Take a PEW, hear a sermon

With three new tracts on planning, energy and waste, the government shows it would rather change our habits than encourage innovation.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics UK

The UK government has gone publishing crazy this week with its very own Holy Trinity of planning, energy and waste. On Monday, Ruth Kelly’s department, Communities and Local Government (CLG), issued a White Paper, Planning for a Sustainable Future (1). On Wednesday, Alasdair Darling’s Department of Trade & Industry (DTI) put out Meeting the Energy Challenge, a White Paper on energy (2). Finally, on Thursday, David Miliband’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) made it a hat-trick of weighty tomes with its Waste Strategy for England 2007 (3). Length of the three tracts, as PDF files on the Web: 220, 343 and 127 pages – a positively Biblical 690 pages.

This is the kind of doorstopper approach to government publishing that we have come to expect of New Labour. The regulation of Britain’s places, fuels and detritus: now there’s a chance to reach a new level of tedium! Not for the first time, the productivity of report writing by policy wonks in Whitehall appears to be much greater than the productivity improvements in the British economy under Gordon Brown’s chancellorship.

Over 10 years of New Labour, planning processes have become so slow that the government has now finally been forced to commit to some semblance of reform. Similarly, investments in energy have been so weak that the UK’s future in that sector looks set to be about the productivity of foreign gas supply, not indigenous innovation in nuclear power, ‘clean’ coal, or large-scale renewable sources. Last, the country has grown so backward in waste management that the youthful New Labour sage David Miliband has been asked to wrap his brain round the problem – if only to avoid Britain earning fines from the EU for its continuing role as the Dirty Man of Europe. After Ireland and Greece, Britain sends more municipal waste to landfill than any other of the EU’s 15 leading nation states (4).

Planning outsourced

The planning White Paper has been widely touted as a charter for rapacious private developers in general, and retail chains in particular. The left-leaning Tory squire, Simon Jenkins, writes that its ‘Tesco clauses’ betray the hold of the big supermarkets and construction firms over Gordon Brown (5). Yet there are only seven paragraphs that mention retailing or shopping. One paragraph expresses the hope that out-of-town retail developments will more easily be ‘zero carbon’ in nature than other sorts; two claim success in boosting retail in town centres; another notes that out-of-town developments should not prejudice edge-of-town ones if the latter also ‘help support the town centre’. This is not a manifesto for mega-malls in the countryside. As the White Paper says, it is a manifesto for ‘minimising urban sprawl and maximising the use of brownfield land’ (6).

In fact, the most significant feature of the planning document is its proposal to outsource decisions on major developments in UK infrastructure to an unelected Infrastructure Planning Commission of 20-30 ministerial appointees, complete with a budget of £8.8m simply to look at 10-25 major projects a year (7). Who will these appointees be? They will be ‘well respected experts, drawn from a range of fields [which] might include national and local government, community engagement, planning, law, engineering, economics, business, security, environment, heritage, and health’ (8).

This arrangement does not offer developers a green light to develop. Rather, it nationalises and makes official the resistance to development that, for the most part, experts in many of the fields mentioned – local government, community ‘engagement’, planning, security, environment, heritage and health – already strenuously uphold in Britain. The planning White Paper mainstreams environmentalist reaction, at the same time as it removes planning further from the realm of democratically elected representatives.

The outsourcing of political decisions is something Gordon Brown loves. He did it with decisions on interest rates, which he famously outsourced to the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee. He has mooted it in health, floating the idea of a board of management for the NHS separate from the Department of Health. Now he wants it in planning.

The oh-so-independent Infrastructure Planning Commission looks like being a powerful body. The White Paper, for instance, gives it no fewer than 368 separate mentions. No doubt its members will work with the strictest propriety (14 mentions) and also the utmost transparency (22 mentions). But the planning White Paper’s own propriety and transparency leave something to be desired. On the key issue of housing, it crows about a 22 per cent increase in English house completions between 2002-3 and 2005-6 (9). What it fails to mention is the trajectory of English housing over the whole of Brown’s reign in the Treasury: from nearly 150,000 in 1997-8 to 163,400 in 2005-6.

That’s an increase of just nine per cent in eight years (10). The Planning White Paper enthuses about speeding up approvals for householders out to build minor extensions to their homes. But it has nothing to say about the need to plan for the major extension of house building that Britain now requires.

In place of R&D, behaviour control

If the planning White Paper represents yet another New Labour infringement of democracy, the other two documents ratchet up an unprecedented level of state interference in personal life. Official obsessions with householder metering of energy and domestic microgeneration now know no bounds: the energy White Paper gives ‘smart’, ‘advanced’ and ‘real-time’ metering 92 mentions, and microgeneration gets 75. It’s a similar story with waste. There will be – wait for it – a new Waste Strategy Board, ‘made up of experts from across Whitehall, with two external members’ and, of course, supported by a Waste Stakeholder Group. The principal aim is to get householders to reduce the amount of household waste not re-used, recycled or composted from 22.2 million tonnes in 2000 to 12.2 million tonnes by 2020 and so make recycling ‘a natural part of everyday life’.

What, however, is not part of New Labour’s everyday life is the idea of genuine advance in the supply of energy. The support for energy research, for instance, is laughable. The energy White Paper warms to the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), established in 2004 ‘to provide a focus for energy research in the UK and for international collaboration’. So what is UKERC’s budget for the five years 2004-9? It turns out to be just £13.8m (11).

