What do the manifestos have to say about building, energy and climate policy?
By guest blogger, Mike Hannis.
Welcome to this series of posts on the 2017 General Election manifestos, and thanks to Andy Simmonds for inviting me to write them. The aim is to separate out the parties’ concrete commitments from their plentiful rhetoric, focussing primarily on areas of interest to AECB members. In particular this will mean decoding what they have to say about building, energy and climate policy.
I won’t be speculating on the parties’ chances of success, offering any advice on how to vote, or digressing too far into other policy areas except where relevant to the core concerns mentioned above. I’ll try not to editorialise too much as this is not intended as a platform for my own views, many of which you can find online elsewhere. In my day job, I’m a Lecturer in Environmental Humanities at Bath Spa University. I’m also an editor and feature writer at The Land magazine, and have in the past worked in planning consultancy and outdoor event management. I’m not professionally involved in construction, though I do live off-grid in a dwelling I built myself.
Conservatives: Stick with us, we’re strong and stable.
The 2017 Conservative manifesto seems to position the party above day-to-day debate, describing principles and aspirations but rarely stooping so low as to offer actual details of policies. A manifesto like this could only come from a ruling party confidently expecting to be returned to power.
Part of this confidence stems from the knowledge that former UKIP voters are returning to the Tory fold, but there is also an attempt here to claim the so-called centre ground, with a pitch for the votes of those who preferred New Labour to Old. Today’s Conservatives, we are told, ‘reject the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right’. They ‘abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality’ and ‘embrace the mainstream view that recognises the good that government can do’. This is however still the Conservative party, and interventionism can only go so far: ‘our modern industrial strategy is not about ‘planning’ the economy’, because ‘capitalism and free markets remain the best way to deliver prosperity and economic security’.
The manifesto is organised not thematically by policy areas, but around five ‘giant challenges’, namely ‘the need for a strong economy’; ‘Brexit and a changing world’; ‘enduring social divisions’, ‘an ageing society’, and ‘fast-changing technology’. Climate change might make many people’s top five challenges, but not here.
In one of the few clear targets, the Tories promise to ‘deliver a million homes by the end of 2020, and half a million more by the end of 2022’. This will apparently be achieved mainly by measures in the recent Housing White Paper. These include various ‘reforms’ of the planning system (some more desirable than others), and a commitment to release publicly-owned land with capacity for 160,000 houses. There is also an approving mention of ‘modern methods of construction’, though this seems intended more as support for offsite modular construction of high-density apartment blocks, than as an endorsement of higher environmental performance standards.
There are broad promises to ‘build better houses’ and ‘encourage best practice in the design of buildings’, but no details of what standards these aspirations might translate into. The only explicit mention of building performance is a commitment (dating back to 2014) to ‘upgrade all fuel poor homes to EPC Band C by 2030’, though again there is nothing to suggest how exactly this might be achieved.
There is a commitment to ‘diversify who builds homes in this country’, again referring back to the White Paper, which promises more support for smaller builders and self-build, as well as efforts to attract institutional investors into building for the private rental market.
The manifesto acknowledges however that ‘we will never achieve the numbers of new houses we require without the active participation of social and municipal housing providers’. It goes on to say that a Conservative government would ‘help councils to build, but only those councils who will build high-quality, sustainable and integrated communities’.
This, it turns out, means that they will offer (unspecified) support to councils to build not council houses with traditional lifetime tenancies, but ‘new fixed-term social houses, which will be sold privately after ten to fifteen years with an automatic Right to Buy for tenants, the proceeds of which will be recycled into further homes’. This is the next step in the Tories’ project to reinvent social housing as the first step on the ‘housing ladder’: how it will work out remains to be seen.
On energy, the overarching aim is to ‘ensure UK energy costs are as low as possible, while ensuring a reliable supply and allowing us to meet our 2050 carbon reduction objective’. While not specified, this presumably refers to the existing Climate Change Act commitment to reduce emissions by at least 80% of 1990 levels by 2050.
Within this, the message of this manifesto is that no particular generation technology is favoured on principle – ‘energy policy should be focused on outcomes rather than the means by which we reach our objectives’. Nor should it be, since ‘a diverse energy economy is the best way to stimulate innovation, and also to ensure that we are getting the right generation in the right place’.
