[This article appears in the current weekly bulletin of Sustainable Building]
The 2013 Conservative Conference in Manchester was almost a green free zone. It is true, junior energy and climate minister, Greg Barker, did make a speech praising energy efficiency and renewable energy (but omitting mention of onshore wind), but the big beasts of Tory politics barely gave nodding acknowledgment of climate change or wider environmental issues, despite the conference coming barely days after the latest Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on in the coming impacts of climate change. And environment, food and rural affairs secretary Owen Patterson, even went as far in fringe meetings to question commonly accepted societal threats from climate change, seeing warmer future climates as beneficial to UK agriculture.
However, housing was given a lot of political attention in Manchester. Communities minister Eric Pickles even dismissively described eco-towns as "the zombie policy that will not die."
In vox pops live interviews immediately after on BBC‘s Daily Politics Party conference show, delegates said Cameron said everything he needed to say. But he did not mention the environment once, devoting one sentence to renewable energy! But like the Chancellor George Osborne and London Mayor Boris Johnson, he overtly and enthusiastically backed fracking for shale gas.
David Cameron opened his keynote speech with the words: "This week in Manchester we've shown this Party is on the side of hardworking people. Helping young people buy their own home."
While stressing that the Government still needs to spend less, he nevertheless insisted: "A land of opportunity starts in our economy... to start a business; to own a home."
Mr Cameron did slip in the assertion that the coalition government had developed a "new industrial policy that looks to the future - green jobs, aerospace jobs, life science jobs." But he also praised an anti-environmental measure in the coalition continuing to freeze fuel duty. Mr Osborne said the freeze would apply to the end of this Parliament (May 2015) - "provided we can find the savings to pay for it."
In his own address, George Osborne set out what he called the policy "fundamentals", insisting Government had to get them "right", adding "There's no short cut to any of these things:"
- economic stability
- sound public finances
- safe banks
- excellent schools & colleges
- competitive taxes
- amazing science
- welfare that works
He did also mention home ownership, commenting that the Conservatives are "the party of home ownership," while stressing he is "the first person to say we must be vigilant about avoiding the mistakes of the past. That's why I gave powers to the Bank of England to stop dangerous housing bubbles emerging. But too many people are still being denied the dream of owning their own home. So instead of starting the second phase of Help to Buy next year, we're starting it next week."
Boris Johnson pleaded with the chancellor to remove stamp duty. He told the Conference: "we have to recognise that the sheer global charisma of London is putting pressure on Londoners, with average house prices in our city now six times average earnings and for the bottom 25% of earners, the house prices in the bottom quarter are nine times their earnings."
He stressed the step number one in his 2020 Vision plan for London "is to build more homes." He stressed "we believe in the property owning democracy and all that kind of thing but we have to face the reality that for many, many millions of people, for young people in London, for many members of our families, it is now absolutely impossible to get anywhere near to affording a home and that's why it is absolutely vital that we get on with our programmes of accelerating house building. We have done about 55,000 so far, give or take it will be around 100,000 over two terms."
He added "We've put £3.6bn of public land to the use of so many of the good developers I see around here...but we need to do more and we need to accelerate our programme of house building dramatically and I think that it is time that we considered allowing companies to make tax-free loans to their employees to help them with the cost of their rent deposit - how about that."
He closed by emphasizing "In the next couple of years obviously we need to take all sorts of crucial decisions about how to ensure the harmonious development of that city [London]" and argued it is a national government "that is willing to take tough and sensible decisions, to cut unnecessary spending but to make the key investments in transport and infrastructure and housing and in our communities that will take this country forward."
In his own platform speech, Communities secretary Eric Pickles re-enforced the importance of house building. He also attacked shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, for what he predicted would be the extension of his so-called "mansion tax" to ordinary family homes which Mr Pickles said would end up "hitting your garden, your patio and your home improvements with soaring council tax."
He asserted that "Under Conservatives, house building and first time buyers are back at their highest rate since Labour's crash, thanks to schemes like Help to Buy," adding "The economy is turning the corner. We have built over one-hundred-and-fifty thousand new affordable homes since the election, with more to come. And we are supporting new family-friendly tenancies in the private rented sector." By contrast he quipped "Labour build nothing but resentment."
He attacked Ed Miliband's plan to confiscate private land if builders held on to it withjout construction, to force up land values, and asserted Labour would "build over the Green Belt.
Greener energy promised
In a more upbeat speech, Greg Barker, the junior DECC energy and climate minister responsible for renewables and energy efficiency, began by attacking Labour proposed freeze of power and gas prices should they form the next government, describing it as a "reckless pledge'".
He insisted that "Delivering a better deal for energy consumers is our highest priority."
Claiming the Conservatives have "a very different vision " for energy from Labour, Mr Barker said "An explosion of choice, fierce competition, relentless innovation and a market framed to put the consumer at its very heart. That's how you keep prices down."
Insisting that "already, under the Coalition the UK has witnessed a surge of newly built clean secure generating capacity," he added "in addition, the number of exciting local energy systems installed in homes and businesses has leapt from a few thousand to over half a million and is continuing to grow."
Turing to future power supplies, he said: "I want to encourage a vast new army of disruptive new energy players to challenge the Big 6. From individual consumers to community groups entrepreneurs, SMEs and FTSE giants. I want them all to consider generating their own energy at real scale as well as starting to sell their excess energy on a commercial basis. A decentralised power to the people energy revolution. Not just a few exemplars but tens of thousands of them. The Big 6 need to become the Big 60,000."
On renewables, he said "Already, solar technologies alone now account for over 2.5GW of installed capacity and continue to grow at a terrific rate... we put the pressure on the renewables sector to cut costs, scale up faster, commercialise sooner, and emerge as a genuine commercial challenger to the traditional fossil fuel economy. And now with falling costs there are a whole range of locally deployable renewable technologies that can be exploited economically."
From Combined Heat and Power systems solar PV, geothermal, locally coppiced biomass and a range of energy from waste technologies, right through to hydro and micro hydro schemes, the UK is bursting with green innovation and energy potential, he added.
He insisted that "We will also look to do far more to integrate our new policies that help families produce their own renewable electricity. Our new incentives to help families generate renewable heat, and make sure they work hand in glove with the range of new Green Deal energy efficiency measures which help hardworking families keep their homes warmer for less."
Describing it as "early days for the Green Deal market but don't under estimate the ambition or determination to drive it forward," he made no mention that to date just 12 households nationally had taken it up, despite it being launched at the end of January this year.
Instead, he insisted "Many more players are set to join the Green Deal in coming months and already thousands of people have taken the first steps in a 20 year energy efficiency transformation. Next year will see the Green Deal go up a gear as we begin local, community led street by street roll out in earnest."
Coalition energy fallout
Following the Conference, the Financial Times ran a story revealing that chancellor Osborne and energy secretary Davey were poised to clash over green energy targets, suggesting that a simmering row between the energy secretary and chancellor over green targets erupted on 3 October as the government's climate advisers warned against watering down efforts to tackle climate change.
Meanwhile, The Guardian's head of environment, Damian Carrington, said in his Conference Blog: " I am not suggesting that we don't need a diversity of energy sources: what I mean is that the Conservatives have now been speaking simultaneously with two voices - green and anti-green - for several years now. This matters."