Theresa May

A post-liberal approach to the natural environment

As Brexit approaches, too many public figures seem determined to stress what divides rather than what unites us; yet the great majority of people outside Westminster simply want to get on with building a country we can be proud of, with a fairer economy and healthier environment. 

Luckily, the further away from SW1 you travel, the more possible it is to imagine a politics that could make this happen.  From Brixham to Birmingham, Sutherland to Stoke, people tell us that they value relationships and the bonds within communities, as much as individual rights and freedoms.  They are sceptical about allowing the state to dominate their lives, but recognise its role in making things better.  They don’t think of people or nature as commodities; but embrace the role of businesses in building economies that flourish.

Theresa May seems instinctively to understand this politics, which has loosely been called post-liberalism. If she were to put it to work to restore Britain’s natural environment, she could begin a project of remarkable national renewal. 

Our wildlife has suffered horribly since the war; our soils are in poor health; and we are facing the impacts of climate change without the resilience we need.  The last Government showed what can be done, by securing wide-reaching reforms to European fisheries policies, and creating a magnificent over-seas network of marine nature reserves; but we need more of that ambition, if we are to turn Brexit into a moment of opportunity for the natural world.

The first step will be to re-think the role of the state in protecting and restoring our environment.

As the Government has already shown through its welcome ban on microbeads, emphatic state action is sometimes simply the right thing to do. But truly effective regulation should act as a spur to innovation, creating dividends for those able to produce cleaner, more efficient and safer products.  At its best, regulation is dynamic. Its job is specifically to render itself redundant.

A similar story can be told about public funding.  State support can help drive down the costs of new products or practices, and in doing so, become an agent for change.  Governments around the world have helped reduce the costs of solar power, for example. The trick is to taper such support in a way that works for consumers and builds markets, rather than demanding an open ended commitment to subsidy.

In an ideal world, the active state would be an environmental problem-solver, not a nanny.  But in many cases the best solutions don’t come from the centre, but from local people working to improve the places where they live.  Their ‘ask’ from Government is to be given more power to do better. 

This is certainly the case for many farmers trying to do the right thing for their businesses and for nature.  A staggering proportion of today’s farmers say they aren’t profitable without the under-pinning support of the single farm payment.  Yet many also acknowledge that this payment, and the rules that come with it, have done little to incentivise innovation; and that they feel trapped in unsustainable patterns of business that demoralise them and their families. 

The remarkable thing is that in many cases, the route to a more profitable farm is also the route to a better environment. I recently met a farm owner and his young manager in Devon who have dedicated years to developing a machine to turn sea-food waste into high-grade fertiliser. Outside Banbury, I met a young business man who is turning his farm around by matching inputs to outputs with passion and precision.  Producers of the highest quality food tell me that they could sell at prices lower than those of the supermarkets, if they could build shorter supply chains. 

The best food needn’t cost the earth – for nature or customers.  But we desperately need an agricultural policy that supports positive change, rather than underpinning the status quo – through capital grants, advice, and backing for smaller farms (the core of our rural communities and our biggest pool of innovators); rather than static payments and moribund rules.

Once we have this foundation, we can encourage farmers to form partnerships locally to deliver more ambitious projects of environmental renewal.  This might include restoring endangered species and habitats, reducing flood risk or cutting the cost of clean drinking water.  It might even see rural communities offering new ways for children from towns and cities to spend time in the countryside – making a real difference to their development and mental health.

Let us imagine that by the end of this parliament, the Government had committed itself to making the UK a world leader in environmental recovery, with bold plans for restoring nature, reducing pollution, and rebuilding sustainable farm and fishing businesses up and down the country.  And let us imagine too, that the engines for this project were local communities and thriving businesses committed to making great places - with the support of an active but enabling state.  Who would care then, which of us (or them) had voted leave or remain?

Ruth Davis is a senior associate at E3G

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

Powering ahead: the case for a new green industrial strategy

If a week is a long time in politics, as Labour’s Harold Wilson famously said, this last month has felt like an eternity. It is scarcely more than a month since the UK took its most important collective decision in post-war history and voted to leave the European Union. Twenty days later, Theresa May became the UK’s second female Prime Minister.

Given the complexity of leaving the European Union, Mrs May’s time in No. 10 may be dominated almost completely by Brexit, yet all other policy issues – health, education, security, the environment and much more besides – are still there to be addressed.

From a trade union perspective, it has been a welcome surprise to see the new Prime Minister address a number of issues that have long been of great interest to us. These include corporate governance and the importance – or otherwise – of British companies remaining British. Particularly important has been Theresa May’s early commitment to an industrial strategy, even reorganising a government department to take that forward.

Yet some have expressed concern that climate change, a central part of the government’s agenda under both the last Labour administration and the Coalition, has been downgraded. Early action to dispel that fear would be welcome.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) believes that on this issue, we could kill two birds with one stone. Our new publication, ‘Powering Ahead’, puts the case for a sustainable industrial strategy. By sustainable, we mean it must take account of social, economic and environmental concerns. It is natural that industries are born, grow and ultimately die as technology moves on, but the upheaval involved cannot always be left to the whims of the market. In recent decades, deindustrialisation has caused serious disturbances, to put it mildly, in the lives of families and communities. That is why trade unions call for a just or fair transition as we move to more green jobs and away from more polluting ones.

Based on new research from Germany and Denmark, ‘Powering Ahead’ calls for a target of 50 per cent of UK energy coming from renewable sources by 2050. The market, by itself, will not deliver this objective. In Germany and Denmark, two countries that have made great strides towards environmental technology, the enabling role of government has been harnessed in a mission to break into those industries.

The UK government needs to step up to this challenge, with its potential for significant economic and industrial rewards. The economist Lord Stern has predicted a future annual global market of $500bn in environmental goods and services, so investment in these sectors today could reap very real economic benefits tomorrow.

We also believe that government should steer new green tech jobs towards the UK’s former industrial heartlands, which lost their livelihoods with the demise of heavy industry and too often have not seen new opportunities moving in to take the place of jobs lost. The referendum campaign showed that too many people do not believe globalisation has worked for them.

‘Powering Ahead’ explores a range of policy options the government could adopt. It calls for funds to support companies and universities, working together, to tackle the problem of storing renewable energy. It also calls for the development of a proper strategy, based on the building of a political consensus and using a social partnership approach. As readers might expect, the TUC looks enviously at the role of Danish and German trade unionists, utilising their countries’ models of social partnership to influence company decisions from an employee perspective. Politicians of the centre-right, such as Angela Merkel in Germany, seem most comfortable with this approach. Germany’s continued success as the strongest economy in Europe bears witness to its value. Collaboration must also be international; for example the report argues for cross-country effort to develop Carbon Capture and Storage technology, if this is too expensive for the UK government to fund by itself.

What is undoubtedly true is that pollution and environmental degradation know no borders and affect all of us, young and old, rich and poor, supporters of all political parties and of none. We all have an interest in the future of the planet and none of us have a monopoly of wisdom in how to safeguard it.

Outside of the EU, the TUC believes that challenge has become even harder. It was Lord Deben, described by Friends of the Earth as “the best Environment Secretary we’ve ever had”, who said he first became interested in environmental issues in the 1990s when the UK was described as the “dirty man of Europe” due to its poor recycling rates. Brexit may mean Brexit, but there is no mandate to return to those dark days and the Conservative Government needs to demonstrate how the UK’s environmental standards will be maintained and enhanced outside of the EU. The Green Conservatism project of Bright Blue has an important role to play on this issue and the TUC stands ready to support its work. 

Tim Page is senior policy officer at the TUC

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.