Environmental organisations react to the Chancellor’s 2012 Budget
The Chancellor George Osborne yesterday announced the UK’s new budget for 2012. With the Government’s election pledge to be ‘the greenest government ever’, environmental groups were anxious to see whether the proposed financial measures for the coming year would reflect this rhetoric.
In the statement, the Chancellor detailed measures for energy, transport and planning, outlining support for gas as the UK’s primary source of power in the coming years and a review of the carbon reduction commitments placed on business. Renewable energy technologies were identified as ‘a crucial part’ of Britain’s energy mix but Mr Osborne cautioned that he would ‘always be alert to the costs we’re asking families and business to bear’ and no new funds for green energy were allocated. In aviation, the budget statement delivered on increasing air passenger duty (APD) – an environmental tax on flights – but the Chancellor’s statement that ‘we must confront the lack of airport capacity in south-east England’ suggests a possible change in the Government’s stance on airport expansion. No details were revealed of the content of the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), due to be published next Tuesday 27th March, except that it will feature a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ and ‘new growth-friendly planning laws’ designed to boost Britain’s competiveness and economic prosperity.
Press releases published in response to the announcement express environmental groups’ concerns that the new budget demonstrates a perpetuation of the view that measures for environmental protection present a barrier to economic growth and prosperity, rather than the promised commitment to developing a green economy.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) called Osborne’s statement ‘misguided’, saying that the budget would ‘put sustainable economic growth at risk’. Wildlife and Countryside Link seconded this view, saying that the budget statement ‘suggest(s) that the government will focus on economic growth at the cost of genuinely sustainable development’. The RPSB too called for an economic plan for growth which ‘puts the environment at the heart of decision making’, saying that it is crucial to recognise that Chancellor Osborne’s assertion that ‘environmentally sustainable has to be fiscally sustainable’ works both ways, something they point out was recognised in the opening paragraph of the Government’s Natural Environment White Paper published last year, which stated that ‘a healthy, properly functioning natural environment is the foundation of sustained economic growth’.
Groups raised concerns over apparent developments in relation to the new National Planning Policy Framework. The National Trust say they are ‘not much wiser on the content’ of the new NPPF and will only know when the Framework is published next week whether issues they raised in their consultation responses have been included. A point of contention is the Chancellor’s stated ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ which CPRE, for example, fears could lead to large areas of countryside being ‘placed at the mercy of developers’. The National Trust and the WWF both stressed a pressing need for a clear definition of sustainable development before it is pursued, to ensure it is not just a rebranding of traditional economic growth at the expense of the environment. Further concerns have been voiced over indications that the Framework may not contain provisions to allow Local Authorities and communities the time and resources to adjust their existing local plans to meet requirements of the new framework, which the CPRE says ‘could leave more than one third of areas that don’t currently have a plan exposed [to development]’. However, the National Trust say there may be ‘tentatively good news’ on this area, provided that the phrase “appropriate implementation arrangements for local authorities in local plans” , included in the full budget document yesterday, will address this.
Environmental groups also responded to the Chancellor’s emphasis on pursuing gas as the UK’s primary source of electricity generation and his reticent support of renewable energy. The RSPB said that new tax breaks for oil and gas exploration off the Shetland Islands is ‘a cause for concern for both the climate and the wildlife in that region’ and stated that if oil and gas remain a central part of the UK’s energy strategy, it will only be acceptable ‘if matched with robust environmental safeguards’.
The WWF applauded the Government’s commitment to raising air passenger duty (APD) by 8% this year, rising to 50% by 2016. However, reservations were expressed in relation to what is feared to be an apparent u-turn in the government’s stance on airport expansion, with CPRE and others urging the Government to maintain its opposition to the creation of further runways at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, suggesting instead the use of ‘smart-hubbing’ – through better allocation of runway slots – to provide additional passenger capacity without the need for further development.
The outcome of the government’s ‘Red Tape Challenge’, in which environmental regulations are to be simplified in an effort to save businesses £1billion, was announced today and can be viewed at Defra’s website.
Overall, there is notable concern amongst environmental groups that the new budget will not deliver a truly green economy; the stance of most organisations seem to echo a statement by the RSPB who ‘agree that development is necessary if the UK is to remain competitive…[and] to enable all of us to prosper’ but stress that this must be ‘compatible with the green economy we have been promised…by this Government’ and ‘not at the cost of our environment’.
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