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Conservatives should learn from Houchen and Street to be loud and proud of their environmental record

These have been a very difficult and disappointing set of local elections for the Conservatives. Many hardworking local officeholders have lost their seats. One of the few bright spots was Ben Houchen winning reelection in Teesside. He was able to win despite a big national swing away from the Conservatives, showing the strength of his personal brand and record of delivery.


Sam Hall | Director

There are lessons the party should learn from his success, particularly how he has married a strong commitment to Net Zero with economic regeneration. But the losses elsewhere, including in London, show the electoral limits of fighting Uxbridge-style campaigns that pit the environment against the cost of living.


Ben Houchen deserves huge credit for his victory in Teesside, having driven the region’s economic regeneration following the closure of the steelworks. The Teesworks site is now dominated by green industries, such as SeAH’s wind monopile factory, BP’s blue and green hydrogen plants, and British Steel’s electric arc furnace for recycled steel, to name a few.


These factories have come to Teesside off the back of the UK’s decarbonisation agenda, bringing well-paying jobs to the region and reinvigorating the local economy. Houchen has been one of the strongest supporters of green investment and Net Zero more broadly in the Conservative Party.


Although he disappointingly didn’t secure a third term, Andy Street came within touching distance of holding the West Midlands and outperformed the national party. Some lessons should be learned from his impressive campaign too. He had a strong environmental thread running through his agenda.


Street pledged to increase investment in green public transport, open new tram and train stations, and cap fares. Even on active travel, a heavily contested issue in many other Conservative campaigns, he committed to spend £60 million a year on new walking and cycling routes. He also made pledges to attract green industries to the region, notably a battery factory at Coventry, and on retrofitting leaky homes.


The party will be disappointed to lose so many councillors – often despite working very hard for their residents and delivering for their areas. Although Reform UK performed well on the vote share in the Blackpool South by-election and took votes off Conservatives in some key contests, including the West Midlands, they won only two councillors.


The results underscore that the primary risk to Conservative seats comes from Green, Liberal Democrat, and Labour politicians, all of whom ran on pro-environment platforms, with a particular emphasis on water quality issues.


It is always dangerous to overinterpret local election results given the many factors at play. But this was the first major set of elections since the Prime Minister’s speech last autumn delaying several Net Zero measures, and since the Government set out a plan to end ‘the war on motorists’.


In London, opposition to the ULEZ expansion was the central pledge of the Tory campaign. Yet, Sadiq Khan increased his vote share compared to 2021, despite his poor satisfaction ratings heading into the election. The post-Uxbridge pivot on green issues has failed to revive the party’s fortunes.


This isn’t to say all of the assumptions underpinning the strategy were wrong. People are sensitive to cost when it comes to climate action, which is why green policies must be fair, affordable, and practical. And in most parts of the country people do rely on their cars.


It is the case that the Ultra-Low Emission Zone extension is controversial in outer London, where Susan Hall outperformed Shaun Bailey’s vote share. But the party should set out a positive alternative platform when it opposes an environmental measure.


Going into the general election, the Conservatives’ main message on Net Zero should be a positive one that celebrates the party’s record, offers incentives for green technologies, and emphasises economic opportunity.


For example, on Teesside, Houchen has used the tax breaks on offer inside freeports, alongside targeted government grants, to attract private investment into clean industries and revitalise the local economy. This should be a blueprint for how Conservatives talk about and deliver climate action nationally.

This reflects the consistent findings from polling. While the salience of the environment has fallen a little over the past year with all the other political challenges the country faces, it remains a top five issue and Net Zero still enjoys majority support.


Despite the assumption that Reform UK voters are anti-environment due to the leadership’s position, recent polling shows a majority support building more wind and solar and half even support the net zero target. When combined with the pro-environment views of the current Conservative voter coalition, the party stands to lose more voters than they would gain by further weakening their climate policies.


The party does have a strong record on the environment – from achieving the fastest rate of decarbonisation in the G20 and phasing out coal power to creating a blue belt of marine reserves around the UK Overseas Territories and reforming legacy EU farm subsidies. But the big political risk is that the high-profile rollbacks on some key climate measures last year signalled to voters a deprioritisation of the issue and a failure to deliver on environmental commitments.


To counter this, the national party should look to its successful metro mayor for inspiration. The Conservatives must be louder and prouder of their green record and put forward a strong but distinctive environmental offer at the general election.

First published by ConservativeHome. Sam Hall is the Conservative Environment Network's Director.

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