Encouraging the use of solar in schools is a very positive development ...
Greens are celebrating the appointment of a new Environment Secretary to replace the disastrous Owen Paterson, widely considered to be the worst Britain has ever had. He distinguished himself by his:
- barely disguised scepticism over climate change;
- mishandling of the severe flooding last winter;
- unflinching support for culling badgers, even as evidence mounted that the policy was certain to be ineffective at controlling bovine TB;
- strong commitment to introducing GMO crops to Britain against equally strong public opposition;
- deep antipathy to renewable energy, onshore wind farms in particular.
Considerably less welcome is the departure of Greg Barker as energy minister - he has always been a strong green voice in a decidedly grey-brown government.
Badgers - a change of policy on the way?
But will Paterson's replacement - Liz Truss, 38, MP for South West Norfolk - be any better? The evidence says 'yes'! OK, her recent record as a minister in the Department of Education has for the most part been what you would expect - uncritical support of the Government.
But on the badger cull, while she has voted with the Government on 75% of divisions, she has not seen fit to take part in debates on the Government side, even though she was often present in the House as Education questions have often directly followed Environment questions dealing with badgers.
This indicates that she is not a strong supporter of culling badgers, or may even be privately sceptical. Given the powerful new evidence, recently published in Nature, that the policy is ineffective against bovine TB, change could just be on the way.
On the other hand, her voting record is one of strong support for selling off Forestry Commission woodlands to the private sector - something that will worry all those who enjoy our publicly-owned heritage.
Opposed to large scale solar, but fine on roofs
On renewable energy, she has welcomed Government moves to restrict the growth of large scale solar power. Commenting on plans for a large 69 hectare solar farm at Walpole St Andrew in her constituency she said:
"I have been pressing the department for energy and climate change for action to be taken to ensure agricultural land is not lost to acres of solar panels. Not only do they jeopardise out food security but the large scale sites that have been proposed in my constituency impact considerably on local communities."
However she has supported the development of solar power on roofs including those of industrial buildings and in schools, which fell directly under her ministerial brief:
"Encouraging the use of solar in schools is a very positive development. Not only will this significantly reduce the fuel bill but it can also generate an income stream for the school. Pupils learn about their environment seeing firsthand how a sustainable energy plan can be achieved."
Wind, biomass, nuclear
She has also opposed the growth of biomass power, expressing concern about the loss of valuable farmland:
"There have been a number of applications for biomass plants across South West Norfolk ... driven by subsidy. I am concerned that we need to protect prime agricultural land in a county like Norfolk and I want the government to review the regime. We are talking about the impact on the landscape and losing high quality land for food production."
On nuclear power she has been astonishingly silent, likewise for wind. Again, her failure to trumpet the pro-nuclear, anti-wind Conservative Party line may bode well from a Green perspective.
Her silence on wind is all the more remarkable as her constituency is home to the Swaffham wind turbine, one of the first large turbines to be installed in England (see photo), and she holds regular surgeries in Swaffham.
Taking climate change seriously
But most interesting is an article she wrote in 2008 with Professor Nick Bosanquet: 'Eco towns - the zero evidence footprint', in which she makes it clear that she believes in climate change and is prepared to contemplate imaginative measures to deal with it.
For example, she supported a programme of improving insulation in existing dwellings. "On the objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from residential properties," she wrote, "it would seem logical to put the majority of focus on the 99 per cent, or 26.4 million, dwellings that are already built."
She also backed the idea of dense development close to or within cities, rather than eating up ever more countryside: "The most eco friendly locations would appear to be those already attached to conurbations. This is where there is little marginal cost in infrastructure and carbon terms for people to move around.
"Firstly, public transport and cycling make more economic sense in densely populated areas. Secondly there is lower energy loss from more tightly packed buildings. Third, countryside land is preserved.
"There is a high opportunity cost in using up land outside cities which can be important wildlife habitats or farming areas - something that is becoming more critical with global food shortages.
"The most densely populated borough in the UK is Kensington and Chelsea; its mansion blocks and large town houses, many divided into flats, are space efficient, whilst attractive places to live. Lessons should be learnt from this and consideration should be given to remodelling sites along these lines using the latest materials, rather than encroaching on new space.
VAT and planning reform to reduce carbon footprints
And she is clearly opposed to the development of 'eco-towns' whether on green-field or brown-field land in remote locations:
"A truly eco approach would reuse materials to create something new, maximising derelict sites and materials that are not currently being best utilised ... One alternative would be to provide incentives for all home owners to reduce their carbon footprint and for more intensive re-development in towns and cities."
To this end she calls for VAT reforms to favour brown field developments and the renovation of existing buildings, and a more flexible approach to planning to allow, for example, industrial land within cities to be redesignated for high-density residential use:
"There are currently severe blockages to the development of brownfield sites such as VAT discrimination between new build and renovation and many industrial and distribution sites being frozen in their current uses by out-date planning principles."
Personal carbon allowances?
Most remarkable is her interest in novel mechanisms to get people engaged in reducing their carbon footprints, specifically citing "personal carbon allowances / carbon tax" as a means to empower individuals "to develop their own abodes".
"New innovative techniques would be developed and the private sector would have an incentive to provide householders with new solutions. It would also remove the false barrier between new and existing housing, so that all householders were in possession of the motivation to reduce their carbon footprint."
So while Liz Truss may not be our first choice as Environment Secretrary (that would be Zac Goldsmith), her appointment has to be welcomed as a significant improvement on 'badger-basher' Owen Paterson.
Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.