The Conservatives’ heavy losses at the local elections have set off a much-needed debate about the future of conservatism. While commentators and factions urge the party to choose between, or prioritise, different parts of its coalition – red wall versus blue wall, older homeowners versus aspiring homeowners, and call for a lurch to the left or the right, there is one area popular with all parts of their voter coalition: the environment. Undoubtedly, the party will have to make difficult trade-offs as it plots a route to a fifth term in office, but leading on the environment can complement and reinforce many strategies to revive the party’s fortunes, as no one part of the conservative movement owns the issue.
Some have argued that the Conservatives must talk more about culture war issues to win back socially conservative, red wall voters. Some of these commentators attempt to brand net zero policies as “woke”, like trans rights and cancel culture. But dragging climate action into the culture wars is irresponsible and would not work politically with the voters this approach is trying to appeal to.
There is, in fact, no part of the electorate that net zero scepticism plays well with. Previous polling for the Conservative Environment Network, Onward, and the Centre for Towns shows majority support for climate action among red wall voters, as well as ‘blue wall’ voters. More in Common research shows that a majority of every segment of the Tory coalition – from ‘Loyal Nationals’ to ‘Backbone Conservatives’ – supports net zero by 2050.
The threat to the Conservatives in the red wall is not from anti-net zero parties like Reform UK, which won just six councillors in the local elections despite trying to make net zero the next front in the culture war, but from Labour, whose leader included clean energy in his five missions for government. While net zero doesn’t alienate social conservatives, the failure to tackle illegal immigration does. Net zero is an important policy for mitigating climate change-linked extreme weather, protecting vulnerable nations, and thereby reducing future migration crises.
Another strategy proposed is to significantly increase housebuilding to win over younger voters eager to get on the housing ladder. Some have attempted to argue that environmental rules slow down and, in some cases, prevent new homes from being built. Undoubtedly we can improve environmental rules like the EU-derived Habitats Regulations to maintain levels of protection but reduce planning risk and complexity. But increased housing supply does not need to come at the expense of the environment.
Several policies introduced by Conservative Governments are starting to realise this vision of environmentally-friendly development. The Future Homes Standard will require all new homes to be net zero-ready by 2025, while biodiversity net gain will mandate that new homes deliver a biodiversity uplift of 10% from the end of this year. The proposal for street votes in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill will encourage gentle densification, expanding the housing supply and encouraging more sustainable communities.
Before the next election, the Conservatives could go further and introduce a new ‘wildbelt’ designation to protect degraded land where nature is being recovered. This will ensure housebuilding does not take place on environmentally important land while increasing access to nature for local residents and safeguarding taxpayers’ investment in nature restoration.
These measures will have minimal impact on housing viability, but they would ensure that the environmental costs of new homes are internalised, tackle a common local objection, and boost the popularity of new homes. In fact, there is a real need after the success of anti-development candidates at the local elections to articulate a pro-growth vision for environmentalism and to demonstrate that housebuilding doesn’t have to lead to environmental degradation.
A third proposal is turbocharging British industry through a UK response to the USA’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), helping the Conservatives appeal to blue-collar workers in red wall seats. Yet it is rarely acknowledged that many of the best economic growth opportunities lie in developing and selling the clean technologies we need for net zero, which is the reason for the IRA’s climate focus.
The Government is already taking steps to seize some of these opportunities. The Energy Bill currently going through Parliament will leverage private investment into industries such as carbon capture and hydrogen. Similar frameworks should be created for sustainable aviation fuel, which otherwise may be produced overseas. Changes to this year’s clean power auction are also needed to win investment in promising new renewable technologies like floating offshore wind.
The UK could see a renaissance in manufacturing due to the green industrial revolution, especially if we have more competitive tax and planning policies to attract businesses to build new factories here. Far from being a hindrance to manufacturing, as some would claim, ambitious climate policies will create a large domestic market for these products and therefore be key to attracting this investment.
The Conservative Party faces a significant challenge to close the polling gap with Labour in the run-up to the next general election. As well as restoring its reputation for good economic management, it needs to offer a positive vision. But whatever strategy the party decides to adopt, and whichever voter coalition it prioritises, pro-growth environmentalism should be central to its pitch in 2024.
First published by ConservativeHome. Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network.