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Why being green is good

The government needs to show how the environment and the economy can go hand in hand.

Being green is nice. It is a Good Thing - it means respecting and looking after our landscapes, keeping our air clean, and protecting life on this planet. But sometimes being nice is a luxury we can't afford. Take the seaside resort of Redcar in the north east. Between 2004 and 2009 unemployment in the area went from 2,000 to 5,000. Investment in the area is low and the industries that once sustained it are shutting down. When someone has been let go from the local steel plant, reliant on their heating from a pre-payment meter in a flat they will never own, the importance of being green is unsurprisingly low on their agenda.

For many of the people of Redcar, it's hard to see how they can be excited about Whitehall-born schemes like the Green Deal. But that is what the government expects of them. Set to launch at the end of this year, Greg Barker declares the Green Deal "the biggest home energy programme of modern times." It is one of the events of the year, he has (perhaps somewhat facetiously) said - "we are looking forward to the diamond jubilee and the Olympics, but it's also the year in which we'll launch the pioneering green deal." The number of street parties for that launch remains to be seen.

Now, the Green Deal is decidedly a Good Thing. It works by taking away the upfront cost of energy efficiency measures and having them paid off gradually from the savings made on fuel bills. The UK has been far beyond the rest of Europe when it comes to energy efficiency and so the Green Deal is meant to help us catch up, but the public won't care about that if it doesn't speak their language.

Last week, Green Alliance published the results of research carried out in conjunction with three MPs, looking at what the government's Green Deal proposal means on the ground, in their local constituencies. They were three distinct areas: Hexham, a large rural constituency with many off-grid properties; Bristol North West, a diverse constituency in the south west consisting of affluent areas, urban spaces, and heavy industry; and Redcar, a small north east constituency suffering from high levels of unemployment, people on low incomes, and vulnerable households in fuel poverty.

The local businesses, housing associations, residents, local authorities and community groups we spoke to all got that the Green Deal was a good idea. They got it could improve the energy efficiency of their buildings and make them savings. They all wished it well. But they couldn't see those in their areas wanting to take it up in big numbers. Ultimately, it just didn't seem relevant enough to the lives and needs of local people.

For the scheme to be a success they felt it needed to deal with real problems people had. Specifically, to make sure the fuel poor get a bigger share of the Energy Company Obligation (ECO - which obliges energy companies to deliver a certain amount of the Green Deal); and to ensure that the efficiency measures aren't just offered by big companies, but local ones as well. It must reach those most in need and provide jobs and opportunities for the local economy. It needs to show that being green isn't just nice, but smart as well.

It's the same with all green policies. They can't be parachuted down from Whitehall, decrees of pleasantness that mean little to people's lives. If the public only hear that their energy bills are going up without being told why, and that policies like the Carbon Price Floor will be a cost to them while exempting the country's biggest polluters, it is hard to persuade them to buy into the whole agenda.

It's hard to show them that being green isn't just about being nice. It's hard to show them how it's about dealing with diminishing resources and figuring out ways to use them differently. How it's about stopping the impact of climate change on the jobs we have, the technology we use and the places we live, all of which will be affected by climate change. It's hard to show them that being green is about improving people's lives, securing our economy and building new opportunities. It's hard to show them that being green is about them, unless the policies show that.

The government needs to show how the environment and the economy can go hand in hand and that, far from a cost, being green can be a huge boon to our economy, both nationally and to each of us individually.

So the Carbon Price Floor should not be a tax that just goes into the Treasury's general pot, but a way of funding benefits for the fuel poor. The renewable energy being generated on our landscapes should help the community it is in by funding insulation to reduce the energy bills of those that live around it. That clean infrastructure should be built by local people and, where possible, owned by those communities as well.

And it's about being clear about the facts. The government needs to show that being green doesn't increase your energy bill, but relying on a global oil and gas price long term does. Being green doesn't threaten jobs, but relying on manufacturing last generation products will.

Why is green good? Because it helps people and it helps the economy. It keeps our economy resilient and sustainable, two vital factors in a successful recovery. Take another policy - the Green Investment Bank, a central plank of the government's green agenda and another Good Idea which is launching later this year. But when it does it must be sold with enthusiasm and show how it will bring investment to places like Redcar.

In the end, we need a strong narrative from government that shows what being green can mean to people's lives, incomes and future prospects. In the end, we need to know that being green works for Redcar not just Whitehall.

Alastair Harper is Head of Politics for Green Alliance UK

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide