We must set on a course of investment in renewables and do it now!
Reshuffles work like this. The prime minister and his best mates huddle together for a week or two, reviewing all their ministers and trying to work out who they like, who to drop, and who needs promoting. They then, over the course of a brutal couple of days, carry this out (pity poor farming minister Jim Paice who was axed over the phone as he wandered around the exhibits at an agricultural show in Birmingham).
And then everyone else piles in and tries to infer, from subtle signs (he said she said, etc) and from, obviously, actual established facts what the prime minister and his friends are thinking, and what significance this holds for the next year or so of our lives.
Now, in terms of the environment, the significant facts are these; At the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Caroline Spelman (who seemed to be a bit of a govbot) has been replaced as secretary for state by Owen Patterson. Jim Paice, the afore-mentioned farming minister, has now been replaced by David Heath.
Meanwhile over at the Department for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Davey, the secretary for state, stays in position, as does climate change minister Greg Barker. But Charles Hendry, former energy minister, has been replaced by John Hayes. Those are the facts. But what is their significance?
There are three issues everyone has leapt on. Firstly, Owen Paterson, the new environment secretary, has a history of opposition to wind turbines and may even be a climate sceptic. Secondly, the shuffling around – like the opening gambit in a chess game – clearly indicates that a third runway at Heathrow is now well and truly back on the table. And thirdly, with the general move rightwards of the whole cabinet, we should perhaps be asking if environmental issues gone that way too?
To my eyes, one of those issues is a complete red herring, one opens up a huge political can of worms (but may actually have far less environmental significance than we think), which means only one is of genuine and significant concern. We’ll begin with Owen Paterson - who has already collected an impressive collection of black marks since his appointment, just 24 hours ago. He doesn’t believe in bureaucracy (bad because environmental issues tend to need regulation rather than “light touch” rubbish), he does believe in shale gas, he’s pro-hunting, his brother-in-law is the climate sceptic Matt Ridley, and there are rumours that he too could be a climate sceptic, although in the Guardian Leo Hickman could find nothing on record. On the plus side, however, he’s at DEFRA not DECC, so he’s not actually in charge of energy or climate change policy, except as carried out by the Environment Agency.
Will he appreciate the need for more sustainable practices in farming? His green paper on fishing was vehemently anti-discard, and reportedly influenced Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s fish campaign. So this one really might not be as bad at it looks to start with.
What about Heathrow? This could be the Jeffrey-Archer-potboiler of domestic politics for the next few years. The Tories have already said that they’re now open to discussing it, and anti-aviations activists will already be dusting off their D-locks.
To add to the fun and games, Boris Johnson seems to have chosen this as the issue to launch his leadership campaign; he’s refused to rule out a by-election and told the World At One that he would lead the opposition if the government u-turned. But this is what really concerns me. The battle over the third runway has the potential to be the central focus of the environmental movement for the next couple of years, and even beyond.
It’s got glamour (come on, Bojo is kind of glamourous in a weird, confusing, what-am-I-thinking way), drama, political intrigue, and, best of all, it’s lovely and specific. The question is, should it? Because it’s the third issue that this reshuffle has thrown up that really concerns me.
Over at DECC Ed Davey (the libdem who replaced Chris Huhne) is still in place as Secretary of State; he has a reputation for being extremely green, thankfully. But over the summer Davey has been locked in conflict with Osborne, who has made it clear that he prefers gas and oil to renewables.
Damian Carrington recently wrote that a senior source had told him that DECC was viewed by the treasury as a bunch of “renewable energy fanatics”; it is profoundly worrying, then, that Cameron has now replaced energy minister Charles Hendry with John Hayes. Why? Hayes, it turns out, is opposed to wind turbines. It is not clear what his attitude to other aspects of the renewable spectrum is, but he has stated publically that wind farms have a “detrimental effect on wildlife”.
Hendry, his predecessor, was universally respected by people from all ends of the energy world, and will be very much missed. Hayes? He is an unknown quantity. This is the last thing we need. Heathrow is a problem. But our future energy policy, the formation of the country’s infrastructure, is a far more significant and important problem, in truth. We must set on a course of investment in renewables, and we must do it now, because the longer we leave it the more expensive and difficult it becomes.
Why? Hayes, it turns out, is opposed to wind turbines. It is not clear what his attitude to other aspects of the renewable spectrum is, but he has stated publicly that wind farms have a “detrimental effect on wildlife”. He also appears to be only lackadaisically interested in climate change, having been absent for several of the votes on the climate change bill (although he did vote for the government to sign up to the 10;10 campaign). Hendry, his predecessor, was universally respected by people from all ends of the energy world, and will be very much missed. Hayes? Is an unknown quantity.
This is the last thing we need. Heathrow is a problem. But our future energy policy, the formation of the country’s infrastructure, is a far more significant and important problem, in truth. We must set on a course of investment in renewables, and we must do it now, because the longer we leave it the more expensive and difficult it becomes. What has Hayes got planned? Until he spells it out for us, we are in the dark. And I’m not so keen on that.
Bibi van der Zee is The Ecologist's political correspondent.