Boris Johnson’s New Deal for Britain yet to align with green recovery calls

Prime Minister Boris Johnson will announce a multi-billion-pound "New Deal for Britain" that prioritises jobs and infrastructure growth to respond to the economic crash caused by Covid-19, but following months of calls for a "green recovery," the environment is largely absent from the plan.

Boris Johnson’s New Deal for Britain yet to align with green recovery calls

Johnson will confirm that the National Infrastructure Strategy will be published this Autumn

The Prime Minister will today unveil Britain’s New Deal that will spur the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. The New Deal will commit £1.5bn this year for hospital maintenance, more than £1bn on school rebuilds and £900m for a range of ‘shovel ready’ local growth projects to improve transports and jobs across all major towns in England. Funding has also been set aside to improve roadworks and digital upgrades.

Johnson will announce the New Deal today by saying: “This is a government that is wholly committed not just to defeating coronavirus but to using this crisis finally to tackle this country’s great unresolved challenges of the last three decades. To build the homes, to fix the NHS, to tackle the skills crisis, to mend the indefensible gap in opportunity and productivity and connectivity between the regions of the UK. To unite and level up.

“To that end we will build build build. Build back better, build back greener, build back faster and to do that at the pace that this moment requires.”

The greener aspect of the New Deal, however, remains somewhat uncertain.

The New Deal does outline steps to protect the UK’s natural environment, but mainly through a recommitment to reforest parts of the country by planting more than 75,000 acres of trees every year by 2025.

A £40m fund to boost local conservation projects is expected to create around 3,000 jobs while safeguarding 2,000 existing jobs. While this is a welcome boost to conservation charities – which have warned that the pandemic will limit their ability to assist with the UK’s climate efforts – the New Deal provides little else on the green aspect of the recovery at the time of writing.

National Infrastructure Strategy

The country is still awaiting the Government’s 30-year National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS), which has faced numerous delays as a result of Brexit negotiations and the outbreak of the pandemic.

The strategy will outline how £100bn will be spent over this parliament, with investments set to be used to “level up” regions and outline spending projections for transport and digital infrastructure.

Johnson will confirm that the NIS will be published this Autumn which will outline how aligned economic provisions for energy networks, road, rail, flood defences and waste are to the net-zero target.

The BBC, for example, has reported that a £28.8bn new roads programme could be challenged in the courts after it learnt that proposals don’t take emissions reduction commitments into account. Environmental campaigners have acted under a fresh pretence that they can now hold the Government to account for planning projects, following the historic court ruling on the Heathrow Airport expansion on climate grounds.

There have been separate legal challenges launched to the £100bn HS2 project. HS2 was proposed when the UK was still performing towards the aims of the 2008 Climate Change Act. But the Conservatives have since enshrined a net-zero emissions target into law, and there are serious concerns as to whether the HS2 project can comply with this vision.

Elsewhere, a scheme to expand Bristol airport has been rejected following protests that it would exacerbate the climate emergency, while the Welsh government has binned plans for a new road system around Newport on similar grounds.

In fact, the New Civil Engineer (NCE) is reporting that numerous UK infrastructure projects may face court cases on climate grounds, following the Heathrow expansion decision. An NCE investigation revealed that 64 applications were at the pre-examination or pre-approval stage, almost 20 of which are road projects, while 27 are energy projects; all of which could be subject to legal challenges.

Despite these challenges, Johnson will today outline £100m this year for 29 projects to improve the road network, building on a similar announcement in the Spring Budget.

The Chancellor Rishi Sunak is expected to provide more outlines on the UK’s economy next week.

False start

Immediate responses from green campaigners have been largely negative. WWF’s chief executive Tanya Steele described the announcement as “lukewarm”, while the Green Alliance – one of the most vocal organisations calling for a green recovery – described the New Deal as a false start.

Shaun Spiers, executive director of the Green Alliance, said: “Boris Johnson’s speech should have fired the starting gun on a healthier, more resilient future for the UK. Unfortunately, the PM seems to have got off to a false start.

“This statement today is about putting shovels in the ground, but there is no point in that in the long term if it digs the UK deeper into trouble. Whether it’s ‘build, build, build’ or ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’, thousands of constituents around the country are today lobbying their MPs to say they want a truly green recovery. Let’s hope the Chancellor is listening and ups the government’s game next week – putting people, climate and nature front and centre of the government’s recovery strategy.”

Green Recovery

When asked about the environmental aspects of his Government’s plans to recover from the biggest global economic contraction since the Great Depression, Johnson has repeatedly emphasised a commitment to deliver a “fairer, greener and more resilient global economy”.

But given that the UK is currently set to breach its fifth carbon budget and that emissions ultimately rebounded swiftly after the 2008-09 financial crash, the current iteration of the New Deal has done little to cater to calls from the green economy.

Many businesses, green groups and thought leaders are urging more targeted, specific and ambitious action on decarbonisation as part of the green recovery. The New Deal makes no mention of carbon pricing, the Sustainable Development Goals or a holistic approach to transport. These were all key asks in the build-up to the announcement. Read the policy wishlist here.

With the European Union ringfencing 25% of its €750bn fund to help the bloc recover from the coronavirus crisis to mitigating the climate crisis it is hoped that more green aspects of the UK’s recovery will emerge over the coming weeks.

Matt Mace

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