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Deadly air and vanishing birds - is this election the environment's last chance?

Leading green groups list their fears for the environment if present policy continues unchanged.

The sun will rise and the birds will sing: these things you can always rely on, even the morning after a general election. Or can you?

The population of our farmland birds has almost halved since the 1970s. Skylarks, turtle doves, corn buntings, linnets and goldfinches have all declined. Seabirds too - their numbers may fall 40 per cent from 1986 levels within the next ten years.

If current trends continue we could lose a quarter of all UK wildlife populations by 2025 from 1970 levels, says the RSPB’s Richard Gregory. These shifts are linked to wider global changes in agriculture and climate. But one factor is undeniably homegrown - between 2008 and 2015, public sector expenditure on biodiversity fell by over a third.

So is this election the last chance for nature? Endangered species like the curlew may not make it to 2022. And neither may some of us. Friend’s of the Earth’s election website warns of 200,000 premature UK deaths linked to air pollution in the next five years.

Brexit increases these risks. The proposed Great Repeal Bill will ensure all existing EU environmental law is transferred to the UK, but offers no guaranteed replacement for the institutions that enforce these laws, nor for the funding streams that support them. Plus there is no certainty these regulations won’t be rewritten in future, perhaps without scrutiny by parliament.

“Brexit must not be used as an excuse for inaction,” says Sam Lowe from Friends of the Earth. So what have politicians proposed to do?

All the major party manifestos agree that the environment is important. “The United Kingdom will lead the world in environmental protection,” boasts the Conservative’s 2017 offering. “Investing in our environment is investing in our future,” says Labour’s. The Lib Dems propose a "Nature Act" to set binding natural capital targets. And the Greens, of course, have put their commitment in their very name.

But given the Tories' failure to support clean energy subsidies, to address air pollution, or stem biodiversity decline, Green groups and charities are unsurprisingly anxious. I asked them what we can expect the British environment to look like if present policy continues unchanged. Here are five of their top concerns for the next five years:

1. Deadly deregulation

In recent years, the Conservative government has failed to address the UK’s air pollution crisis. Present levels of NO2 are in breach of EU limits – not just in London, but in 37 out of 43 zones across the UK. Lawyers at Client Earth have repeatedly taken the government to court for these failings, and CEO James Thornton is concerned that their record here is a worrying sign of further deregulation to come.

“When we won our air pollution case against the UK, the government immediately ran to Brussels to try and relax the air pollution standards, so that they could come back and comply with the Supreme Court injunction without ever having to do anything,” he explains, “But they failed because they had to go through the democratic process in Brussels.”

His fear now is that the Great Repeal Bill may not offer the new, UK-based laws the same degree of democratic oversight. The key will be ensuring all law is brought over as primary, not secondary, legislation. “You want all the laws to come over as primary legislation and then they can only be amended democratically in parliament. Otherwise there is the danger of back-room deals, in which ministers reduce standards, and harm citizens and the environment, without any oversight by parliament.”

2. A dangerous soil

In 2014, scientists warned that the UK only had 100 harvests left due over intensive farming. One solution is agroforestry, which both improves and protects the soil as well as helping tackle climate change. “We want the next government to aim for half of farms to practice agroforestry by 2030, inspired by France’s goal to achieve the same by 2025,” says Laura Mackenzie, Soil Association's head of policy. “On climate change, the UK is way off track. Having declined for much of the past two decades, agricultural emissions are now increasing.”

3. A silent Spring

Kate Jennings from the RSPB is worried that “we’re not doing enough” for nature. While the State of Nature report shows that our wildlife is demonstrably better off because of EU laws and money, nature is still in trouble. One in 10 species in the UK are threatened with extinction. And we are on course to miss the next lot of international commitments on biodiversity in 2020.

4. An ocean at risk

“Over the next five years, the government has a unique opportunity to reform our fisheries in a fair and sustainable way,” says Will McCallum, head of oceans at Greenpeace UK. “It needs to follow the science when setting fishing quota, and work with our European neighbours to avoid a tragedy of the commons: not pursue a policy which could see fish stocks in UK waters collapse.”  There is also an urgent need to ensure that the UK’s global leadership on ocean conservation continues and to tackle the build up of plastic, adds McCallum. Last year the government pushed back its target for plastic recycling, to 57 per cent by the end of 2020, not 2017.

5. An outdated energy supply

Shane Tomlinson, a director at E3G, an independent climate change think tank, is concerned that the Conservatives' proposed policies privilege short-term fixes, like the energy price cap, over long term investment in a modern, smart and decentralised energy infrastructure. Take both Labour and the Tories' continuing support for nuclear energy. “This is really a centralised energy system from the last century, not the energy system we need to be building,” he says.

Then there’s the Conservatives' “shocking” new proposal to change the planning laws on fracking. Nationalising control of the system and putting responsibility for health and safety in the hands of a new shale regulator, with a mandate to promote the industry, raises “some real concerns about citizens rights and democracy”.


There is still time, however, to change the direction of the UK’s policy on the environment. Friends of the Earth have scored all the major parties’ manifestos and you can see their results here.



India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Photo: PA
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How the fire at Grenfell Tower exposed the ugly side of the housing boom

Nobody consciously chose to harm those at the bottom of society, but governing in the interests of the rich has done it nonetheless.

It’s impressive, in a way, how quickly we slot horrific new events into the beliefs we already hold. In the Grenfell Tower fire – a tragedy that, at the time of writing, is presumed to have cost 79 people their lives – some on the right saw a story about poorly built high-rise ­social housing. The left, however, saw it as fresh evidence of the damage that seven years of austerity had done to local councils.

