Guardian – Cameron on #NPPF ‘his hands were tied. …on this, he couldn’t control the chancellor’


When David Cameron invited Dame Fiona Reynolds, the head of the National Trust, into Downing Street recently to talk about planning reform, little was resolved. When the meeting broke up, the prime minister is supposed to have said to her by way of an explanation for any bad blood, that his hands were tied. That, on this, he couldn’t really control the chancellor.

For many involved, the government’s new planning proposals are an indicator of a wider attack by George Osborne on the green agenda. In this row, they don’t know whether the prime minister is hiding behind Osborne’s skirt as the pair go for growth. In this theory, the chancellor has made a tactical decision – that riding roughshod over green policies is the best way to prove they are pursuing growth, just because it’s a vivid display of action. That’s one theory. Another pushed by those inside government is that Cameron and Osborne are engaged in a well-meaning, cool-headed, but pretty dramatic refashioning of what it means to be a Tory environmentalist.

Whatever the reason, Tuesday’s autumn statement confirmed that the green agenda is certainly something Osborne is thinking about a lot. Environmentalists quaked, sceptics were assuaged as a consultation on airport expansion and an intent to axe countryside protection laws were announced.

The chancellor used quite personal language: “I have not shied away from supporting sensible steps to reduce this country’s dependency on volatile oil prices and reduce our carbon emissions. I am the chancellor who funded the first ever green investment bank and introduced the carbon price floor.”

But he added: “I am worried about the combined impact of the green policies adopted not just in Britain but by the European Union on some of our heavy, energy-intensive industries.”

It is a formula he has used before at the Tory party conference, when he said: “We are not going to save the planet by shutting down our steel mills, aluminium smelters and paper manufacturers.”

These industries will get £250m-worth of tax breaks. “If we burden them with endless social and environmental goals, however worthy in their own right, not only will we not achieve those goals, but the businesses will fail, jobs will be lost, and our country will be poorer,” Osborne said. It was one of the more forceful passages in the speech.

Environmentalists faced with this kind of language from Osborne over the past few months have turned to Cameron. Recently, the government has had to agree targets under the Climate Change Act, setting out by how much it would reduce carbon emissions in the far-away period of 2023-2027, and because of the stringent effect of the plans on businesses, Osborne and the business secretary, Vince Cable, put up resistance.

At the time, Cameron brokered a compromise: the carbon budgets would go ahead, but the chancellor won an assurance that there would be a review in 2014 – which means that along with the prospect of two more years of cuts, the next election will be set against the backdrop of a row about how many resources should go into dealing with climate change.

The difference between the pair may be narrower than Cameron’s words to Reynolds might suggest. In official-dom, Cameron himself has allowed for a new mood on the environment. At the regular meeting of the 200 top civil servants a few weeks ago the prime minister was asked by a mandarin whether the government still intended to be the “greenest government ever”.

Cameron’s answer was that where there were “win/win” environmental policies the government would go for them, but other than that, the government would not be going out of its way to go green.

This is another way of stating the new Downing Street riff – that Osborne likes the “politics of ‘and'” not the “politics of ‘or'”. The “politics of ‘and'” allows only for an environmental policy to be adopted if it doesn’t cost the voter or consumer. So the Green Deal to insulate people’s homes and bring down their energy bill (in the autumn statement, the chancellor gave this programme an extra £200m), or fuel-efficient cars – people can still drive, but in a low-carbon way. The “politics of ‘or'” is not OK – it’s energy policies leading to rising bills, as critics argue we are witnessing right now. They are not so much ditching the huskies as catching a ride with the huskies only if they are going in their direction anyway.

There is something else turning heads. The Oxford professor Dieter Helm has written in these pages about the folly of investing so much in nuclear and renewables and not also investing in a non-renewable fossil fuel – gas – readily available globally and potentially cheap. Helm taught the prime minister’s adviser Steve Hilton at university and is close to another government green, the Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin.

Officials confirm that as Britain is closing all its coal-fired power stations, there is a debate inside Whitehall on how much importance gas should assume within a future energy portfolio.What it also means, they say, is that it props up another ailing clean carbon policy – carbon capture and storage – as the prospect of opting for another carbon-emitting project would require a device that cleans it up. When the first demonstration project for carbon capture and storage collapsed in the past few months, the Treasury attempted to claw that £1bn back and use it elsewhere in Whitehall. But it was the permanent secretary at No 10, Jeremy Heywood, who resisted this. Now the £1bn will stay in the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s budget for use later on, doubly important if there is a new “dash for gas”.

“There will be a huge increased focus on gas,” said one minister. “The only problem is those people who think, let’s just stop renewables completely and go for gas.”

Sources say that in the recent round of negotiations on how much support the Treasury should funnel to offshore and renewables, it was Cameron who sought a healthy amount for renewables and there was remarkably little resistance from the Treasury.

Their proposal for the larger end of subsidy was supported. Downing Street still care enough about the memory of the prime minister when he was leader of the green opposition to point out that these policies aren’t strictly “win win”. These types of energy need a Treasury subsidy, but they say that Cameron decided they were win win in other areas.

The prime minister has, in his time, made a lot of phone calls to renewables industries saying “come to Britain” and has been persuaded that the renewables industry, with a competitive advantage in the UK, is critical to UK PLC.

Today the government publishes its carbon plan – how it will reach the fourth carbon budget that Osborne and Cable dislike so much. It will show which sectors of the economy have to rein in carbon emissions, in what way, by when. It’s why, in the autumn statement, Osborne announced the £250m to protect big business from the full effects of the carbon plan.

The disparate group of environmentalists scattered across Whitehall are hoping this is all the chancellor’s rhetoric costs. Sceptics will know that, as things stand, he and the PM are not yet in their gang.

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