It is crucial that the right things happen to ensure that environmental standards don’t lose out in the rush to get construction back to work, says Matthew Farrow.
For the last couple of years, the environmental movement has been riding high. As George Monbiot, a veteran left-leaning environmentalist put it: “[The government] has been saying things I’ve been waiting 20 years to hear ministers say”. And we have become used to a string of regular ambitious goals - ‘net zero by 2050’, ‘ending plastic waste by 2042’; ‘diesel/petrol car sales banned by 2032’, ‘exposure to high particulate levels halved by 2025’.
But in recent weeks anxiety has swept through the environmental movement. The prime minister’s ‘build back better’ speech in Dudley talked a lot about building but made only passing references to green issues. Traffic levels are back towards their pre-lockdown levels. The talk of ‘Project Speed’ alarms those who fear it means ripping up planning controls.
Justified alarm? Or just another example of Tony Blair’s frustrated description of the green movement: “Whatever you give them, they always want more”.
I think there is a risk to the green agenda, but not because the government has lost interest. The problem is one of timing. Back in January, three things were happening in parallel. The infrastructure revolution agenda was gathering speed, with the National Infrastructure Strategy being developed and the final confirmation of HS2 imminent. Alongside this, government work on net zero was picking up, with the COP26 summit in November 2020 focusing minds and policy statements from BEIS on energy and heating being worked up. Meanwhile the environment bill, the most ambitious green legislation in 25 years, was about to start its parliamentary progress, on course for royal assent by July.
Covid-19 has skewed these timings. Number Ten is trying to dramatically speed up the infrastructure agenda in an attempt to avoid unemployment soaring and give business confidence. Meanwhile the environment bill has been delayed as parliament struggled to operate during the pandemic as virus-related legislation took priority. COP26 has been delayed till late 2021 and work on climate change policy has slowed down, with the Committee on Climate Change pointing out that the policies to deliver the legally-binding net zero target are mostly nowhere to be seen.
We also have significant holes in the enforcement of environmental regulation. 87% of councils no longer routinely do site visits to check land remediation work. Outside London there are no controls on emissions from the construction machinery that will build all the new infrastructure.
Two things must happen to ensure that we do not let environmental standards lose out in the rush to get construction back to work. First, business has to take the lead. I know of examples of developers who have asked environmental consultants to ensure that developments now deliver 10% biodiversity net gain, even though the legal requirement to do this is not yet there. This is exactly the sort of private sector leadership we need. Secondly, as well as getting its green policy work back on track, the government needs to properly resource local councils and agencies to enforce environmental regulations.
Ministers are desperate to see ‘shovel-ready’ projects moving. Let’s make sure they are ‘shovel-worthy’ too.
Matthew Farrow is the executive director of the Environmental Industries Commission.