Enemy of the Earth

John Gummer presides over the Government’s starkest conflict of interest

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian February 1997.

When he launched the Conservatives’ environmental manifesto last week, John Gummer presented himself, once more, as the patron saint of the environment. Once more, his claims raised scarcely a murmur of protest. So credible have his pious pledges become that he is now being tipped as the next executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. It is the most successful confidence trick that anyone in this government has executed. For John Gummer oversees a conflict of interest that makes the Ministry of Agriculture look like The Untouchables.

Mr Gummer is Britain’s ultimate planning authority. His department represents the public interest in determining what kind of construction can proceed and where it should take place, and he is empowered to “call in” development proposals with a major environmental or social impact for final arbitration. The Department of the Environment is also, of course, responsible for environmental protection, which in theory should bring it into regular conflict with the construction industry.

But John Gummer’s department has another function, just as central to its operations, but much less frequently discussed. The DoE, which is responsible for restraining the construction and property development industries, is also responsible for promoting them.

You might have imagined that a government so monogamously wedded to the free market would leave the building industry to fend for itself. Were, for some mysterious reason, state intervention required, you would expect it to come from the DTI. But the British government seems to be the last institution in Britain to respond to its own exhortations. The Department of the Environment, according to its annual report “aims to help all sectors of the UK construction industry … succeed in their domestic, European and international markets. It is the advocate within Government and the European Union for these industries. …. It also acts as the focal point within Government for the property industry.”

To these ends, the DoE has moved some of its most experienced civil servants into something called the Construction Sponsorship Directorate (CSD). “The industry itself”, according to the DoE press office, “tells us precisely what it is they want and where they want it focussed” . Its demands fall on fertile ground. Senior figures from the construction industry are seconded into the CSD, and civil servants from the CSD are given placements at Tarmac and Laing. Environment ministers provide regular briefings for directors of construction firms. According to a friend in the DoE, the CSD “has tremendous clout within the Department. Broadly speaking, what it proposes tends to happen.”

Every year, John Gummer and his junior ministers have set out on trade missions with the directors of British construction companies. In 1995 and 1996, Gummer helped sell their wares in Israel and the occupied territories, India, the Philippines, Syria, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru: countries not exactly renowned for matching development to the needs of people and the environment.

But even this, Mr Gummer decided, was not enough. In 1995, he established a quango called the Construction Industries Board, whose purpose is “to secure a culture of co-operation, teamwork and continuous improvement in the industry’s performance”. The board is composed of the Department of the Environment and representatives of the construction industry. Its chairman is Sir Ian Dixon of Wilmott Dixon, who was knighted for his services to the CSD, into which both his son and Richard Wilmott, another scion of the firm, have been seconded. Its president is John Gummer. One of its early findings was that “planning constraints are inhibiting a faster growth in the housebuilding sector.” The CIB’s corporate members have now banded together to form a new lobby group, seeking better opportunities for development in Britain. Its target audience is, of course, the DoE.

To ensure that no one is left in the cold, the DoE has set up a second quango “comprising leading figures in the property world … serviced by the Department”, which “provides advice to Ministers and officials on land and property issues, and on the development process”. By happy chance, some of the people represented by the quango also turn up in a lobby group called the Property Industry Forum (PIF). The DoE organizes meetings between ministers and the PIF to “ensure representatives from the industry are able to voice their concerns”.

Suddenly, a whole raft of hitherto incomprehensible Department of Environment rulings begin to make sense. How on earth, environmentalists wondered, could our earnest Mr Gummer have given the go-ahead for the second runway at Manchester? Why did he not call in the application to double the size of Whatley Quarry in the Mendips, which threatens the aquifer feeding the hot springs at Bath? Why did he fail to enforce a moratorium on out of town superstores until the superstores themselves began quietly to lobby for one, in the hope of securing their regional monopolies against competition from foreign companies?

It seemed strange that the DoE was unable to account for the central assumption of its green paper on household growth: that cohabitation rates would be lower in 2016 than they were in 1996. It seemed even odder that, while claiming that it wanted to minimise the impact of the 4.4 million houses it said would have to be built for all the people living by themselves, the green paper made no mention of the principle disincentive to building homes in cities: the speculative price of urban land.

No one could understand why the DoE rejected a House of Lords proposal for a register of contaminated land. Nor why it suggested, to the fury of Tory MPs, the relaxation of greenbelt guidelines, nor why it chose to offer special dispensation for new “stately homes” to be built in the countryside. It has never been clear why Mr Gummer has not insisted that basic social needs be met before derelict urban land is used to build superstores, executive estates or millenium domes.

We environmentalists chose to regard John Gummer as a man hemmed in by dinosaurs, desperately struggling with the ante-diluvian attitudes of his cabinet colleagues. We blamed our environmental crisis on the Department of Transport, the DTI, Michael Heseltine, Michael Howard; anyone but the well-scrubbed, saintly chap twice voted the greenest MP in Britain by a panel of environmental campaigners. But, as he fixes his eye on an even more prestigious job, Gummer can hide behind his green pieties no longer. In public he laments our problems, in private he presides over them. The shrewdest man in the cabinet is not, as he claims, a friend of the earth, but its most deadly enemy.