"It's the economy stupid - that's what will determine the electoral prospects of the Liberal Democrats". This was the clear message from economist Vicky Pryce at a fringe meeting yesterday. Forget over-used phrases like "maximum differentiation" or "focus on delivery", I sensed that neutral political observers believe that the state of the economy will decide the fate of the coalition partners at the next election.
Which is why economic recovery featured prominently in conference hall debates and the fringe. And the green economy is getting a decent airing.
There are two sides to the green economy debate. One that focuses on clean energy and...? Well the other side which focused on the natural environment is largely ignored.
The low carbon economy story was well told in a new Green Alliance publication which we supported. It's conclusion was that "quietly and without fanfare, green business has become a UK success story, at home and abroad. We now export more green products and services to our competitors than we import from them, and we have become the green financing capital of the world." It was impressive to hear the Director General of the CBI, John Cridland, singing convincingly from this hymn sheet last night.
But what about the role of nature and the environment? What contribution does it make to the economy? Recent studies have shown that the natural environment supports almost 750,000 full time equivalent jobs and over £27.5 billion of economic output across the UK. And we're playing our part. Our reserves across the UK attract an estimated £75 million into the local economy and 2,000 local jobs.
These benefits are more often than not located in more remote, rural or coastal areas, where economic opportunities tend to be fewer and less diverse. The greatest impact delivered by conservation come from tourism spending and from the two and half million visitors to our reserves - nearly a fourfold increase in a decade.
So what should politicians make of this?
First, there must be an acceptance that we need a new approach to economic development and prosperity. Such an approach needs to be resilient to shocks, respect environmental limits and have the potential to deliver sustainable prosperity over the longer-term. We cannot do that without greening our economy and we can't green our economy without conserving the natural world. Want to know how to do it? I'd recommend the New Anglia Green Economy Pathfinder which does a good job at combining both sides of the green economy debate.
Second, once their conference week is over, every delegate should go to a local RSPB nature reserve, recover from the stress of a hectic week, reconnect with wildlife and spend lots of their money in the local shops and pubs.
And I shall prescribe this remedy to my hard working parliamentary team. But not yet, they need to start packing their bags for Manchester and the Labour Party conference next week.
Today, my boss Mike Clarke was at the Natural Childhood Summit hosted by the National Trust where he announced that the RSPB will be part of an exciting movement to bring about real change in the relationship between young people and nature. Here are his reflections and a few more details on the Natural Childhood Partnership.
It’s widely accepted that today’s generation of children are less connected to nature than ever before. Yet, there is now overwhelming evidence to show that contact with nature brings benefits for children and affects people’s life-chances. Indeed, disconnection from nature, especially among children, is a strategic threat to the natural world and humanity’s ability to live within safe environmental limits. Today’s children will become tomorrow’s decision-makers.
The first encounters between children and nature are so important. I was lucky as a child to have access to the woods and marshes of Shorne and Cobham in Kent, and discovered the amazing diversity of life on the edge of my town. I couldn’t have known then that those memorable experiences would stay with me, and spark a commitment to saving nature that has been with me ever since.
To many it would seem unquestionable that exploring the world around you is a critical part of childhood. That’s certainly something the RSPB believes, and children have been at the core of our work for more than 100 years, from our ‘front-line’ activities with junior members and field teaching, to behind-the-scenes influencing on education policy. That’s why we’re delighted to announce the RSPB’s full participation in the Natural Childhood Partnership. We’ll be joining the National Trust, Play England, the National Health Service Sustainability Unit, Arla Foods and Greenlions Films as part of an exciting movement to bring about real change in the relationship between young people and nature.
More information on Natural Childhood can be found here.
The rain lashed down and waves crashed against the Brighton seafront, but inside the Liberal Democrat conference centre there was relative calm.
While the media are on the lookout for divisions within the party, the conference itself seemed to be getting on with the business of policy development and planning how to hold on to their 57 seats at the next general election.
It seems that the party faithful have come to terms with the reality of government. Most seem keen to support the leadership in fighting for Liberal Democrat policies as part of coalition negotiations. I wonder if the public (and media) may take longer to adjust to the reality of coalition politics. When at a fringe meeting the Party President, Tim Farron, said that Nick Clegg was an outstanding leader and would become an electoral asset, the audience responded enthusastically. This may not make good copy for the media, but it seems to reflects the mood of the party.
And it is equally clear that the process of differentiation has begun. The challenge appears to be to demonstrate that the Liberal Democrats are a distinctive party while governing as part of a coalition. And they need policy successes to celebrate as well.
There are environmental issues on which the party thinks there may be opportunity to demonstrate difference from the Conservatives. This week, while still on the lookout for a new hub airport, the Lib Dems have voted to rule out a new aiport in the Thames Estuary, or other new runways at Heathrow, Stansted or Gatwick. It has also voted to establish a target range of 50-100g of CO2 per kwh for the decarbonisation of the power sector by 2030 - essentially placing a cap on emissions from power generation. This is welcome. As we argued in a recent pamphlet with Green Alliance, industry needs clear signals such as this to guide investment to deliver both environmental outcomes and jobs.
