Blair announces £150 million of new environmental spending

In his first major speech on the environment since assuming office three and a half years ago, Tony Blair pledged £50 million to renewables, £50 for recycling and the same for ‘neighbourhood renewal’, and also launched a new coalition to promote sustainable development in the UK.

As part of a government pledge to increase renewable energy to 10% of UK supply within a decade (see related story), Blair also pledged £50 million from a new Lottery financed fund, the New Opportunities Fund, to support offshore wind and biomass power generation, following an announcement of increased Government support made at the Renewables 2000 summit (see related story).

Announcing £50 million from the same fund to provide kerbside recycling for 700,000 homes, Blair said that he wanted to see “every local authority offering doorstep recycling.” The Prime Minister also announced that the government would soon begin trialling the purchase of recycled products.

An upcoming White Paper will detail the third £50 million share from the New Opportunities Fund, which will go towards a National Strategy for Neighbourhood renewal. Blair’s wording was vague, pledging the money “for quality of life in urban and rural settlements and for green spaces.”

In his 35-minute speech Blair drew on a wide spectrum of global environmental problems, including; climate change, pressure on fresh water, soil degradation, wetland depletion, over-fishing and species loss. He also highlighted the Government’s successes, especially regarding greenhouse gas emissions, where a 20% move towards CO2 emissions by 2010 is planned, (see related story). “No other British Government has put the environment at the heart of its policy-making across the board – from foreign affairs to the national curriculum,” he said.

Launching the new coalition, the Sustainable Development Commission, (see related story) the Prime Minister noted environmental issues fall from political and media prominence. “And slowly, as the message became less novel, as the publicity machine moved on, environmental issues slid back down the political agenda. Today I want to invite you, environmentalists and business, to join me in changing that.”

“We need to build a new coalition for the environment, a coalition that works with the grain of consumers, business and science, not against them,” Blair said. “A coalition that harnesses consumer demand for a better environment, and encourages businesses to see the profit of the new green technologies and a coalition that stretches across national frontiers.

The Prime Minister also issued a challenge for the top 350 companies to publish environment reports by the end of 2001, as it is “something that all companies should be doing”.

In the spontaneous session following the speech, Blair faced a question on the development pressures faced by Green Belt areas: “The only way to relieve the pressure on the countryside is to make the city a better place to live. It is far more than a matter of providing housing,” he said, adding that green spaces, design, transport and crime were just a few of the matters which needed addressing to counter the problem.

In response to a question from the audience of environmental experts on the need to reduce greenhouse gases by 90%, instead of the proposed 60% in the developed world, the Prime Minister retorted that “a 60% decrease is pretty ambitious”.

The one question which Blair had trouble answering was what action he intended to take if George W. Bush, who denies the existence of global warming, became president of the United States. “We will take a little time to think about that,” he joked before replying, choosing his words carefully: “I do think on climate change we need to invigorate a sense of urgency.” Prior to this in his speech the Prime Minister had referred to climate change as “the greatest threat to our environment today”.

Blair’s speech and the money pledged were well-received by both green groups and business leaders. “We welcome the new announcement for off-shore wind,” said Sarah Burton of Greenpeace, although others were unhappy with the brief mention of GM foods and Blair’s claim that he is “neither pro nor anti”, and with his failure to mention fuel duty.

Friends of the Earth was pleased with the idea of a coalition, especially as their former head, Jonathon Porritt, will now become its chair, but in a statement the group described the £50 million pledge for renewables as “still not enough to meet the Government’s own target of 10% of electricity to come from renewable sources by 2010”. On road transport, the group backed increased Government spending on public transport in rural areas, and tax changes to favour smaller and fuel-efficient vehicles, but added that “the Government must set a target for road traffic reduction” as the number of car journeys was “still rising despite John Prescott’s promise when Labour took office”.

The Conservative Opposition leader, William Hague, however, attacked the government’s environmental policy as “all words, no action”.

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