Green Grave

The environment succumbs to Labour’s cynical realpolitik

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 12th March 1998.

Seldom do the poor do more to subsidise the rich than when they bear the costs of environmental neglect. Take transport, for example. A study released a month ago by the British Lung Foundation suggests that motorists pay the Exchequer only one third of what they cost the nation. They spend less than they did twenty years ago, new government figures tell us, while rail users pay 71 per cent more.

The poor, who, lacking capital, cannot afford to travel cheaply, are hammered again and again. Children in social class 5, according to Great Ormond Street Hospital, are five times as likely to be hit by a car as children in social class 1. It is the poor who live beside the motorway and under the flyover: they are the ones most likely to feature among the 24,000 people a year whose deaths, the Health Secretary tells us, are hastened by air pollution.

Any government committed to social justice would seek to ensure that the rich support the poor, rather than the other way around, and Labour knows what this entails. This is why Tony Blair promised that he would place the environment at the heart of policy, and Gordon Brown announced that economic development must be consistent with environmental protection. If you still require evidence that the government’s concern for social justice is merely spin-deep, you need look no further than the systematic abandonment of its environmental pledges.

The backsliding began the moment it took office. The Birmingham Northern Relief Road and the Cardiff Bay Barrage, both of which it excoriated as roaring white elephants in opposition, were approved. In east London, the government began planning the biggest encroachment on a site of special scientific interest in history. When environmentalists complained, they were told to wait for the Budget, when they would see that the government meant business. They waited, and now they are staggered by what they see.

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has dedicated its first report to analysing Gordon Brown’s pre-budget statement. Its conclusions are damning. There was no evidence, it found, of a strategic approach to environmental taxation. There was no information about the impact of economic activity on the environment.

Gordon Brown, it seems, will add just one percentage point to the annual petrol tax the Tories had proposed, even though petrol prices have fallen in real terms by 7.5 per cent since 1974. The money will not be earmarked for public transport. There will be no new provision for the clean-up of contaminated urban land. But the most spectacular omission concerns our most obvious social and environmental injustice: Britain’s failure to reduce its need for household fuel.

For years, Labour frontbenchers have been promising to retract the anomaly which ensures that saving energy costs more than using it. VAT on fuel consumption stands at 5 per cent; VAT on fuel conservation – insulation, double glazing and thermostats, for example – is charged at 17.5 per cent. Labour has never doubted that this arrangement is absurd: in 1996, Dawn Primarolo, now Financial Secretary at the Treasury, argued passionately that the two rates should be equalised, “in the name of justice, jobs, democracy and energy efficiency.” She’s right: every winter, more than 30,000 elderly people pay for the meanness of her department with their lives. They die of cold because their homes aren’t fit to live in.

It hardly seems necessary to tell you what comes next. The government’s commitment to reform has been diluted until just 40,000 of the 8 million households deemed to suffer from “fuel poverty” will benefit. As fuel prices plummet, the rest of us will be encouraged only to become more wasteful.

The government, Ms Primarolo now explains, can’t implement a full tax cut because European law forbids it. Yet Belgium did just this in 1995, and hasn’t faced a legal challenge. Her claim, in truth, is simply another stolen Tory policy: if you don’t want to do something, such as forgoing an annual £40 million of revenue, blame Europe.

This budget will shatter any residual hopes that the government is committed to environmental protection. It will leave the environment department squirming. The government will not turn green, but resolutely Brown. And the poor, as always, will pick up the bill.