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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

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.