The Labour Government: Good or bad for the environment?

In a newspaper interview, Environment Minister Michael Meacher has criticised the Government’s commitment to protecting the environment. However, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has stated that his words were taken out of context, and that Britain is no longer seen as the ‘Dirty Man of Europe’. The Government has sustainable development at its heart, he says.

According to an interview with Meacher in The Sunday Times on 11 August, the Minister described himself as “a lone voice in the wilderness” with regard to environmental issues. “I don’t think the government as a whole is yet ready to take the magnitude of decisions I think are necessary,” he said.

One of the most important tasks for the Government is getting the message across to the public about the importance of environmental issues, said Meacher. However, he admitted that the Government has failed to do so. “If there is a problem with government policy it is an inability to get across the background causes which need to influence action,” he said. “If they don’t understand why, we will find it almost impossible.”

On transport, the Minister admitted that the Government appears to have failed to get people out of their cars, noting that: “You could say we haven’t tried hard enough.” Also on transport, he expressed concern over plans for airport expansion, saying that he would be making the environmental case very strongly over a proposal for an airport in the Kent marshes.

Housing is another area in which the Government could be doing better. He admits that there clearly needs to be more houses, but he would like to see a regional policy that spreads industry more across Britain rather than focusing on the southeast. Development grants designed to encourage companies to move to less developed areas are not working, he says.

However, when asked if he was proud of his own record whilst in office, the Minister said that he was.

Despite the apparent damning nature of Meacher’s statements, however, the Prime Minister had not broken off his holiday to speak to him, according to a spokesman for the PM at a press briefing on Monday 12 August. Michael Meacher still has the full confidence of the Prime Minister, the spokesman said.

Meacher’s ability as Environment Minister has been praised by Liberal Democrat leader Malcolm Bruce, who has not been so generous in his comments about the Minister’s boss, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Margaret Beckett. Bruce told the BBC on 8 August that the Secretary of State lacks enthusiasm for environmental issues and has no sense of purpose. “There is no fire,” he is quoted as saying.

The Labour Party did start out with good intentions in ’97, a Lib Dem spokesman pointed out to edie, with ideas that were far and away better than anything before. But by the general election last year there was a marked absence of the environment from the Party’s agenda, he said (see related story). Sustainable development is not at the heart of the Government, he added.

Furthermore, a lot of the positive actions towards environmental protection that have occurred are due to new European legislation rather than UK Government initiatives, which Margaret Beckett has admitted the UK is lagging behind on, said the spokesman.

On the question of whether the current government is any better than the previous Conservative administration, the Lib Dem spokesman noted that former Environment Minister John Gummer is now being seen as one of the leading lights, for instance introducing the Fuel Tax Escalator.

In response to Meacher’s interview in The Sunday Times, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott defended the Government’s record on the environment in The Guardian on 14 August. “Sustainable development – economic, social and environmental – is the biggest challenge facing the world in the 21st century and it is at the heart of this government’s domestic and international agenda,” he said. “That holds good no matter how often the Sunday Times and others say different.”

The Government’s list of successes include cleaner drinking water, air, rivers and beaches, Prescott says, with water leakage cut by one-third (see related story). More than 30,000 hectares of new green belt have been designated, and the UK has achieved its 60% brownfield development target eight years ahead of schedule.

“We are proposing the first new national parks for a generation,” Prescott added. “We have broken the historic link between economic growth and car usage. And we have put all of this into a framework of ‘quality of life indicators’ so that everyone can assess the progress being made – we are already making progress on 11 of the 15 indicators (see related story).

However, last month a House of Commons Committee disagreed with the Government’s analysis of its quality of life indicators, criticising the lack of progress on them (see related story).

Earlier this year, renowned environmental campaigner and now Chair of the Government’s Sustainable Development Commission, Jonathon Porritt, criticised the Prime Minister’s advisors for still failing to understand the importance of sustainable development. He noted that sustainable development is not at the heart of decision-making in the UK and is, instead, having to creep onto the stage inch by inch (see related story).

Meacher’s comments followed a week in which the media claimed that – as the most knowledgeable member of the Government on the environmental and sustainable development issues surrounding the Johannesburg Summit – he was being dropped from the UK’s delegation to South Africa. This was the preferred option by the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications for staving off criticisms of ‘junketing’, claimed the media – rather than explaining the importance of the conference to the general public. As it turned out, whether the story was true or not, ministers were forced to discuss the significance of the Johannesburg Summit, giving it the publicity that one Summit organisation has been calling for (see related story).

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott did not pull his punches on 9 August in a statement to the media regarding Meacher’s attendance at the Summit. “Speculation, misinformation and inaccurate reporting has reached new heights, even for the British press over this critically important ‘earth summit’ in Johannesburg,” he said.

“Debate on the printed page over which ministers are going, how big the delegation is and whether the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications has intervened will not deter the UK delegation from the real issues,” he added.

When questioned about the Prime Minister’s apparent lack of involvement in the Johannesburg conference, starting on 26 August, the Prime Minister’s spokesman pointed out that he will be attending the conference from 2 to 4 September. She noted that the PM has made the environment one of his priorities. Further defending the Government’s commitment, she stated that John Prescott has had a record second-to-none in the lead-up to the conference, Clare Short has constantly worked on development, the Chancellor has been highly involved in aid to help the poorest in the world, and Margaret Beckett is Secretary of State of a department that has been set up to ensure that sustainable development is at the heart of policy.

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