As the general election campaign got under way, environmentalists called the policies of the Liberal Democrats the strongest on the environment. “This is the strongest set of environmental policies produced by any of the three main parties,” commented Charles Secrett, Executive Director of NGO Friends of the Earth. “Although the Labour Government has taken some positive steps in the right direction, there is still much more that they should be doing to safeguard the environment. And the Conservatives commitment to green issues can be seen by the failure of William Hague to raise green issues in his pre-election campaigning.”

Launching the party’s Environment mini-Manifesto the leader, Charles Kennedy, said that “only the Liberal Democrats offer a real chance for real change in environmental action”, as the environment had “never been on the Tory agenda” and was “still at the bottom of the Labour Party’s in-tray”. One of the key pledges unveiled by Don Foster, the environment spokesperson, is an Environmental Responsibility Act. This would include a ‘Green Chapter’ in the annual budget, including sustainability indicators and an assessment of the environmental impact of the budget. Environmental objectives would be built into every government policy, with government and business required to set, monitor and report on targets for environmental performance improvements. In addition, targets for sustainability and biodiversity would have to be set and reported on by the Prime Minister annually.

On energy, the recently introduced Climate Change Levy (see related feature) would be gradually phased out under a Liberal Democrat government to be applied at the source of energy production and varied according to the carbon intensity of the fuel, with an attempt to put zero-rate VAT on energy saving materials. The party says it will promote the development of renewable energy with the aim of them supplying 20% of UK electricity demand over 15 years, increasing requirements on the electricity industry and encouraging small-scale generation. A long-term energy policy framework would facilitate renewables investment and the growth of export markets by the private sector and the use of combined heat and power would be promoted. No government subsidies would be given to nuclear power and all existing stations would be phased out the end of their operating lives.

On transport, the Liberal Democrats would aim to reverse the growth in road traffic and eventually achieve an annual reduction of 1% in vehicles. Guaranteed local funding from car parking charges, traffic fines and urban road pricing would pay for public transport and more cycle lanes, which would become obligatory on strategic routes, while a Sustainable Transport Authority would be established to work with local authorities to reduce road traffic. The annual car tax on smaller engine and more efficient cars would be abolished and a reform of business travel tax rates would discourage larger cars and higher mileage. The energy and transport measures would assist carbon dioxide emissions to be cut by an average 2% per year, meeting and exceeding Labour’s 20% target by 2010, the party says.

On water, a national levy on the profits of water companies would be introduced to fund environmental improvements. This 2% levy would also fund the establishment of an independent Water Services Trust to provide grants for installing water efficient appliances. Tough targets would also be set for water companies to reduce wastage and water metering would be introduced for domestic households.

On waste, a National Eco-Efficiency Programme would help companies undertake a systematic process of waste minimisation and encourage large corporations to build environmental criteria into purchasing policies. Landfill taxes would be increased and an incineration tax introduced channelling revenue back to local authorities for investment in recycling.

On the countryside and habitat protection, the introduction of a Greenfield Development Tax would assist the Liberal Democrat’s target of 75% development on brownfield sites. Councils would be able to replace the Uniform Business Rate with a system based on the value of each site. Objectors to development would be given rights of appeal and green areas of particular importance to a community would enjoy the same protections as SSSIs. A new system of Countryside Management Contracts would provide incentives for the production of organic food and produce requiring less fuel input and less prone to degrade soil and water.

Edie will present the election pledges relating to the environment and water for the other main parties over coming weeks.

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