Party conference comes after a bruising few weeks for the Conservatives’ environmental credentials. Delays to the electric vehicle transition and new recycling schemes, an unplanned delay to biodiversity requirements for developers, the disbanding of the Energy Efficiency Taskforce, and the failure to secure investment in new offshore wind projects have undoubtedly undermined voters’ confidence in the party’s commitment to the environment. More importantly, they have made our country’s climate and nature goals harder to reach.
Many conservative environmentalists will feel frustrated. Partly this is because the government is now campaigning against policies we have been defending. But it’s also because the government has made several good policy announcements, following the advocacy of CEN parliamentarians, that have been unfortunately overshadowed. Confirmation of the zero-emission vehicle mandate, liberalisation of onshore wind planning rules, a new community energy fund, and tougher nature recovery requirements in our national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty are all welcome steps, but ministers are unlikely to get much political credit.
It’s clear the government has not done a good job of communicating its green successes to date. New Onward polling found that 60% of adults felt more positive about the Government when they heard that they were almost halfway towards the net zero target, but two thirds didn’t believe they had cut emissions by that amount. The polling was carried out before the Prime Minister’s net zero speech, but loudly announcing a rollback in climate policies is unlikely to have helped with that perception.
It remains too early to judge fully the public reaction to the speech. YouGov polling suggested it had damaged Rishi Sunak’s ratings among Liberal Democrat voters, which will not help the party in its blue wall seats. Another poll showed an alarming fall in the party’s already low vote share among younger voters, a major concern for conservatism’s longer-term prospects. Elsewhere, the overall polling deficit with Labour seemed to narrow slightly. Tuning out the noise, voters seem less keen on the general idea of weaker climate ambition, even if they support some of the individual phaseout delays.
The government is right about the UK’s G7-leading record on emissions reduction since 1990, but this can’t be an excuse for complacency. The truth is our international lead will be lost unless additional policies are put in place. And this week’s State of Nature report showed we’re still going in the wrong direction on biodiversity. The party is ruling out a lot of green measures at the moment, with perhaps more to come on active travel, while still maintaining its overarching commitment to our targets. As a result, some significant policy gaps are opening up. That’s why CEN is coming to this year’s party conference with constructive proposals to help repair the party’s environmental standing.
If the government isn’t going to use regulation to require improvements in household energy efficiency and still intends to meet climate targets, ministers will need to incentivise upgrades instead. Energy efficiency improvements can ease cost of living pressures for households, while also preparing homes for clean heating technologies. They also reduce the need for imported gas, making us more energy secure: North Sea fossil fuel reserves are predominantly oil rather than gas, so insulation will be more effective than new licences at protecting us from petrostates.
CEN has put forward three ideas for tax cuts for warmer homes: a stamp duty rebate for homeowners that retrofit their properties within two years of moving in; a cycle-to-work-style employee benefit scheme for workers that want to fund up to £1,000 of cheap insulation measures; and making energy efficiency improvements tax deductible for landlords, so tenants can benefit from cheaper bills. Announcing these at the Autumn Statement would be a great way to illustrate how reaching net zero can also mean a lower cost of living and a smaller tax burden.
We’re also calling on the government to go further on safeguarding Great British nature. At home, we have lost 97% of our wildflower meadows since the Second World War, a treasured sight in our landscapes and precious habitats for pollinators. Turning this around will require action not just from government with its rollout of nature-friendly farming payments, but also from councillors through their management of verges and parks and individuals in how they look after their gardens.
Much of the UK’s biodiversity lies beyond our shores. Eight-five percent of the critically endangered species the UK is responsible for are in our Overseas Territories, including a third of the world’s penguin population. Conservatives have pioneered a Blue Belt of marine reserves around these islands. We are urging ministers to protect more of the waters around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands from industrial fishing, ensuring plenty of food for British penguins.
It has always been one of CEN’s primary missions to remind conservatives that environmental stewardship is core to our political identity and to the policy agenda of Conservative-led governments. We will be using our platforms at conference to reiterate this message. Once a party’s environmental reputation has been harmed, it can be hard to regain it. It would be political folly, as well as morally irresponsible, to give up environmental leadership now.
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