Belching chimneys instead of solar panels

The truth of Blair's environmental legacy

Last November Greenpeace anticipated the Prime Minister's departure by climbing to the top of Didcot power station's main chimney and painting "Blair's Legacy" in 20-foot-high letters down the side. The point was well made: as I pointed out in this column a month ago, coal has been enjoying a resurgence in Blair's Britain, despite being the most CO2- intensive fuel of all.

"But we have to generate power somehow, or the lights will go out," government ministers whinge helplessly. Greenpeace, never one to wield a stick without proffering an equivalent carrot, has offered an alternative to big centra lised coal, gas and nuclear power: decentralised energy generation, driven primarily by renewables. With solar panels, micro-wind and other technologies installed on rooftops and public buildings up and down the country, it suggests, a decentralised system could halve the UK electricity system's contribution to climate change in just a few decades.

Officially, the government supports a micro-generation strategy: a report commissioned by the Department of Trade and Industry from the Energy Saving Trust reaches similar conclusions to Greenpeace, predicting that decentralised energy generation could cover between 30 and 40 per cent of the UK's electricity consumption by 2050. One might expect that, in response to this potential, the government would be enthusias tically backing the fledgling microrenewables sector. Instead, everything it has done so far seems calculated to strangle this new industry at birth.

In April 2006 the DTI launched the Low Carbon Buildings Programme as a way of channelling grants to householders and public sector bodies interested in installing renewable technologies, from solar hot water to ground-source heat pumps. It began in a blaze of pub licity - and was promptly starved of funds. A paltry £12m was allocated for the domestic sector over three years. Given that there are nearly 30 million households in the UK, that's less than 15p per home per year.

What then happened was worse than farce. As such tiny amounts of money were available, the DTI decided to ration the cash on a monthly basis. The result was an unseemly scramble. In January this year, the entire allocation was gone by noon on the first day. In March, it was all gone in 75 minutes. In the meantime, struggling solar and wind installation companies were forced to lay off staff and cancel expansion plans. Costs without grants remain prohibitive for all but the richest households.

Popular enthusiasm for renewable power has been squashed by government parsimony. In the past year, the grants programme has assisted in only 313 solar installations. At this rate of progress we'll have a solar panel on each rooftop in Britain - a necessary target - in about 76,000 years.

The sad tale makes Gordon Brown's announ cement this month of a new target of 100,000 new eco-homes seem particularly ironic, given that he has been responsible for pulling the purse strings on the Low Carbon Buildings Programme. Brown hardly rode to the rescue when he allocated a mere £6m in additional funds for the LCBP in the most recent Budget - an amount of Treasury loose change so small, it can only have been a calculated insult.

Contrast also this lack of support with the huge quantities of money thrown at those who, instead of helping to reduce emissions, are focused on making the climate-change problem worse. Road-builders in particular seem able to syphon government funds out of a bottomless account. According to Transport 2000, the likely total cost of M1 widening has reached £5.1bn - enough to pay for solar electricity-generating panels to be installed (at 50 per cent match funding) on at least a million UK homes. Adding an extra lane to this one motorway is costing £21m per mile. Thus, even with the Chancellor's extra allocation of cash, the entire three-year budget for the Low Carbon Buildings Programme - the only source of government assistance for the UK's entire domestic renewables sector - can be accommodated within about 1,400 metres of M1 widening.

Blair's legacy, just as Greenpeace suggested, will be visible not in spinning windmills or rooftop solar panels, but in belching power-station chimneys and motorway tarmac. It remains to be seen whether Brown can do any better, but past experience is hardly encouraging. What is certain is that we don't have another decade to waste.

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Leader, New Danger

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