What will the 2017 General Election mean for green business?

With the nation set to undergo yet another major political decision after the shock announcement to call a snap election, edie investgates how the outcome of the poll on 8 June could impact sustainability and environmental professionals.

Prime Minister Theresa May stood in front of Number 10 yesterday justifying her decision to call a General Election, explaining that “the country is coming together, but Westminster is not”. But this was met by a collective groan from the nation which has only just begun to recover from a tumultuous and highly-fraught EU referendum campaign.

May’s motives appear fairly transparent; the Conservatives head into the General Election with a commanding lead in the opinion polls, with victory over Labour seeming almost a formality. An increased majority in the Commons would also allow the PM to sidestep troublesome right-wing Brexiteers within her own party, providing relative freedom to negotiate a difficult Brexit deal on her own terms.

A Tory landslide would bring with it serious concerns over accountability and scrutiny exerted by a weak, ineffective opposition. In the energy and environment sphere of Westminster politicians, there is a very real possibility of a collapse of Labour MPs with great expertise in climate change and the environment. BEIS Committee chair Iain Wright has already announced his intentions not to stand for re-election, while green stalwart and Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) chair Mary Creagh faces a battle to cling on to a slim majority of just over 2,500 in her Wakefield constituency.

Clean Growth & Environment plans

The biggest election concern for the green business community will be the likelihood of further delays to key pieces of green legislation, promised initially by the Conservatives as part of an overarching blue-sky vision to “leave the environment in a better state for future generations”.

At the heart of the upcoming Industrial Strategy lies a pledge to create an ambitious-yet-realistic decarbonisation agenda, manifested in the proposed Clean Growth Plan. But after several false promises over the document’s publication date, and even a change in name, it remains to be seen when, and indeed if, the Plan will ever see the day of light. Pressed hard by the BEIS Committee earlier today (19 April), Climate Minister Nick Hurd confirmed that the release the Clean Growth Plan is now in a “holding pattern” of new policy frameworks, but Hurd was unable to provide any certainty on whether it will be released before or after the poll take place on 8 June.

Similar question marks hang over the release of Defra’s long-awaited 25-Year Environment Plan. An array of sustainability and environmental experts last week told edie the Government must “stop dithering” and publish the plan, after a leaked version of the document was criticised for providing “grand promises with zero detail”. It is now improbable that either the Clean Growth Plan or 25-Year Environment Plan will be published before the country heads to the polls, as the purdah (pre-election period) rule prevents central and local government from making legislative changes six weeks before a scheduled election.

Air quality & green investment

Meanwhile, amid all the ambiguity over future green legislation is the cast-iron certainty that immediate action must be taken on the worsening air quality situation. Thanks to a successful court battle by ClientEarth, ministers have been forced to produce an ambitious draft Air Quality Plan by 24 April. It is extremely unlikely that yesterday’s announcement will change that outcome.

Air quality is just one element of an estimated 80% of UK green regulations which originate from the EU, and the green business community will be seeking answers during the campaign trail on how the Government intends to frame the UK’s future relationship with the rest of the continent. But with the political stakes at an all-time high, few expect the Government to reveal its hand on environmental or energy regulations before Brexit negotiations begin, meaning the Tory manifesto will likely be long on rhetoric to protect green laws, but short on tangible commitments.

It would be a safe bet to assume that the privatisation of the Green Investment Bank (GIB) will be completed in the early stages of the next parliament, if not before the country casts its vote at the ballot box. The controversial sale of the public-owned institution to Australian investment fund Macquarie, marred by long-standing allegations of asset-stripping, was given the green light last week after a judicial review from a rival bidder was knocked back in the courts last week. It is believed the Government is in line to announce a deal in the upcoming days.

The sale of the GIB has been criticised heavily by the other major political parties – Labour has claimed that the “ideological” and “ham-fisted” privatisation process prevents a much-needed focus on developing future low-carbon technologies.

Labour’s stance

With that in mind, it is worth briefly examining what an alternative long-term green agenda might look like in the unlikely scenario that Labour pulls off the greatest electoral shock in modern times.

Despite an existential crisis caused by bitter internal disputes over the party’s fundamental identity, the green policies set forward by Leader Jeremy Corbyn appear to offer a credible pathway to a low-carbon economy. Among a range of progressive proposals include plans to source 65% of the UK’s energy needs from renewable sources by 2030 and ramp up the rate of domestic energy efficiency programme.

Labour has also pledged to impose a full ban on shale gas exploration, with suggestions that fracking “locks” the country into an energy infrastructure based on fossil fuels “long after the UK needs to have moved to renewables”.

Other parties

The most feasible scenario for Labour success in the election will be if it forms a coalition with other left-leaning parties. So, what of the other options on the voting paper?

After suffering a crushing defeat in the 2015 General Election and losing the majority of its MPs, the Liberal Democrats have found a new lease of life under Tim Farron. For the Lib Dems, this election battle will be fought on the grounds of vehement opposition to a hard-right Brexit, which could entice the strong band of sustainability professionals who stated their intentions to remain in the EU before the referendum. The Party has also pledged to pass a Zero-Carbon Britain Act to bring net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, and Farron has expressed his desire to bring businesses on the decarbonisation journey.

The Lib Dems could be aided in its cause by the Green Party, meanwhile, which has actively explored the possibility of forming a progressive electoral alliance ahead of a snap election. Co-leader Caroline Lucas has obstinately reiterated a need to make a stand against the slashing of environmental legislation that may come with Brexit, emphasised in her calls for a new Environmental Act which replaces and strengthens green laws after the UK’s departure from the EU. Sustainability professionals may be persuaded to vote for the Green Party which has previously held a strong stance against a raft of energy policy changes – from punitive renewable energy subsidy cuts and the abandonment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) funding, through to the axing of key efficiency schemes and the relentless pursuit of a “fracking fantasy”.

The country decides

Whatever the outcome on 8 June, the green business community will be desperate for the next Government to deliver a coherent and ambitious strategy which enables the UK to maintain its international climate leadership and continue its domestic transition to a low-carbon economy.

With all of the early indicators pointing towards an extended Westminster Tory majority, it will be vital for ministers to build on the encouraging momentum made through ratification of the Paris Agreement and approval of the Fifth Carbon Budget.

If the Government is serious about delivering on its promise to “leave the environment in a better state for future generations”, then now is surely the time to prove its mettle with a strong and ambitious campaign manifesto that delivers for the green economy and puts an end to green policy uncertainty once and for all.

George Ogleby

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