How British industry is missing out on the green economy

Where's that rose garden Cameron promised?

David Cameron’s husky-hugging Rose Garden pledge to deliver the greenest government ever always felt more like a marketing or branding statement than a policy, containing as it did no specific description of what on earth that would mean in practice. Nevertheless, as a statement of intent it was very powerful.

However, a little over thirty months on from the Rose Garden conference, and Cameron’s pledge to make the Conservatives the environmental party is probably the most discredited of all his pre-election gambits. Remember “Vote Blue Go Green?” – it all seems quite a long time ago. Because despite the strictures imposed by the 2008 Climate Change Act, a series of policy u-turns, relaxations of environmental ambitions and a drip feed of rhetoric stressing the costs rather than the benefits of moving to a green economy, have together contributed to a situation where there is little leadership on the green agenda.

That’s why 11 major property and construction organisations, representing a huge swathe of the £100bn UK industry, last week signed a letter to chancellor George Osborne calling for the government to back a campaign by Building magazine to get behind the green agenda – or risk losing forever the potential the sector holds for major economic growth. The signatories of the letter, and the wider backers of the campaign, represent an unprecedented alliance of interests, from brick-makers and builders to the high-finance property companies that own and develop in our major cities.

The hope is that this unusual alliance, taking in environmentally committed big name architects such as Richard (Lord) Rogers, and red-in-tooth-and-claw housebuilders, will persuade the Chancellor that business doesn’t actually see sustainability and economic growth as something you have to choose between – that you can do both. That, in fact one drives the other: a move toward environmental sustainability will actually deliver growth.

At the moment Osborne has been very clear that this is not how he views the world, telling the Tory conference in 2011 that “a decade of environmental laws and regulations are piling costs on the energy bills of households and companies” and that he wasn’t going to “save the planet” by “putting the country out of business.”

It’s not as if the whole government sees things in the same way: many departments are doing what they can to fight the scepticism from the centre. That shouldn’t be a surprise, as the Confederation of British Industry (that bastion of environmental activism) has called for investment in green growth, saying the “market” accounts for £122bn, or 8 per cent of GDP, and may have accounted for a third of all growth in the economy in 2011/12. But one who has seen government operating up close, former construction tsar Paul Morrell, couldn’t have been clearer when he testified in December: “There clearly is no belief inside Treasury that there is real opportunity of growth in the green agenda. I don’t know why they think that, [because] oddly business does.”

This lack of belief explains a lot – from the government’s u-turns on subsidies for solar power which led directly to one contractor, Carillion, putting 5,000 staff on notice; to the government’s decision to withdraw all previous subsidy regimes for helping householders install insulation, focusing instead on one unproven programme, the Green Deal, with the result that the number of lofts that get lagged each year are predicted to fall by up to 93 per cent. It’s not that surprising that a recent poll by You-Gov found that just 2 per cent believe the coalition has met Cameron’s “greenest ever” pledge.

Another example of where the government has missed a trick is in the cancellation of the planned introduction of something called Display Energy Certificates (DECs), a measure that would have forced offices and shops to calculate and publicly display the energy they use. The measure was pulled despite blanket industry support for its introduction.

Unlike businesses, the Treasury currently seems not to see how targeted and reasonable regulation – as opposed to form-filling bureaucracy – can actually help drive innovation and growth. For businesses it can set a level playing field which stops ethical firms being undercut by fly-by-night operators.

The Treasury instead seems to see lobbying for any green regulation as a form of self-serving bidding for government support by hard-pressed building firms. While the Treasury is right that regulation can in some circumstances falsely create a market for services to comply with that regulation, thereby adding a cost to end users, this view ignores the fact that this particular bit of regulation, DECs, was also supported by the private sector firms who would have paid for the work: the developers and office owners.

Because for them the business case for making investment in green technology is often marginal because it requires significant up-front investment, even though it pays for itself in reduced energy bills over time. To make it really worthwhile they want their clients – building occupiers – to be able to see how green their buildings are, and be able to compare this transparently against their rivals. Then it starts to have a market value. That’s what DECs could have done. But the opportunity was missed.

It’s just one example. The practical impact of this reluctance from government to intervene where there is market failure is that fewer and fewer businesses are seeing investment in sustainability as the key to future profits, because they are less clear that both the market and the regulatory regime are moving in that direction. One chief executive of a major listed contractor told me in the last six months that he had stopped investing in upskilling his business to carry out green retrofitting, because he didn’t see the demand under the current government.

Thus an industry, construction, which represents a tenth of the UK economy, remains in deep recession, dragging down the output of the nation. But beyond this immediate impact, the real risk of not taking a leadership position on the green economy is that an opportunity is missed to take a lead in a global market that is likely to be one of the key industries of the 21st century. The UK could be the country with the skills the rest of the world turns to in order to combat climate change. But not if the current course continues.

The campaign is being tweeted at #green4growth

Cameron’s pledge to make the Conservatives the environmental party is probably the most discredited of all his pre-election gambits. Photograph: Getty Images

Joey Gardiner is assistant editor at Building magazine

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.