Build back better: newt very green at all

Newts just get in the way of housing

Did he say “build back better, greener, faster?” Yes, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined a broad list of a £5bn plan to kick start our economy. But it left many who have called for a properly “green” recovery cold.

The banner underneath his podium said “build, build, build” – and it turned out the real emphasis was on building. Building greener was tertiary, behind the concept of “faster”. Environmentalism came across as an after thought.

Build HS2. Build links to north and south; build to sort out the transport bottle neck at Manchester; build a wider road to Scotland, he said, to make good the promise made in 1992; build homes; build 50 schools; build the election pledge of 40 new hospitals.

And, yes, he wanted 4,000 new carbon zero buses and he highlighted a “massive” investment that is underway in cycle way improvements.

But there was little about generating the green jobs activists had hoped for, in those areas mentioned in road, home or hospital buildings.

“We will build fantastic new homes, on brownfield sites and other areas, with better transport connections,” he trumpeted, not clarifying what “other areas” would be. Would this mean Green Belt land, for example?

Then came the killer. The Government would bring forward “the most radical reforms” of the planning system since World War Two. They would insist on “beautiful new carbon homes,” but Johnson added: “Covid has taught us the cost of delay”.

“Why do procurement projects take 80% longer in the UK than in Germany?” he asked. “Why are capital costs 10-30% higher than in other European countries? Why are we slower than building homes in other countries?

Because time is money. The newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and prosperity of this country. So we will build better, build greener, but also build faster.”   

And there, among the newt counting, was not only the PM showing his true colours of business, but the inherent contradiction. The desire to build greener was over-ridden by the desire to ride roughshod over the environmental impact, particularly on wildlife. Scratch the surveys which might say there was a protected species in the way.

Wonderfully, the irony keeps coming: While Mr Johnson was trying to effectively blame the environment for standing in the way of building back “better, greener, faster,” he wasn’t even correct.

A Government review only 18 months ago detailed that it was the Government’s own regulations which were getting in the way – and it had nothing to do with wildlife.

Next, in the same breathe as mentioning the innovative benefits of wind, solar, carbon capture storage was hidden another misdirection for green stimulus. He wanted Britain’s scientific community to “set ourselves the target” of inventing the world’s first net zero aeroplane. It was a project he called “jet zero”. It is a futuristic idea.  A long-term aim.

But it fails to deal with the immediate problem that flying creates huge carbon emissions yet is allowed to flourish. Oh, and another big issue. As the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas pointed out during the Climate Coalition’s The Time is Now day of lobbying MPs on environmentalism, it costs three times as much to go by train to France as it does to fly, because of the lack of taxes on carbon polluting aeroplane travel.

Critics, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature, were underwhelmed, on the day that about 250 MPs agreed to meet their constituents in Zoom calls, in the first mass virtual lobby, run by the Climate Coalition.

There was no mention, for example, of the £9.2bn manifesto pledge to insulate homes in Britain, which are Europe’s most inefficient housing stock.

“If they can’t be trusted to deliver on their biggest climate pledge in their manifesto, what manifesto pledge can they be trusted to deliver?” Ed Matthew, of the Climate Coalition, asked when interviewed by the Guardian. Some felt that he had set the zero carbon bar for the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, in his budget next week, but we wait and see.

A Vivid Economics report compiled for the WWF, called “keeping us competitive”, says that £40bn of investment would generate £133bn benefits.  Points made repeatedly on lobby seminars were that we know the science has been telling us to “go green” and a green economy shouldn’t be part of the plan for economy recovery, but THE plan.

“A false start” was the conclusion of many experts on the PM’s address. They had hoped for “build back better” to be more embedded in environmentalism. They were left seeing red, not green.