November 2007 Monthly Archives

Queen’s Speech Debate: Local Government and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

November 8, 2007

Nick Hurd welcomes the Climate Change Bill and outlines a number of key observations that he believes the Government still needs to address. He also calls on the Government to energetically implement the Sustainable Communities Bill.

4.36 pm

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): I want to offer the debate some brief observations about the Climate Change Bill, from the perspective of someone who, like the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), served on the Joint Committee that considered it in draft, and who also sits on the Environmental Audit Committee.

It is clear that the Bill is needed. The inconvenient truth is that our country, which legitimately takes pride in its leadership on climate change, is failing to stabilise emissions, let alone reduce them. Carbon dioxide emissions in this country have risen since 1997 and, at a critical time in the international process, it is very important that we get back on track. We need a new process for setting targets, and for testing their validity and relevance. We also need new ways to test the Government’s credibility in meeting those targets and setting a framework to which the market can react.

We have an opportunity to set an example for other countries to follow. The Climate Change Bill is welcome and extremely important, and I have four observations to make about it. First, there will be a lot of debate about the long-term carbon emissions target for 2050-that is, whether emissions should be cut by 60 or 80 per cent. A year ago, I wrote a report for the Conservative party’s quality of life commission saying that emissions should be cut by at least 80 per cent. That is my personal view but, while it is entirely right that we build consensus through the voice of an independent Committee, it will be too sluggish a process if we have to wait until 2009 for that opinion, given that it is the trajectory of emissions reductions that is important.

In that context, I encourage the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs-who I hope will have a bit more time to focus on climate change, after all the other matters that he has had to deal with-to think more carefully about the language that the Government use about the temperature stabilisation ranges that drive emissions targets. They talk about their desire not to cross the 2° increase threshold, and that is enormously important in view of the costs and risks that would arise if it were crossed. We have a moral duty, as the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) noted, to keep temperature change below that level, but Government statements on the matter sound increasingly incredible because they continue to talk about a stabilisation range that includes an extreme for carbon emissions of 550 parts per million.

As Stern has said, that is a very dangerous place to be, given that his models suggest that there is a 63 to 92 per cent. probability that the 2° increase threshold will be overshot. If the Government stick to the vague and broad language that they have used hitherto, they will lose credibility. They have an opportunity to send a much stronger signal to the international community, at a critical time, about this country’s level of ambition.

However, I am reluctant to allow the debate to focus on the long-term targets alone. I believe that the interim targets for 2025 are the most important, as they are the ones that will bite on today’s decision makers, whether they be in Whitehall or in Britain’s civic centres and business boardrooms. The challenge, in the context of failure, is to really get on top of emissions, and the interim targets are essential. Like the hon. Member for Cambridge, I do not understand why there is an upper limit and why we continue to drag our feet about aviation and shipping. Neither do I understand why the targets do not include-or at least refer to-all greenhouse gases, given that we are in danger of sounding extremely complacent in that regard.

My next observation on the Bill is that the really important innovation is the carbon budgets. They will allow us to deal with the real issue, which is the cumulative carbon emissions. The other really important innovation is the committee on climate change. It was clear to me in the scrutiny Committee that there is an enormous weight of expectation on that committee. I have no idea what Olympians the Secretary of State has in mind to serve on it, but they will have an extremely difficult task. The key decision, which will perhaps underpin the credibility of the whole Bill and the Government’s process here, is the appointment of the first chairman of the committee. The signal that is sent by that will be very important.

The background to this is that there is a growing voice of concern that the Prime Minister does not have the same passion and enthusiasm for climate change as his predecessor. If the first appointment as the chairman of this body is seen to be a poodle who does not have the authority or ability to cause the Government discomfort-which seems to be a crucial element of that role-it will send a negative signal to the marketplace. That is a key bell-wether decision that will tell us a lot about the Prime Minister’s ambition and true commitment to the climate change agenda.

My last observation about the Bill is that we should not see it as a fig leaf. Let us not see it as a Bill that simply ticks the box for climate change and the environment. The challenge is delivery. Setting the right framework is essential, but the Stern report will not implement itself. A framework Bill is just a framework Bill. It is the policies that underpin it that are vital. This is not a call for more policies and initiatives. In fact, the evidence seemed to come through on the Environmental Audit Committee that we almost have too many policy initiatives. There is a complex framework of policies and institutions that overlap and, arguably, muddle and confuse. There may even be an argument for pulling back and doing less much better.

In that context, I would argue that it is disappointing that in the Bill and the discussion on policy there is not more emphasis on picking the low-hanging fruit and cracking the conundrum of generating more energy efficiency in the existing housing stock. That is the main issue. It is the ultimate no-regrets policy. The time is absolutely right because, for the first time in our generation, energy pricing is a real issue. We have all grown up in an era of relatively cheap energy. That is changing. This is the opportunity to break through consumer inertia on energy efficiency.

I am not convinced-much of the evidence that we received on the Environmental Audit Committee reinforces my view-that the Government have thought hard enough on this issue. They are not showing adequate ambition, and that is a pity. To persuade people to take action to save the planet and save money at the same time seems a compelling proposition if we get it right. We have a key opportunity to engage communities and individuals. Several hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and for High Peak (Tom Levitt), talked about the under-exploited opportunity to make communities and individuals engage with climate change and drive the bottom-up process, which is fundamental to sustaining the change in values and behaviour that we must achieve to address the problem.

I close by drawing the attention of the Secretary of State to the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which it was my privilege to promote in the last Parliament. It jumped through all the hoops solely on the basis of the cross-party support that it had. Two members of the Committee that considered the Bill-the hon. Members for Eltham (Clive Efford) and for Llanelli (Nia Griffith)-are sitting on the Benches behind the Secretary of State. The Minister with whom I negotiated the Bill, the now Minister for the Environment, was sitting alongside the Secretary of State earlier. My Bill is potentially a tool in his box. It requires central Government to think more deeply about sustainable communities and to develop a national strategy. It throws down a challenge and opportunity for local authorities and communities to engage in that process and have a real voice in it. For the first time, it gives them an opportunity to see how every pound of taxpayers’ money is spent in their communities and to argue for reallocation of resources and functions. It is an opportunity for them to engage in a genuine way in decisions that will shape the influence of their community on the climate, including how they source energy, distribute energy, move goods and move themselves. It is a wonderful opportunity.

My Bill was not born in the Government and not invented by the Government. My concern is that it should be implemented with the same energy and enthusiasm as if it were. Many people have high expectations, want to get engaged in the process and do not want to be let down by the Government. So if the Secretary of State has not had the opportunity to look at the implications of the Bill for the climate change agenda, I suggest that he does so and encourages his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to implement the Bill with real energy and enthusiasm.

4.45 pm


Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): My hon. Friend has spoken passionately about the need for sustainable communities. Does he share my disappointment that the Secretary of State, in making her partisan attack on the Conservatives’ localist credentials, signally failed to mention the Sustainable Communities Bill when talking about the Government’s programme, even though it passed through Parliament with strong cross-party support? Will my hon. Friend join me in pressing the Government to place on record their determination to implement the Bill with real energy, as though it had been invented in Government?

Mr. Pickles: I am sure that the whole House is grateful to my hon. Friend for the work that he did to bring that most important piece of legislation to the statute book. Having had conversations with the Secretary of State and the Minister for Housing, I know that they share our enthusiasm for it, but perhaps, in these partisan times, the odd nice thing gets left out. That is life, I suppose.