IEEP UK blog | Future of UK/English environment policy under new leadership

For many foreign observers, and not a few UK citizens, the peculiarity of the British political system, where approximately 0.3% of the population gets to elect the leader of the political party in power (and thus indirectly elect the new Prime Minister) has been a source of puzzlement. Not surprisingly, the rights and wrongs of this have absorbed copious newspaper columns and articles and the debate feels far from settled.

One result of the resignation of Boris Johnson and the ensuing Conservative Party leadership contest has been a pause in much of Government business and uncertainty about how policy will change under a new leader. So, it creates an opportunity to consider what we have learnt about future environmental policy for the UK (and especially England) from the two candidates and other events over the summer.

What have we heard from the contenders?

The two remaining candidates, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, have emerged amongst the pack and went into several one-on-one debates and hustings to try to persuade Conservative Party members that they are the right candidate to lead the Party and UK. The environment has featured in the debate: for example, on the merits of environmental levies and VAT on householders’ energy bills, whether or not solar projects should be permitted on potential agricultural land and on energy efficiency improvements (heat pumps etc), but it has by no means been centre stage. Indeed, there has been little sign of conviction of the importance of addressing the environmental and climate emergencies we face. 

Both candidates have signalled their intent to lead internationally; Truss has singled out the importance of the upcoming UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) and has committed to leading a delegation whilst Sunak makes hay out of the UK’s leadership in green financial services.

Both, critically, have signed a pledge to honour the UK’s commitment to the 2050 Net Zero target, but at the same time both have renewed calls for building new nuclear plants, exploiting more North Sea oil and gas reserves and the fracking of onshore shale gas. Indeed, there has been considerable speculation that pressure from elements within the Conservative Party will pull the eventual winner of this race to pause or perhaps even to roll back on some of the climate related pledges made by recent governments.

Despite the pledge, both candidates have been rather superficial in their statements on the environment (see Liz Truss’ blog here and Rishi Sunak’s blog here). This is out of kilter with the recent Climate Change Committee progress report which is a good yard stick to go by and suggests that much more robust statements and action is required. Furthermore, if the intent to lead internationally is to mean anything, then delivering at home first must be a priority.

Environmental policy challenges

A good example of this vagueness is on energy efficiency. If there is one hot topic that wins broad appeal and support from across the political spectrum and the public at large it is this.

Getting the UK to Net Zero will definitely require action on energy demand. Sunak says that he is committed to £3 billion of spending on energy efficiency over 3 years (and an energy advice service for England, something that Scotland successfully set up a while ago…) whilst Truss does not appear to have made anything other than unspecific promises to ‘help people insulate their homes’.

There are 17 million existing properties that fall under Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) band C, many of which belong to those on low incomes, and retrofitting existing buildings will be particularly costly (likely in the tens of billions). This nettle is not being grasped.

By way of international comparison, Germany has recently announced over €60 billion in energy efficiency schemes (and implemented a series of demand side restrictions) and in the United States the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act expands access to energy tax credits for a further 10 years and introduces a $9 billion fund in home energy rebates. Even given the size of their economies and populations, these are much more muscular than the UK’s current plans.

In contrast, and not because of the leadership contest, the water quality of England’s beaches and coastal waters has received an unprecedented level of attention, with daily news stories, focussing particularly on large scale pollution from sewage treatment works and questions about the performance of privately owned English water companies and the way they have been regulated. Concerns used to centre on river water quality and complaints from anglers and naturalists. Now groups like Surfers Against Sewage are being joined by families on their seaside holiday wondering if the water is safe to swim in. The fact that England’s OEP has chosen its first investigation to be on water quality – on combined sewer overflows – is a significant bellwether. There will be pressure to raise standards, invest heavily and tighten regulation and enforcement

Both candidates have dialled up the rhetoric on the status of retained EU law (of which there are at least 500 pieces of DEFRA related legislation) and have ramped up expectations to their supporters about the impending necessity of reviewing this in preparation for amending or removing it from the UK Statute Book. The implications for the environment are enormous. Clarifying the status of retained EU law in the UK post Brexit is one thing, but at a time when cuts to the civil service are planned, will a new fast track mechanism for amending retained EU law be sufficiently resourced? Will it be sufficiently scrutinised by Parliament and civil society to ensure that any substantive changes are in keeping with the requirement to maintain and enhance environmental protection?

In all this it must be remembered that environmental policy is a devolved competence so to a large extent, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales will carry on with their plans for the climate and environment, whoever is in Downing Street come 5 September 2022. Amongst other things, agriculture bills in Scotland and Wales are expected, a clean air bill in Wales and clean air zones in various UK cities are to be rolled out, as well as guidance documents on how environmental principles are embedded across devolved government departments in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In conclusion

The new Prime Minister’s ambition on environmental policy, vague though it now seems, will have to contend with other domestic imperatives like the cost of living, rising inflation and recession, as well as foreign policy – Ukraine, Russia and China, not to mention relations with the EU. The cost of retrofitting buildings to make them energy efficient as well as updating an old sewage infrastructure that is simply not robust enough to cope with increased demand and decent standards is going to require a huge sum of money and political bravery to put right. But the 2019 manifesto did commit to having ‘the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth’ and the Government should be doing all it can to live up to this promise.

So far there seems to be little recognition of the fact that addressing environment and climate issues can contribute to economic recovery and resilience and trigger longer term investment, rather than simply seen as a cost to the Exchequer. Improving air and water quality will mean fewer visits to hospital; a rich, biodiverse landscape and sustainably managed soils will underpin the long-term sustainability of food production; and more energy efficient homes will avoid the ‘eat or heat’ conundrum. Addressing the environmental and climate challenges society faces in a joined up and coherent way is essential for future prosperity as well as sustainability. Ignoring this reality is likely to be counter-productive in the longer term.

Photo by Sadat Bela on Unsplash