Environmental policy: making a call on the conferences

Conference season provides opportunity for reading the runes on environmental policy says Society for the Environment chief executive Alex Galloway. Here he shares his expectations for this year's round of party positioning.

It’s Party Conference time again, and this year’s round promise interesting debate and the chance of a fair few policy balloons as we’re just 18 months away from the next general election. It’s likely that we’ll begin to get a good flavour of the parties’ direction of travel over the coming months. It could be a crucial time for environmental policy.

We’ll be watching out for the speeches from the environment and energy Ministers and their shadows with most interest as they strive to balance the environment, energy security and votes.

Conference season started with The Green Party in Brighton, and it was clear that they were eager to show that they are not just a one-issue party.

In the keynote address party leader Natalie Bennett, made a clear pitch for disaffected Labour and Liberal Democrat voters, describing the three main Westminster parties as ‘indistinguishable’ from each other. The party’s focus remains on next year’s European elections to provide a springboard for the 2015 general election.

The Liberal Democrat conference effectively started a day early and it was an environmental policy that starting the ball rolling. Saturday’s announcement of the introduction of a plastic bag levy in England chimes clearly with Liberal Democrat environmentalists. At the conference proper, starting today (Monday 16) we should expect a robust defence of achievements from Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey. It’s an interesting time to be a Liberal Democrat with such a delicate portfolio.

Later in September when Labour meet, we anticipate shadow climate change minister Caroline Flint and shadow DEFRA minister Mary Creagh to speak enthusiastically about their plans for a lower carbon future and more sustainable future.

Finally, at the Conservative conference we’ll no doubt hear more about the Green Deal and will watch with interest the signals from Communities Secretary and enthusiastic planning deregulator Eric Pickles.

Conferences are primarily for getting achievements on voters’ radar, with all that entails in the way of carefully chosen statistics and lovingly-crafted speeches. But everything that is said is for the record, and we need to be carefully examining every word to get a handle on how each of the parties will be positioning themselves on green policies for their manifestoes.

The next Parliament will take us into the third decade of the 21st century, and climate change and carbon targets that might have seemed comfortably far off when they were agreed will be starting to loom. Energy security – keeping the lights on – will be a regular topic in energy Ministers’ in-trays. Some brave decisions are going to have to be taken on energy generation, resource management, agriculture, transport and many other areas.

What gives us hope for a greener future in the UK is that we have, and are continuing to grow, a pool of professional talent to deliver this change. Whatever policies may finally emerge we are making sure that we have the people on the ground – engineers, planners and designers – who have the know-how to build a sustainable future. So we’ll keep our eyes on the balloons being floated in Glasgow, Brighton and Manchester this autumn, and carry on working to ensure that when they fall to earth we’ll be ready to turn them into reality.

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