Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network.
Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must as a priority restore the Conservative Party’s reputation on the environment. Liz Truss’s government, whether fairly or not, was perceived to have backtracked on some of the party’s key environmental commitments. This perception certainly contributed to the government’s poor polling performance, and the chaotic Parliamentary vote on fracking precipitated its end. As soon as they are in post, the new leader must demonstrate their commitment to delivering “the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on Earth”, as pledged in the party’s 2019 manifesto.
After concerns about the economy, disquiet about the direction of environmental policy was one of the last government’s biggest political problems. For the past month, Conservative MPs have been inundated with emails from their constituents about nature policy. There have been fears about the watering down of environmental regulations inside investment zones, the scaling back of the Environmental Land Management schemes (post-Brexit payments for farmers to produce food more sustainably and deliver environmental benefits), and the potential scrapping of EU-derived environmental laws and protections.
These emails were not all from left-wing activists – many Conservative voters are members of the RSPB and the National Trust. The scale of the campaign has once again revealed the huge public concern for our natural environment and the laws that protect it. This is backed up by polling consistently showing the risk to the Conservative vote share from watering down environmental commitments. The debate about sewage discharges during the passage of the Environment Act shows how powerful environmental issues can be in British politics.
Many Conservative MPs understandably felt aggrieved about these emails. Having worked closely with many MPs in the Conservative Environment Network caucus, I know how hard they have campaigned for nature policies in parliament. They’ve passed groundbreaking legislation like the Environment Act. There were legitimate reasons to review some of these policies too, such as ensuring ELMS was sufficiently attractive for farmers. While NGOs regarded this campaign as a preemptive strike to avoid harmful policies being confirmed, MPs felt their environmental credentials were being brought into question before concrete proposals had even been published.
But whether the campaign emails were fair or not, the effect was undeniable uncertainty about the party’s ongoing environmental commitment. This is a great shame, since successive Conservative governments have built up a strong record in recent years on nature policy. The Cameron government established the Blue Belt of marine reserves around UK overseas territories, which now protect an area of sea larger than India. The May government published the 25 year environment plan for not just halting but reversing the decline in our natural capital. The Johnson government passed the Environment Act, which included world-leading measures such as an obligation on companies to tackle illegal deforestation in their supply chains and requirements for developers to improve biodiversity. The new government should build on that leadership.
Liz Truss’s ministers did make some positive moves on climate change, however. The Growth Plan announced that onshore wind applications in England would be subject to the normal planning system – rather than effectively banned. As Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng also put more funding into the industry-led home insulation scheme and committed to speeding up the regulatory and planning process for offshore wind farms. These were welcome steps.
Yet, fatefully, ministers also attempted to bring back fracking. To get it through Parliament, they had to concede to a stringent local consent mechanism, which in practice would have precluded any fracking actually happening due to its widespread unpopularity. Sticking to the moratorium set out in the 2019 manifesto would likely have led to the same amount of fracked gas – i.e. none – but with significantly less political cost.
The new Government will also need to end some of the uncertainty that has been created for businesses delivering the net zero transition. Policy uncertainty increases risk for investors, meaning they demand higher returns. Given rising interest rates, it is especially harmful now to push up financing costs with policy instability. The next government should therefore restart passage of the Energy Security Bill and constrain the new powers being proposed for ministers to intervene in energy markets in the Energy Prices Bill.
Restoring the party’s environmental leadership doesn’t mean forgetting about economic growth. Conservatives have long understood that sound economic and environmental stewardship should go hand in hand. Nature underpins the economy through the provision of essential services like clean water and air, a stable climate, and abundant food, fuel, and medicine. Efficiency improvements are good for business and household costs as well as for the environment. And clean technologies that will help solve climate change will also create investment and export opportunities for British businesses.
Nor should the party ditch supply side reforms. Regulatory reform and environmental protection can be compatible. Measures to remove unnecessary delay in the planning system while delivering better outcomes for nature could bring together a large pro-growth coalition. But this must include specific policies to mitigate any negative environmental impacts from streamlining planning. Similarly the timeline for reforming EU-derived regulations needs to be realistic and allow opportunity for consultation and parliamentary scrutiny.
The Conservatives need to return to delivering on the 2019 manifesto if they’re to fend off calls for a general election. The manifesto contained a plethora of popular, growth enhancing environmental commitments – including very prominently delivering net zero by 2050. Whoever wins the leadership contest should return to that majority winning prospectus.