Plan of action

Both the Conservatives and Labour parties seem to be seizing the environmental agenda. Peter McCrum talks to shadow environment minister Richard Ottaway

In a week when leaders of both the Labour and Conservative parties made key note speeches on the environment, the British public were left in no doubt that the environment is now firmly established as a central issue on which the next general election will be fought.

Environmental issues have never before enjoyed such political prominence, reflecting the growing awareness and concern of the British public. Politicians of all parties are now eager to engage with the electorate and assure them that they are finally, and some might complain, rather belatedly, taking this issue seriously and giving it the attention it deserves.

So, following Michael Howard's speech at the Institute of Directors, we caught up with Richard Ottaway MP, shadow environment minister, to find out more about how the Conservative Party is positioning itself in respect to the environment. In his office in Portcullis House, overlooking Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, Ottaway, approachable and sincere, sets out his party's stall.

The transport problem

One of the most pressing environmental concerns is rising emissions from transport, which threatens to jeopardise the government's ambitious targets set following Kyoto. Experts have warned that if emissions keep rising year-on-year, these targets won't be met and will severely compromise Britain's credibility as a world leader on environmental reform. What would a Conservative government do to ensure these targets are met?

"Leading the transport agenda is something we take very seriously," says Ottaway. "We have a past record of using the fiscal system to produce a green result and we will use the tax system to encourage certain behaviour. "But really the challenge is to look at alternative transport systems using fuels like LPG and hydrogen and to make very lean environmentally friendly engines. That can be done through regulation and fiscal incentives, but it requires a pure political will."

Ottaway's optimism regarding a technological solution to the problem of transport emissions comes partly from a recent meeting with executives from General Motors who assured him that they will have a hydrogen powered car in production by 2010. "The truth of the matter is that since 1997, transport emissions have risen year-on-year, so you have to question exactly what the government's policies are. But a Conservative government would be committed to the 20% reduction of CO2 by 2010, although we are slightly sceptical of whether the 2010 target can be reached.

Aviation

"We won't be in office until 2005 or 2006 so that will only give us four or five years to do something about it," he says with evident frustration. "But we will give it our best shot. The 2050 target is, quite frankly, a bit vacuous. It has been roundly rubbished by most people concerned, as it hasn't taken into account the growth in aviation.

"But the targets are a worthy aspiration and we would do our best to achieve them. It would be our ambition to hit them, and in fact it would be our ambition to better them. What we would do is to set out a roadmap as to how we are going to get there. The key to it is aviation emissions and we believe aviation should be included in the emissions trading scheme. I notice that Rod Eddington, chief executive of British Airways, has been calling for that, and I think that is the direction we should be going.

"The trading scheme will also encourage innovation. Apparently the Russians are testing an aircraft engine which works on 50% aviation fuel and 50% hydrogen. Technology is going to be the answer to this.

"Trying to curtail people's aspirations would be very difficult indeed and that is not what the Conservative Party is about. It is going to be our hardest challenge for those of us who are concerned about the environment in policy terms. People like travelling and the Conservatives are not in the business of raising taxes, so we believe that a well thought-out and well-run trading scheme is the answer."

The international situation

The Conservative Party considers itself to be the natural party of government, best equipped to deal with international affairs. So how would a Conservative government engage with the Bush administration with its notoriously bad record on environmental issues?

"What we need here is international leadership. I'm not sure that Blair has actually had a conversation with President Bush about Kyoto within the last five years. Whenever they have press conferences after their summits they go through what has been discussed and the environment has not once been mentioned.

"Michael Howard will make it quite clear that it is now time for the United States to stand shoulder to shoulder with Britain and other countries in adopting Kyoto - and more. Kyoto is really only a stepping stone to a greener future. But it's not just the United States that needs to be engaged with - China, India, Russia - these are all countries with large industrial bases, large CO2 outputs and they are making little effort to curtail their emissions."

Engaging with business

Ottaway sees his party's relationship with UK business as crucial to maintaining improved national environmental performance: "There is a great myth that to be pro-environment is to be anti-business. The business community is nowadays quite prepared to behave in a responsible way. But business needs to have plenty of notice.

"They all have forward financial projections and you can't knock them on the head with environmental legislation at short notice and expect them to comply immediately. For example Howard's proposals for the elimination of the use of HFCs; he gave a timeframe of up to a decade for it to be instituted.

"The other aspect of ensuring that we successfully engage with business on the environment is to ensure that there is a level playing field. Businesses throughout Europe have to be working towards the same environmental criteria.

"Producer responsibility has a key role to play in improving the environmental performance of British businesses. I have seen some excellent examples of businesses behaving in a responsible way - Coca-Cola is phasing out refrigerators using HFCs and Toyota is bring in new air conditioning units in their cars."

Poor performers

"Businesses are addressing their environmental responsibilities, although some are not, but this is no longer tolerated in the marketplace. Poor performers will suffer financially and this should encourage them to improve."

So does he think that UK businesses should be required to provide environmental reports - is there a case for legislation in this respect? "Any Tory would be against further regulation. We would warmly encourage businesses to provide as much environmental information and transparency as possible. I actually think some companies have got really good stories to tell but don't tell them." And what does Ottaway think of the Environment Agency? Is it operating efficiently? "We've had a long hard look at the Agency and although we haven't got detailed access to its records, our gut instinct is that it could operate more efficiently, and that's why we have the James Report which has a hard look at the DEFRA budget as a whole. It recommends some reduction in manpower and suggests that some of its responsibilities could be transposed to other areas. The Gershwin Review - the governments own review - reached pretty much similar conclusions."

A scarce resource

And what are the Conservative's views on water metering? Should compulsory metering be introduced? "It is already a largely metered resource and I think that it will be more so in the future. But from our point of view there would be no compulsion to do so and it will not feature in our manifesto. We will of course be encouraging people to use water more efficiently."

Ottaway would like to see individuals taking more responsibility for the environment. "In my constituency a lot of people are more concerned with how Crystal Palace did at the weekend. But on issues like waste, people could do more to improve things like recycling rates. We need to educate people about what they can do to help, and given the opportunity I believe they will. Progress is being made - organisations like WRAP are doing some great work."

Taking the environment seriously

Ottaway comes across as having a firm grasp and real commitment to environmental issues. Whether or not he will be given the opportunity to play a role in government is of course up to the British electorate, but it is finally becoming apparent that the Conservatives are taking the issue seriously and it will play a prominent role in their manifesto and election campaign.


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