:

Following the chancellor's autumn statement, we can say that the coalition is on a path to becoming the most environmentally destructive government to hold power in this country since the modern environmental movement was born.

At the heart of the problem is not just austerity, but the perception in government that pursuing green policies is an inconvenient burden on the economy rather than a necessity and an opportunity. Cameron's comments at the start of his premiership indicated that he understood the possibilities for jobs and growth afforded by a re-engineering of how the UK generates and uses its energy. The government's own National Ecosystem Assessment reiterated this.

Climate change talks in Durban are ongoing. But if the coalition continues to treat green issues as a hindrance to growth, not a boost, there is no doubt that the UK will fall behind.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.