Over the next couple of weeks we'll find how the other parties are thinking about these issues. As I wrote yesterday, we want competition for the best environmental policies. Which is why I am a disappointed that the natural environment has not figured prominently at this conference. Lots of talk about green growth, but purely through the lens of low Carbon infrastructure. I want to hear more about how the natural environment underpins a healthy rural economy and what the Liberal Democrats will do to protect our natural assets.
I'll let you know.
I am travelling to Brighton today. The great seaside town is hosting the Liberal Democrats' party conference. The RSPB attends the major party conferences to put a spotlight on issues which affect wildlife. I shall be packing my suitcase and popping in to each over the next three weeks. So, I thought I would through this blog give a flavour of what we get up to and how each of the parties are living up to their environmental ambitions.
This week therefore, the focus is on the Liberal Democrats.
Reading the newspapers over the weekend it is clear that in the run up to the next General Election in 2015, the two coalition parties will seek to differentiate themselves from each other. During party conference, it is tempting to exacerbate differences even further to rally the party faithful. So, this weekend Danny Alexander complained of a “blue roadblock” on the green agenda. Meanwhile, Nick Clegg (fresh from his apology which was brilliantly put to music here) criticised the “turbo-charged” Conservative Right, while Ed Davey likens the Tories to the Tea Party putting green jobs at risk. I am sure that similar language will emerge in a couple of weeks time when the Conservatives head for Birmingham. Whatever the motivation, It certainly makes for more spicy Cabinet meetings.
For a party that once claimed to have a 'green thread' running through its policies and that has stewardship of the environment in its constitution, the Liberal Democrats should be particularly sensitive to how the government environmental track record is perceived. They will want to go into the next general election being able to demonstrate that we are on track halt the loss of biodiversity by 2020 and have made a significant shift to a low carbon economy.
Yet, despite having been at the helm of the Department of Energy and Climate Change since 2010 (with Chris Huhne and now Ed Davey as Secretary of State), it is only since the reshuffle that a Lib Dem minister (David Heath) has been posted to Defra. Will this change the dynamic in the department? Given that the coalition agreement made reference to "a science-led policy of badger control", I was not surprised that Natural England released the first licenses last week.
What I am looking for is more policy oomph, momentum, impetus - anything to help realise the fine ambitions in the Natural Environment White Paper. We are looking for Mr Heath to work with the rest of the Defra team to fight for the resources that the department needs and stimulate innovative thinking to help "protect wildlife and ... restore biodiversity" - another coalition commitment. As the lead on agriculture policy, CAP reform should be his top priority. He will need to use all his diplomatic skills in Europe (and at home with the Treasury) to deliver a decent deal for farmers and wildlife. Agri-environment schemes provide the funds that underpin any government's wildlife ambitions. Mr Heath should be looking to bolster the funds and improve the design of the schemes.
My colleague, Tom Fewins, has written his own appeal to the Liberal Democrats to enourage them to do more for wildlife. You can read his article here.
We need the parties to be locked in an evolutionary arms race where the parties strive for the best environmental policy agenda. We don't expect this to happen overnight, but this is a long term aim. And it is why, every year, the RSPB goes to Party conference season, engages with the politicians and challenges them each to do more.
Tomorrow, I'll let you know how we (and the party in yellow) are getting on.
If you were to make an appeal to the Liberal Democrats, what would you say?
It would be great to hear your views.
High Speed 2 – the high speed train line that is to connect London with Birmingham via the Chilterns – has long divided the nation, before any ground has even been broken.
Inevitably, a new train line in this crowded country will have significant implications for wildlife, not to mention the many people who live near the proposed route. The RSPB is working hard to make sure these impacts are minimised, and where there are unavoidable impacts we will be holding Government and HS2 to their legal requirement to provide compensatory habitat. Yet, we’re not opposing HS2 outright as many others are. This is principally because high speed rail could be a vital component of a the low carbon, green transport system that this country urgently needs.
This week we’ve published a report by GreenGauge21 consultants for the RSPB, CPRE and the Campaign for Better Transport. You can read more about the report here - but, in summary, the report explores whether HS2 really can fulfil this role, and its findings are both predictable and challenging.
Predictable because although the report finds that HS2 can indeed be low carbon, it demonstrates that this is only the case if government acts to ensure HS2 takes passengers and freight off the roads and out of planes. It also underlines the importance of ensuring that the electricity used to power the trains is from low carbon sources.
Challenging because we have few guarantees from government that they will take these actions. There is currently no coherent plan to reduce emissions from transport and reduce the use of private vehicles and planes in favour of trains. And just last week, the UK Government was warned by their own advisers that their current energy plans would breach our legal commitments to cutting carbon by wedding our electricity supply to gas.
So, the ball is firmly in the new Transport Minister’s court. It’s a simple choice between big, shiny new projects that could undermine our chances of fighting climate change, or a coherent strategy (which could include shiny, new projects) that delivers a low carbon, green transport system.
Maybe, it is just my odd personality that wants to have coherent strategies. But surely if decision-makers were up front about the challenges (in this case of tackling climate change and protecting the natural environment whilst modernising transport infrastructure) and explained how activity and projects helped to deliver their objectives, people would be more likely to support the overall package. And who can blame them for opposing new ideas if the plans don't make sense?
What do you think? Do you think that HS2 will provide the answer to our low carbon transport problems? Do you hanker for coherent strategies from government?