Green growth is the stated objective of the Government which still says it seeks to be ‘the greenest ever’. The forthcoming Natural Environment White paper should reinforce the point that a healthy natural environment is the foundation of a healthy economy and society – because one of the strongest themes emerging from George Osborne’s Budget this week was that the planning system is too much of an impediment to growth and that reform is necessary.
There is a strong echo here of the last government’s view of the planning system – suggesting that whilst the ministers and governing parties may change, the Treasury does not. As we know only too well, the planning system is not perfect. Its achievements in protecting the natural environment which underpins our quality of life are however too often taken for granted. An approach which favours growth alone without regard to the impact of its pursuit is an unsustainable one in the end. The Chancellor stated in his speech that all bodies involved in planning decisions will have to prioritise growth and jobs and we are to have a presumption in favour of sustainable development. We need a presumption in favour of the natural environment.
Development that is genuinely sustainable, in the fullest sense, is a positive thing. At the moment however there are too many, often conflicting, understandings of what ‘sustainable development’ means. It is time for some clarity. Government needs to take the opportunity currently presented by the progress of the Localism Bill through Parliament and the creation of a new National Policy Framework to address this, and make abundantly clear that it means the definition used in the current UK Sustainable Development Strategy.
Also announced by the Chancellor was the creation of a Green Investment Bank (GIB), which is to be welcomed as is the fact that it will have an initial capitalisation of £3 billion rather than the initial £1bn as expected. What is less welcome however, is the fact that it will not be able to borrow until 2015. It is also important to ask what the GIB is for? At present the preoccupation is with funding new green technologies and that is quite correct. However, for the GIB to be a genuinely green bank it must find mechanisms to fund conservation objectives, such as native woodland creation alongside projects to decarbonise our energy supply. As the Read Report noted, increasing the rate of tree planting would make a significant contribution to absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and would also deliver a whole host of other benefits besides – ranging from flood alleviation to green spaces for public health, both physical and mental. This is real green infrastructure which delivers incredible value for money at a time of austerity and it badly requires investment.
In terms of supporting the Big Society there are positive signs from the Budget’s pledges around encouraging charitable giving, notably in relation to modernising and simplifying Gift Aid and incentivising people leaving money to charities in their will. These are welcome moves which will enable charities to better deliver public benefits. Supporting society however also means a presumption in favour of a healthy natural environment since society’s functioning depends upon this. Over the coming weeks and months we will be watching for the Government to show us that it still understands that real growth involves the economy, environment and society moving forward together.
Dr James Cooper, Head of Government Affairs