Vicky Ford is Conservative MP for Chelmsford.
Every day, 55 elephants are killed by poachers; their tusks sliced from their skulls, and the ivory sold to the highest bidder. Without immediate action, there is the real risk that the elephant could soon go the way of the northern white rhino: hunted to extinction. This is why the Government’s decision to introduce one of the world’s toughest bans on ivory sales has received so much public support.
The precious inheritance of our environment, from magnificent creatures like the elephant to the beautiful coral reefs that sustain our oceans, is not the property of this generation – or any other – to squander. Happily, this government understands the strong bond between conservatism and conservation – the pact between generations to leave the country and our planet in a better state than we find it – and the ivory ban marks the latest evidence of this government’s commitment to prioritise the environment .
Environmental matters have been rising up the league tables of issues that people say are important to them, especially many younger voters. During last year’s General Election, as the candidate for Chelmsford, I received more emails from constituents about animal welfare than on all other issues put together. This spring, as one of the 41 Conservative MPs who pledged to give up plastic for Lent, I have been overwhelmed with support from constituents who want the Government to help pave a way towards a lower plastic future. The 5p plastic bag charge is already helping to clean the plastic from our seas and the new deposit return scheme for bottles is most welcome – but what next?
Brexit has its challenges, but it also offers an opportunity to make our country an even greener, more pleasant land. On paper, the 2014 reforms to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy were intended to improve environmental performance, but in practice many British farmers pointed out that the one-size-fits-all approach on policies such as mandatory crop rotation actually resulted in a step backward for wildlife and conservation. The Government is absolutely right to press ahead with reforms to rural payments that prioritise environmental enhancement and, while these payments will be restructured, we cannot afford to do this on the cheap. Our farmers must be given the support they need to maintain and enhance our beautiful countryside.
Perhaps even more importantly, this government is doing more than any other to tackle the greatest threat of all to our environment: climate change. From 1990 to 2017 the UK has reduced its emissions by more than 40 per cent while growing the economy by more than two thirds – the best performance in the G7 on a per person basis. Last year low carbon energy sources topped more than 50 per cent of UK power generation, while internationally we have led the way to cleaning up our air with the Powering Past Coal alliance.
This matters to the young people we will need to win over at the next election to secure a majority: polling from Bright Blue shows that climate change is the number one issue that younger voters want to hear more about from politicians.
Yet there is even more that could be done. Indeed, there are a number of easy wins that could even cut our energy bills while ensuring we continue to play our part in tackling climate change. Onshore wind technology has improved significantly. It is now a cheap source of new electricity generation which does not need taxpayer subsidies to be competitive. It is supported by a majority of Conservative voters, while nationally it enjoys huge popularity – with only 2 per cent strongly opposed to new turbines. Wind energy delivered up to 36 per cent of UK electricity during the recent ‘Beast from the East’ cold snap. Businesses are keen to invest in this sector yet find their route to market blocked by the planning process. We should certainly be enabling the upgrade of the oldest turbines in the country so these sites can be re-powered with the latest cutting-edge technology. A recent report found that this simple act could provide enough electricity to power an additional 800,000 homes every year.
New wind turbines should only ever be built where there is local consent, but requiring local support should not mean a blanket ban. Since the planning rules have been rewritten to reflect a legitimate desire for more local control, there has been a 94 per cent reduction in the number of applications for onshore wind projects in England. When surveyed in 2016, more than 50 per cent of local planning policy teams said they felt either unsure or not confident about how the rules should be understood. Communities are not empowered by opaque planning rules, instead they are robbed of real choice. Local people should have the final say, and that means the ability to reject wind farms, but also they must have the power to accept this source of cheap, clean energy into their community if they wish.
There are other easy wins: accelerating the rollout of electric vehicles, for example, would clean up our air while supporting a growing industry. One in five electric vehicles sold in Europe is made in Britain. The rest of the world is seeking to electrify their transport at a startling rate. India, for example, will ban all new non-electric cars from 2030. Through the Industrial Strategy the Government is already investing in crucial research for the development of new battery technologies. We should also look to support a local electric vehicle (EV) supply chain and become the global hub of EV innovation, expertise and manufacture.
The possibilities in electric vehicles highlight the wider growth opportunities in environmentally friendly commerce. The global direction of travel is clear. China was the world’s largest investor in clean energy last year, and according to PwC sits alongside Britain at the top of the emissions reduction table. Developing economies around the world recognise the potential. The choice is whether we want to win the global race for investment in green technology, or be at the back of the pack. From Carbon Capture and Storage to wind power, we are uniquely placed to secure the jobs of the future while safeguarding our environmental heritage for the generations to come.
In her recent speech, the Prime Minister quoted Roger Scruton, saying that conservatism and environmentalism “point in the same direction: home.” We’ve made great strides on the road there – let’s keep going.