The energy White Paper also eulogises the Energy Technologies Institute, which will be launched this summer. But to understand the full scale of this endeavour, it’s actually better to turn to Gordon Brown’s Budget in March. Here’s what our premier-in-waiting had to say about the ‘aspiration’ of the ETI:

‘To raise £100 million per year for UK-based energy research, design, demonstration and development: a total of £1 billion over a ten-year period. BP, Shell, E.ON UK, EDF, Rolls Royce and Scottish and Southern Energy have already committed to support the Institute, and this Budget announces that in addition Caterpillar has committed £5 million a year over the 10 year period, bringing the total private sector commitment up to £312.5 million.’ (12)

For a UK Budget to celebrate an annual £5m bung to the Treasury from Caterpillar, an American firm, shows just how unambitious Whitehall is about energy R&D. To raise £1bn over the course of a decade will do little for the scope of innovation in energy that is now required.

By contrast, Whitehall is hugely ambitious about how it wants to police householder actions with regard to energy and waste. The very production of energy itself is sidelined, as commercial producers are given a new goal: enforcing government fiat. The Energy White Paper wants

‘…changes [in] the way the supplier views their relationship [sic] with the end consumer. Rather than selling units of energy, the suppliers’ focus needs to shift to the marketing of energy services. By harnessing opportunities to change householders’ behaviour, it will be possible to achieve substantial carbon and energy savings.’ (13)

In the same way, the Waste Strategy believes that ‘getting the rules of the game right’ is all about prices. So if local authorities are allowed to reward ‘high recycling, low waste’ households, such enlightened homes could get money back from their local councils. On the other hand, wasteful homes would be charged extra.

What wonderfully exotic carrots and sticks will us naughty children be treated to when we come to dispose of our sweet wrappers? Here’s what David Miliband has in mind:

‘[Local] Authorities would be free to design their own schemes, provided they meet government requirements set out in legislation, including the need to provide kerbside recycling facilities for at least five waste streams (excluding garden waste)… Other schemes currently used by authorities include reward schemes such as prize draws; alternate weekly collections; “no side waste” policies, whereby authorities only collect waste that fits within the receptacle provided; and compulsory recycling’. (14)

Five waste streams or more, prize draws: it’s all visionary stuff. The government will ‘target’ people it describes as ‘light recyclers’, and, through its Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) ‘provide funding for community groups through WRAP’s Behavioural Change Local Fund, for communications that increase participation in household recycling’ (15).

Waiting for compost

The overall impact of this week’s incontinent publishing drive on the part of government is clear enough. While planning decisions will be put in the hands of state-selected angels, Gordon Brown’s eco-pulpit will mete out retribution to the sinner on the street. We must all take a PEW and raise our awareness of our profligate conduct. We must tighten our belts and think about the energy we use and the waste we make all the time. Politics must rise to the level of potato peelings.

WRAP’s Behavioural Change Local Fund, if you bother to look, will run at £13m just from August 2006 to March 2008 (16). That, as we’ve shown, is nearly as much as the UK Energy Research Centre will get in five years. Even in financial terms, it seems, browbeating us with ‘communications’ about our waste comes before experimenting with new energy technologies. As for nuclear power, the Energy White Paper insists on a further round of consultation before, at the end of 2007, the government finally comes out in favour of building new plants – if it does at all.

Gordon Brown is renowned for his indecisiveness. Perhaps that is why he farms out so many decisions to unelected experts. Whatever the reason, we can be sure that delay, the hallmark of the closing months of the Blair administration, will come to spoil Brown’s term in office as well.

At the Department for Transport, Alasdair Darling turned delay into an art form (just lie back and think of Crossrail, London’s perennially postponed rail route that even an Olympics bid couldn’t speed up). No wonder that, as the energy White Paper was announced, BP and Scottish and Southern Energy said they would drop their plans for a pioneering power station in Peterhead, Scotland – one that would have captured and stored the carbon it generated. Their stated reason? Planning delay.

Perhaps this was just the usual complaint of big business. But even in hip, bottom-up renewables, delay is rampant: according to the British Wind Energy Association, applications for onshore windmills representing potentially six per cent of UK electricity supplies (8,000 MW) are currently held up in… the planning system (17).

There is no such sloth, however, about government attempts to get inside our heads and our fingers on energy and waste. We can all look forward to a lot more home composting in future.

With such fervour directed towards making us all behave in a more saintly fashion, perhaps the government will fund a little research into low-energy halos, too.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University in Leicester, England. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

James Heartfield objected to Seeing people as a plague on the planet and celebrated the human footprint. Josie Appleton argued that Life’s too short to be carbon neutral and that it’s time we rewrote the global warming story. Or you can read more at spiked-issue Environment.

(1) Planning for a Sustainable Future, CLG, 21 May 2007

(2) Meeting the Energy Challenge, DTI, 23 May 2007

(3) Waste Strategy for England 2007, DEFRA, 24 May 2007

(4) Waste Strategy for England 2007, DEFRA, 24 May 2007, Chart 1.1, p23

(5) The Tesco clauses betray big business’s grip over Labour, Guardian, 23 May 2007

(6) Planning for a Sustainable Future, CLG, 21 May 2007, p7

(7) Planning for a Sustainable Future, CLG, 21 May 2007, pp92-93

(8) Planning for a Sustainable Future, CLG, 21 May 2007, p34

(9) Planning for a Sustainable Future, CLG, 21 May 2007, p9

(10) See Permanent dwellings started and completed, by tenure, England’, Table 204, CLG

(11) Meeting the Energy Challenge, DTI, 23 May 2007, p223

(12) Budget 2007, HM Treasury, 21 March 2007, para 3.96

(13) Meeting the Energy Challenge, DTI, 23 May 2007, p60

(14) Waste Strategy for England 2007, DEFRA, 24 May 2007, p38

(15) Waste Strategy for England 2007, DEFRA, 24 May 2007, p95

(16) Behavioural Change Local Fund, WRAP

(17) Energy White Paper keeps show on the road – but lacks ambition on renewables, BWEA, 23 May 2007

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Topics Politics UK


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