Time to deliver

After a minor reshuffle following the election, it's all systems go for the Labour Party cabinet. Tom Idle of EB looks at the likely environmental focus for this term's government.

Labour’s historic third term victory in the May General Election triggered a rethink of the cabinet make-up. Even David Blunkett was let in through the back door. However, the environmental team at Defra was largely untouched. Margaret Beckett continues as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, while Elliot Morley (a regular contributor to these pages in the run-up to the election) has won promotion to Minister of State. He will continue to push the importance of global warming, initiating climate change policy and leading the forthcoming Climate Change Review.

Meanwhile, former minister for nature conservation Ben Bradshaw takes on the role of parliamentary secretary with responsibility for the local environment, as well as marine and animal welfare. We shall be catching up with Mr Bradshaw at some point over the coming months, as he prepares to sink his teeth into the issues of air quality, noise, waste and local government – all of which come under his jurisdiction.

Five more years

As reported last month, Beckett is “looking forward to the important challenges that lie ahead in delivering the priorities set out by the government in its Five Year Strategy”. The department has certainly got a lot on its plate.

Presumably, the country’s presidency of the European Union and this month’s G8 meeting in Edinburgh offer solid enough platforms on which to start the ball rolling. The agenda Defra has set itself – rather unambitiously, some would argue – will be hard to achieve without a high profile in EU and international negotiations. Many issues are global and these must be pursued at a global level.
However, the long-practised phrase associated with the crisis of climate change – ‘global challenge, local action’ – continues to ring true. Local government will be expected to play a greater role in ensuring energy-efficient measures are taken at a domestic level (social housing refurbishment), as well as at a commercial level (the release of brownfield land). Meanwhile, the private sector is likely to be scrutinised even further, whether it likes it or not.

But EU co-operation and decision-making will mould many of the policies that affect the country’s strategic priorities. The ministers at Defra must ensure its concerns (your concerns), such as better regulation, are more energetically pursued when negotiations kick off in Brussels.

Defra has promised to work more closely with the Department of Trade and Industry to increase the sustainable use of natural resources and energy-saving technology. The target remains ever hopeful at a 20% carbon dioxide emission reduction by the year 2010 – and, to assess how we’re getting on, the UK’s Fourth National Communication to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will be published this time next year.

The £50 million Community Energy Programme will continue until 2008, in a bid to tackle fuel poverty and support CHP schemes in modern urban infrastructure. An extra £10 million will boost this initiative once the cash has been exhausted.
Meanwhile, the Energy Efficiency Innovation Review will provide comprehensive analysis as to whether technological, policy, financial and behavioural innovation by industry and government is actually contributing to the energy efficiency drive. It is hoped that Gordon Brown’s £20 million handout will provide an incentive for private and public investment in new energy-efficient technology.
Of course, a lot of this work assigned to Defra’s team of environmentalists in promoting energy efficiency, will be carried out by the quangos which this Labour government is so keen to utilise. The Carbon Trust has been promised more than £60 million, while an additional £10 million has been earmarked for the Energy Saving Trust.

The word ‘sustainability’ has been a key buzzword throughout the environmental sector over the past decade. And now the government is making progress in transforming sustainability from ‘concept to reality’.

Sustainable development has been a key Defra policy area, highlighted by the department’s continued sponsorship of the Sustainable Development Commission and the support of the Environment Agency in regulating sustainable development objectives. The emphasis is on meeting the needs of today without jeopardising the needs of tomorrow.

Standards of sustainability

The key for Defra has been to follow up the commitments made at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 and not only raise awareness of sustainability throughout each industry sector, but across other government departments as well. Of course, the real test is not only defining the principles of sustainable development, but also agreeing priorities for the UK’s approach to the concept for the next ten to 15 years.

A victory of a slim majority at the ballot box in May has given Tony Blair and his party some food for thought. But when it comes to the environment, it’s time to deliver.

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