The fire does feel symbolic: of the inequality at the heart of one of the richest cities in the world; of a government unable to look after its people. But reality rarely slots neatly into our prefabricated narratives and, although the details are still emerging, it already seems as if many of those assumptions were flawed. Experts’ theories about why the fire spread so fast have focused not on the poor quality of the building’s original 1967 design but on problems with the external cladding installed in a £10m refurbishment last year.

What’s more, while most councils have struggled with years of centrally imposed cuts, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) isn’t one of them: it is sitting on reserves worth £274m and, in 2014, found enough money to give council-tax payers a rebate of £100 per head. And yet, it seemed, it could not find the cash to pay for sprinklers or the £5,000 extra it would have cost to use a fire-resistant form of cladding. There was austerity in Kensington, but it was the product of conscious choice, not financial pressure.

Voting intention by housing type in the 2017 election

For a whole week, those who survived the fire faced a second indignity: the uncertainty regarding where they could now live. The day after the tragedy, the housing minister Alok Sharma offered his “guarantee that every single family from Grenfell House will be rehoused in the local area”. This was both morally and politically right – but whether he would have made this promise if he had been more than a couple of days into the job seemed an open question, because few in the housing sector believed it was one he could keep. The council already had more than 2,700 households waiting for accommodation (actually quite low for inner London). It was possible to give priority to survivors of the fire, but it would require pushing others yet further down the list.

Nor did it seem likely that the homes on offer likely to be adequate replacements for those that have been lost. “Most people made homeless in London have a very long wait in temporary accommodation,” Kate Webb, the head of policy at the housing charity Shelter, told me. “And even that is going to be outside of their area.” In the immediate future, at least, it seemed likely it would be much easier to find bed and breakfasts in Hounslow than permanent new homes in Kensington.

In the event, the naysayers, myself included, were wrong: on Wednesday afternoon, after the print copy of this article had gone to press, the Evening Standard reported that the Greenfell families would be rehoused in 68 apartments in the luxury Kensington Row development, at a cost of tens of millions of pounds. The deal, specially brokered by the Homes & Communities Agency on behalf of the government, was great news for those families. But it is striking that it took a tragedy and national scandal on the scale of Grenfell to make it happen. And those homes – which were always earmarked as social housing – are now not available to the 2,700 other families on RBKC’'s waiting list. They will not be receiving similar treatment.

It doesn’t feel like this should be difficult: Britain is rich, London richer and RBKC the richest borough of all. Yet the shortage of available homes reflects not just some kind of moral failure on the part of the council but a genuine shortage of property.

Who is building houses?

To be blunt about this: we have not been building enough for a very long time. In the decade after the 2001 census, London’s population grew from 7.3 million to 8.2 million, an increase of roughly 12 per cent. The capital’s total number of homes, however, increased by just 7 per cent. Both trends have continued since, with all sorts of entirely predictable results: higher rents, overcrowded homes, hilarious news items about renters going to see “studio flats” that turned out to be a bed in a shed with a tree growing through the wall.

London’s housing crisis is the biggest and most visible in the country yet it is far from unique. In Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol – in almost any city with a decent jobs market – housing costs have soared in recent years. In other parts of the UK, house prices are lower; but so, unfortunately, are wages. The result is a collapse in property ownership among the under-40s – and, one is tempted to suggest, flatlining national productivity and unexpected enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

We know how to fix this (in that we know how to build more homes) but we haven’t, for two main reasons. One is that we have inadvertently constructed a housing market in which nobody has both the interest and the capacity to build more. Private developers bid for land based on the price they believe they will be able to sell new homes there for. As a result, if prices fall, they stop building: look at a graph of housing supply over the past 50 years, and it is abundantly clear that the private sector will never give us the homes we need.

This would be fine if other organisations were allowed to build but they are not. Housing associations are restricted by government finance rules. Councils were explicitly banned from fully replacing homes sold under Right to Buy; today, they lack the money and, after decades of disempowerment, the expertise, too. The 2004 Barker review argued that the UK needed to be building 250,000 new homes every year just to keep up with demand. It feels telling that the last year we managed to do this was 1979.

Total government grant to local councils

The other reason we haven’t built enough homes is that we place such tight restrictions on what we can build. Land-use restrictions such as on the green belts prevent our cities from growing outwards; rules on tall buildings prevent them from growing upwards. These are often legal, but are rigidly enforced by public demand.

Last year, for instance, the Friends of Richmond Park, residents of the west London suburbs, fought a noisy campaign to stop tall buildings from being built 14 miles away in Stratford, in the East End of London, because they would ruin their protected view of St Paul’s Cathedral. The buildings wouldn’t prevent west Londoners from seeing St Paul’s, you understand: the buildings could simply be seen behind it. All these restrictions, all these campaigns, are there to protect something good. Between them, they add up to a shortage of housing that is blighting lives.

It is hard not to notice the parallels between the Grenfell Tower fire and the broader housing crisis. RBKC bosses chose to promote electorally motivating tax cuts for the borough’s largely rich residents over fire safety in its social homes. As a nation, we have consistently chosen to protect the views and house prices of those who have housing over the needs of those who don’t. Nobody consciously chose to harm those at the bottom of society but governing in the interests of the rich has done it nonetheless.

The survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster were left homeless by the tragedy, and it looked for several days like that they would have nowhere else to go. Both of these things may well have been avoidable. But austerity is not just a policy: it’s a state of mind. 

George Eaton: The Grenfell Tower fire has turned a spotlight on austerity's limits

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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