However the manifesto then goes on to offer unqualified support for the offshore oil and gas industry, and even more enthusiastic backing for onshore fracking for shale gas. Shale gas ‘could play a crucial role in rebalancing our economy’. Moreover ‘because shale is cleaner than coal, it can also help reduce carbon emissions’. This is taken to justify not just supporting fracking, but making it much harder for local planning authorities to stand in the way of it:
‘We will legislate to change planning law for shale applications. Non-fracking drilling will be treated as permitted development, expert planning functions will be established to support local councils, and, when necessary, major shale planning decisions will be made the responsibility of the National Planning Regime.’
Environmentalists, already up in arms, are busily pointing out that the appropriate comparison is not with coal, but with renewables. However there is no reprieve here for the solar industry, and on wind the manifesto states ‘we do not believe that more large-scale onshore wind power is right for England’.
Offshore wind is acceptable though, and on this the Tories claim they would ‘maintain our position as a global leader’. The party also ‘supports the development of wind projects in the remote islands of Scotland’ and will ‘explore ways to harness Welsh natural resources for the generation of power’.
In stark contrast to fracking, there is no direct endorsement of nuclear power. The government is of course supporting it currently, but it is notable that this manifesto doesn’t enthusiastically invoke nuclear as a key part of a low carbon power generation strategy, as previous Conservative manifestos did. It is in fact mentioned only once:
‘We will ensure that foreign ownership of companies controlling important infrastructure does not undermine British security or essential services. We have already strengthened ministerial scrutiny and control in respect of civil nuclear power and will take a similarly robust approach across a limited range of other sectors, such as telecoms, defence and energy.’
Some might want to add transport and water to that list. On nuclear though, the strength of that ‘scrutiny and control’ may soon be tested, as Chinese state companies express interest in the floundering Moorside, gear up for building their own reactor design at Bradwell, and remain poised to take over more of Hinkley as EDF’s financial problems mount up. Brexit is also causing big worries for the nuclear industry, which are not addressed by this manifesto.
Environment and Climate
On climate policy, there is a typical rhetorical flourish:
‘As Conservatives, we are committed to leaving the environment in better condition than we inherited it. That is why we will continue to take a lead in global action against climate change, as the government demonstrated by ratifying the Paris Agreement. We were the first country to introduce a Climate Change Act, which Conservatives helped to frame, and we are halfway towards meeting our 2050 goal of reducing emissions by eighty per cent from 1990 levels.’
There is no explicit commitment here though to stand behind the Paris Agreement if others start undermining it. There is certainly nothing on the vexed question of future carbon budgets. ‘Continuing to take a lead’ on climate sounds good, but what does it mean in practice, alongside policies such as prioritising fracking and expanding Heathrow?
On broader environmental policy, the much-delayed 25 year Environment Plan is promised again, though with no discussion of what it might contain. There is for instance no mention of addressing air pollution.
Little reassurance is offered on the more immediate and critically important question of what will happen to European environmental regulations after Brexit. While the Great Repeal Bill will mean that ‘protections given to consumers and the environment by EU law will continue to be available in UK law at the point at which we leave the EU’ it is made clear here that after leaving the EU, ‘parliament will be able to pass legislation to amend, repeal or improve any piece of EU law it chooses’.
This understates the magnitude of what is proposed: the proposed Act will give the government so-called “Henry VIII” powers, enabling ministers to amend existing acts of parliament at their discretion, without a vote in parliament. Up to 14% of primary legislation is estimated to contain some EU influence and so be vulnerable to this process. This is in addition to secondary legislation (such as the Regulations implementing the EU Energy Performance of Buildings Directive).
This mammoth regulatory review will take place in the context of a general commitment to ‘regulate more efficiently, saving £9 billion through the Red Tape Challenge and the One-In-Two-Out Rule’. There is a clear presumption in favour of getting rid of supposedly burdensome regulations wherever possible, coupled with greatly increased powers to do so without any effective scrutiny.
There is a promise that ‘workers’ rights conferred on British citizens from our membership of the EU will remain’, although these rights presumably exclude any deriving from the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which will apparently not be part of the Great Repeal Bill. Strikingly, no such promise is made about any area of environmental protection. The Conservatives go into this election making a bold and perhaps surprising claim to be a party for workers – but nothing in their manifesto could support any claim to be a party for environmentalists.
Read blog number 1 here – Labour manifesto.
Read blog number 3 here – Green Party manifesto.
Read blog number 4 here – Liberal Democrats manifesto
The next manifesto analysis to be added shortly. Any comments? Let us know here – AECB members only – please log in to post.