The First Green Shoots

At last the British Government is starting to protect the environment

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 18th November 1999.

It is a well-established fallacy that only small numbers of people care about the environment. Though the polls might not show it, nearly everyone places it among the foremost of their concerns. This is why people move from grim places to pleasant ones as soon as they make money. This is why houses beside the park or on the riverfront are so much more expensive than homes overlooking the council tip. Motor manufacturers argue that British people have voted with their feet (or, more accurately, their bottoms) in choosing to use cars instead of public transport, but they have also voted with their wallets in choosing to buy homes on quiet roads. Every summer weekend, millions of people use their cars to get away from the traffic.

Walk through any British town, and you will see immediately where political power lies, for no pleasant and habitable place survives in this country which has not been hard fought for. The rich and influential have kept their neighbourhoods free from the corrosive results of their own activities, while the poor have to live in their midst. Nearly 700 of the UK’s most polluting factories are found in places in which the average household income is less than £15,000. Only five are in places with an average income of more than £30,000. Children in social class five are five times more likely to be hit by a car than children in social class one.

But while everyone might be an environmentalist, there is a difference between those who will fight only for the quality of their own lives, and those who believe that everyone is entitled to agreeable surroundings. There are signs that the British government is, at last, beginning to grasp the idea that environmental quality is a human right.

The environment’s biggest problem is that it responds slowly to political change. The results of decisions made today are somebody else’s concern by the time they emerge. Fortunately, however, we now have a government which has sworn to stay in power for at least three terms. Gradually it seems to be realising that the decisions it makes today will come back to haunt it. As environmental quality declines, a sense of neglect and decay begins to spread to the administration which failed to uphold it. People come to see that a government cannot be trusted to look after the nation if it cannot look after the nation’s fabric.

Labour has already given us plenty of reasons to suspect its stewardship. Some 28 per cent of sites of special scientific interest, English Nature reports, are damaged or neglected. It is almost impossible to prosecute landowners who are determined to destroy them. Of the £42 billion required to decommission our nuclear installations, less than one third has been set aside. National targets for reducing and recycling waste are pathetic and unenforceable. New house-building could turn entire English regions into loosely-aggregated conurbations. The government has conceded that its targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions are far from sufficient to prevent global warming.

Yesterday’s Queen’s speech and last week’s pre-budget statement suggest that the seeds of recognition have started to germinate. Gordon Brown’s meagre energy tax will go a little way towards helping Britain meet its climate change commitments. His decision to spend some of the proceeds of vehicle taxation on better public transport is long overdue. His suspension of the fuel tax escalator, on the other hand, is both environmentally damaging and fiscally regressive.

The green bills announced in the Queen’s speech are the first this government has admitted. Combining habitat protection and access to the countryside is coherent policy making: walkers will help to monitor and report the continued destruction of protected places. A strategic rail authority, better bus services and measures to reduce congestion will help to shift transport subsidies from the rich to the poor. They will succeed, however, only if the government resolves its contradictory policies of reducing car use while increasing car ownership.

This, I hope, is the beginning, not the end, of the greening of government. The great majority of wildlife habitats still have no legal protection at all, and remain threatened by the agriculture ministry’s disastrous policy of eliminating small farms. Far from increasing the money available for nuclear decommissioning, the government may use some of it to sweeten the privatisation of British Nuclear Fuels. Instead of helping us to produce less waste, it is proposing to build as many as 130 incinerators, whose emissions will precipitate a new crisis in public health. Most ominously, it is threatening to sweep away decades of environmental legislation, by helping the World Trade Organisation to promote global deregulation and corporate control.

But the announcements of the last two weeks suggest that the government is beginning to understand the politics of the environment. To stay in power, Labour must establish a favourable political habitat for itself. And this means securing a sound physical environment for the rest of us.