Cuts! Cuts! Cuts! The knives are out at Westminster as all three major parties vie to outdo each other in their commitment to reining in the public debt and slashing government spending. With the Lib Dems retreating from their promise to abolish tuition fees, and the Tories looking to cut defence budgets by a quarter, it seems that few policy areas are off-limits. How, then, might spending on the environment fare in a time of retrenchment?
First off, let’s look at what we actually spend on the environment in the first place. The Guardian have made this job rather easier by presenting government expenditure graphically, in the bubble diagram above. You’ll need to download the PDF to see it in detail, but try and guess which bits represent environment spend. Go on. Is it the big blue blob, bottom right? Nope, that’s the NHS. The angry red zit at the top? Nah, that’s what we spent bailing out the banks. Once you’ve got out the magnifying glass, you’ll find two tiny pin-heads nestled on the right of the diagram, representing the budgets of DECC (the Department of Energy and Climate Change) and DEFRA (the Department of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs). Add in spending on the environment by the devolved administrations and the Department of International Development (DFID), and you arrive at the princely sum of £6.023bn. Not a small amount in itself, but tiny compared to the other outlays of the modern British state.
Which makes some of the rumours doing the rounds about potential spending cuts all the more worrying. For all his attempts to shed the Conservatives’ 1980s image, David Cameron’s recent speech to Party Conference read like a case-study in small-state conservatism, blaming “big government” for the recession and promising “painful” spending cuts. His Shadow Cabinet remains circumspect and tight-lipped about details, but Tory pundits and thinktanks are starting to vocalise the areas that might get axed under a Conservative government. And the environment doesn’t escape scot free.
The Taxpayers’ Alliance, a rightwing thinktank with links to the Conservative Party, has recently called for the abolition of the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), the Government’s independent watchdog on sustainable development. In their report, ‘How to save £50bn’, the Taxpayers’ Alliance castigate the SDC as being “a Government-sponsored campaign for an increase in green and environmentally aware policy. It is not an expert advisor but a political campaign, and whatever its merits may be, such campaigns should not be paid for through public funds.” After talking to some seasoned environmental campaigners about the likelihood of the SDC being abolished, I’m of the opinion that it may well get the chop under a Tory government. The recent departure of Jonathan Porritt as SDC Director leaves it without its most powerful champion, and I fear that its recent work Prosperity Without Growth, much feted by the environmental movement, has not been similarly appreciated by the growth-focussed Tories.
After all, quangos – ‘quasi non-governmental organisations’, or Non-Departmental Public Bodies, to give them their official title – are not well-liked on the right. Never mind that it was Thatcherite reforms of the civil service that gave rise to quangos in the first place; they are now seen as easy targets by anti-state campaigners, unloved by the public and unknown to anyone who’s not a policy wonk. The right-wing columnist Dennis Sewell, writing in the Spectator recently, called for Cameron to light a bonfire of the quangos when he comes to power – not just to save cash but also to eliminate a ‘fifth column’ of Labour-appointed cronies who, he claims, could hinder a Tory government enacting its policies. Sewell doesn’t spare the environmental bodies, bemoaning: “If we have an Environment Agency, why do we also need an Energy Savings Trust, environmental campaigns, Environwise [sic] and an Air Quality Standards?”. Too bad that they all do different things.
And what about sales of government assets? Over the weekend, Shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox suggested in a BBC interview that the MoD could cut its budgets by selling off assets like the Met Office. The Met, besides delivering weather forecasts, is well-known to climate campaigners as the home of the Hadley Centre. What might privatisation mean for the delivery of the UK’s climate projections? Curious, I took a look at the Met Office’s website, to find out what its current organisational arrangement is. It seems that the previous Tory administration already part-privatised it: “In 1996 the Met Office became a Trading Fund within the Ministry of Defence. As a Trading Fund we are required to operate on a commercial basis…” I’m reminded of former Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s complaint about privatisation in the Eighties: “First the Georgian silver goes… then the Canalettos go…”
But how much do we actually spend on environmental quangos? I dug up all the figures I could find – from websites, Annual Reports and statistics from the Taxpayers’ Alliance themselves. The results are in this Excel spreadsheet. They show that spending on environmental quangos comes to a little over £1bn (all of which comes out of the funds allocated to DEFRA and DECC discussed above). This is a tiny percentage of all spending on quangos, which the Taxpayers’ Alliance claims to be some £64bn – in itself a small fraction of overall public spending.
This isn’t to say there’s no waste in government bureaucracy. The environmental movement has been calling for more ‘joined-up government’ for decades. That’s why the Sustainable Development Commission, for example, was set up in the first place – to provide better coordination to policies, and prevent one department undoing the good work of another. Certain proposals for streamlining government might improve delivery: if the Energy Savings Trust were merged with the Carbon Trust, for example, few environmentalists would shed a tear.
But I object to the current mantra of cuts, cuts, cuts – on two counts. Firstly, it’s clear that we don’t spend nearly enough on tackling climate change. Public R&D into renewables is only just starting to recover after two decades of being run down thanks to privatisation of the utilities; and the UK needs to spend some £100bn over the next decade in order to meet its 2020 emissions targets. Balancing the public debt needs to happen, but tackling climate change is far more urgent – and will in itself help the public finances recover, by providing green jobs and hence boosting income tax receipts.
Secondly, if we have to talk about cuts, let’s talk about carbon cuts. The public sector uses an enormous amount of energy – some 8% of total UK emissions, according to the Committee on Climate Change. Rather than cut frontline services or regulatory capacity, the government should sign up the whole public sector to a stringent energy efficiency regime. That would help cut the public debt – and more importantly, it would cut emissions, too.