Planning, Housing, Food and Rural Affairs
Environmental campaigners have regularly raised objections to policies relating to food production including genetically modified produce (GM), and EU policies such as CAP(Common Agricultural Policy) that appear to encourage overproduction of food resources. Both policies are claimed to be environmentally damaging, artificially generated and inefficient in the context of using the earth’s natural resources.
A further controversial aspect of the environmental dimension of British politics relates to planning regulations and the construction of housing and building developments and the preservation of the ‘green belt’. Demographic trends such as population growth and a rise in people living alone has led to increased demands for housing across the UK over recent years, and this has forced successive governments to look beyond the existing urban build-up for opportunities to build new houses. This has led to the traditional ‘green belt’ being eroded amidst a surge of house building across ‘boom areas’ such as the South-East of England, where housing provision has not been able to meet consumer demand and this has led to excessive prices beyond the reach of many people.
The Labour government from 1997 was particularly focused on addressing this problem by extending house building beyond parts of the traditional ‘green belt’, angering both the environmental lobby and the countryside lobby (e.g. Countryside Alliance pressure group) in the process. In 2003, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott announced plans to build a significantly increased number of houses to meet demand in areas where house prices were excessive and affordable housing was in short supply. This programme was entitled Sustainable Communities: Building for the Future, and it proposed to build 120,000 new houses across the South-East region alone. Its implications for the green belt and rural areas has led to ongoing opposition from countryside and environmental campaigners, who highlight figures that suggest 30,000 acres of green belt land have been lost since 1997 due to the development of new housing developments. The Conservative-led coalition in power from 2010 pledged to scrap these housing targets, but even this government has been accused of relaxing the overall approach to encroaching on the green belt in the pursuit of more housing sites.
Such an issue has brought into focus how environmental concerns can often conflict with the practical needs of the broader population. Green campaigners argue that the government should develop more ‘brownfield’ sites for such developments, e.g. land where buildings have been demolished, but the government claim that there is not enough of this land to meet the growing housing demands in particular. Environmentalists also want a greater volume of ‘greener’ houses built, using environmentally friendly and recyclable materials as well as innovations such as solar energy (e.g. on windows) where possible, and successive governments of all parties have been accused of not meeting previously agreed targets on such measures (often due to the excessive costs involved).
Transport and the Environment
As mentioned previously, there has been a renewed emphasis in recent years to improve the standards of public transport in a bid to reduce overall car use. Improvements to the rail and bus networks, environmentally friendly tram projects and car-sharing schemes have all been pursued to varying degrees under the Labour government between 1997 and 2010 and continued under the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government that succeeded it, with such trends underway under John Major’s government in the 1990s. It remains to be seen whether any government can reverse the car ownership culture of recent years, particularly in the context of there being 32 million cars on UK roads (2010), a figure that is estimated to currently be growing at half a million a year. Steadily rising prices in public transport (most notably on the privatised railways) have been a cause of concern for policymakers, and is a trend that will not appeal to current car users.
As a slightly more innovative and original environmental approach, in the 2009 Budget, Labour’s Chancellor Alistair Darling sought to encourage the use of ‘greener’, more modern cars by offering consumers £2,000 towards replacing any vehicle over 10 years old with a new one (Car Scrappage Scheme). This initiative was deemed to be moderately successful on an environmental scale, as well as stimulating the car industry during a recession.
A different approach to reducing and streamlining car usage has been the introduction of the congestion charge in London from 2003 onwards. This policy was introduced by then Mayor Ken Livingstone to reduce the build-up of traffic in the centre of this busy capital city and to reduce the environmental fumes and damage that have been a consequence of such an excessive volume of transport. While some business have complained of the policy as a further means of taxation, environmental campaigners have welcomed it, and there have been suggestions of rolling out similar policies to other busy city centres across the UK (although Manchester voted against such a proposal in a 2008 referendum). Since 2008, the Greater London Authority (GLA) has also operated a Low Emission Zone (LEZ) in a bid to contain and control the environmental damage caused by older and larger vehicles travelling through the capital city, fining and charging vehicles deemed to be excessively polluting the atmosphere with a heavy emissions output.