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“More haste less Project Speed”: one week for a Green Recovery recovery.

June 2020

New Zealand was first out of the starting blocks, with a $1.1billion programme for “nature-based jobs”. The EU set the pace, with a €40billion just transition fund expected to create a million green jobs. Today, the Prime Minister joined the field with a pledge to “build back greener”.

Heading for the starting line
The headline announcement for nature was a £40million fund for investment in the natural environment. This is a welcome contribution and should help to support some green jobs and restore important habitats. There will be a competitive process to allocate the funds in the weeks ahead.

But £40m is only a fraction of the massive financial shortfall left by coronavirus, which has led to vital environmental projects being put on hold, let alone the billions of pounds needed to genuinely “grow back better” from the coronavirus crisis.

So far, far from leading the field in a green recovery, the UK is limping back to the starting line.

More haste, less “Project Speed”
Worse still, today’s speech suggested that the Government may be turning in the wrong direction.

When you ask businesses what they need to succeed, one key answer always comes back - “political certainty”. Unfortunately, if there is one political certainty in the last decade, it is that economic crisis leads to deregulation and infrastructure investment. These are precisely the opposite of a green recovery and likely to prove ineffective.

“I’ll take an axe to planning laws”, says Dominic Cummings—a Times headline from last week. Today, the Prime Minister’s speech seemed to reflect that sentiment, with a barbed reference to “newt-counting” offering a dog whistle to deregulators. The announcement of “Project Speed” seems to suggest yet another knee-jerk toward deregulation, despite the evidence that it would not help.

Oxford University’s Smith School 2017 analysis of the “one-in, one-out” approach to deregulation found that “none of the countries we review has demonstrated that this policy innovation has actually led to improvements in economic efficiency”. The National Audit Office calculated that deregulatory initiatives brought forward by the 2010-15 government saved the UK businesses and average of just £400.

What’s more, the deregulatory risk doesn’t only extend to the existing statute book, it also includes regulation that we need that may now be watered down or delayed. The Environment Bill may now be delayed until September, a timeline that would almost inevitably leave important environmental governance gaps on 1 January, as well as leaving the Bill vulnerable to further weakening.

Burying our heads in concrete
As for infrastructure investment, the Prime Minister’s speech hammered home “build build build” as if to drown out the sound of the 13,000 people knocking at their MPs’ virtual doors in the #TheTimeIsNow lobby, asking the Government to build back better instead.

The Government should remember that the world is facing untold loss in lives and livelihoods because of an anthropogenic natural disaster. As Martin Harper recently reminded us, the World Economic Forum found that the top five risks to the global economy are environmental. This complements the emerging findings of the Dasgupta Review, which suggest that investment in averting ecological risks is excellent value for money—quite apart from being the right thing to do.

Encouraging investment in old fashioned businesses is just a hair of the dog. It might make us feel better for a bit, but it is simply stacking up problems for the future. As actor David Oakes put it, we are burying our heads in concrete.

By contrast, successive reviews of essential regulations like the birds and habitats directives found that they were compatible with good development. The benefits from investing in green recovery are huge, creating a more resilient economy and improving health, wellbeing and quality of life for millions of people. By considering deregulation and old-fashioned investments, the Government risks going in exactly the wrong direction.

A week for a Green Recovery recovery
Luckily, today’s speech was not the end of the matter.

Next week, the Chancellor is expected to make a series of announcements to help the economy to recover. Turning things around in a week will require a hasty rethink by the Government.

The answers are ready and waiting. Link’s work on frontloading the 25 Year Environment Plan, calls for £14bn investment by our friends at Green Alliance, Greenpeace UK’s manifesto for a green recovery, the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change; these set a direction to help government get back on track.

The Government has borrowed from nature for too long and its ecological debt is running high. The Prime Minister may prefer to keep drawing down natural resources, rather than invest the money we need for a green recovery, thinking that it is the easy option. But he would be wrong. Our environment can’t keep endlessly providing without payback.

Nature is a loan shark. Borrow too much for too long and the interest rate will be high, paid in fire, flood, lives and livelihoods. Much better to invest in a green recovery now than for us all to pay the price later.

Richard Benwell, CEO, Wildlife and Countryside Link

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.