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Jonathon Porritt Speech, Liberal Democrat Conference

September 21, 2004 12:00 AM
By Jonathan Porritt in Liberal Democrat Conference

Jonathan Porritt, former Director of Friends of the Earth and the current Chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, on podium· Introduction. Norman Baker:

Conference, we've had a very good morning on the environment with debates on hazardous waste, screening transport and just now on making markets work for the environment. Now to crown it all we've got the privilege of having Jonathon Porritt here to join us today. Such a concentration on the environment means even our friends in the media may have noticed we are talking about the environment this morning.

I'm absolutely delighted that Jonathon Porritt is joining us today. For over twenty years his voice has been a consistently sensible, measured tone in taking forward environmental campaigning, keeping it on the agenda and pressing for real change in government policy. He's done that with a number of different hats, from being Director of Friends of the Earth back in 1984, to his present role as Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission. All of us who care about the environment owe Jonathon a debt of thanks. Conference, please welcome Jonathon Porritt.

· Jonathon Porritt:

Norman, ladies and gentleman. Well firstly, thank you for inviting me into your midst today. I feel this is a real privilege to be part of your proceedings. I've enjoyed listening to the debates this morning, and I've thought about the implications of a lot of the things you have been discussing today. It's a delight to be here for one other reason, however, to start with, and that really is to pay tribute to Norman Baker for his extraordinary and assiduous work on a vast range of environmental issues, much of which probably remains invisible to all of you as Party Members, which we see from day to day in terms of this whole set of issues being properly represented and defended in Parliament. It's a tremendous contribution that Norman has been making.

{Applause}

In this instance one can genuinely say that the Liberal Democrats are taking the business of opposition very seriously indeed. The LDs are already the opposition here. {Loud Cheering} And one green speech from a re-born Tory leader does not compensate for seven years of indifference and intellectual incoherence. You'll have to forgive my rather inadequate alliteration there, I've been following with interest this morning the rhyming of the 'T's' as it were, the 'Tarmac Tories' and the 'Toxic Tories.' I was waiting what was about to arrive next, I thought it might be the 'Terminal Tories,' but then I decided that would be going a little bit too far.

Nonetheless, as Chair of the SDC my life is bounded by watching the gap between the levels of political rhetoric offered to us by politicians, and the degree to which they then follow through with real hard edge policy and performance on the ground. I felt that today your debate, particularly the debate about making markets work for the environment were critically important. That whole question of what we call ecological tax reform is a fundamental part of what it now means to be a progressive voice for environmental issues in today's political context. The SDC sees this as absolutely critical, as Vince Cable said in his summation at the end, the Labour Government has indeed introduced a lot of environmental taxes.

But we are deeply disappointed, as we pointed out in our report earlier in the year, deeply disappointed at the lack of progress made since Labour's original trailblazing strategy on ecological tax reform back in 1997. The latest research from Cambridge Econometrics, earlier in the year, shows that a lower proportion of total tax revenues in the UK were raised from green fiscal measures in 2003, than in 1996. And that's the single most important statistic you need to bear in mind, when you compare what you hope to do in this area with what is currently going on at the moment inside Government.

Now we've called for a complete rethink of the Government's approach to ecological tax reform, we have in all honesty seen more than enough of a succession of emaciated green rabbits emerging from the Chancellor's shiny top hat, having a good look around before losing heart and disappearing out of sight for another year. That really isn't the way to take this forward as far as we are concerned.

We need far greater consistency, a far more concerted approach to winning over people's hearts and minds about this critical area of concern. That's why I appreciated this morning the cut and thrust of the Transport debate. A realistic recognition of some of the difficulties confronting policy makers since the demise of the Fuel Tax Escalator in the year 2000. That FTE was not much mourned, it has to be said, by a large number of Liberal Democrats, whose legitimate concerns about the disproportionate impact of the Escalator on rural motorists persuaded them wrongly- in my opinion- persuaded them that the whole approach underlying the Escalator was wrong. I don't believe that's right. The approach was right, and getting rid of the Escalator has caused enormous problems ever since then.

I was interested to observe the periodic re-appearance in your midst this morning, of the ghost of what was once described as 'Mondeo-Man,' rising up from his far too shallow grave, to scare the bejabbers out of politicians in dread of his impact on their electoral prospects. I don't take this lightly by the way, 'Mondeo-Man' scared the bejabbers out of Alistair Campbell, and there are not many who can make that claim! But in an earlier manifestation it is fair to say, not in today's context, where the awareness of climate change is I think very much greater. But our principal criticism, back in the year 2000, of the Government's supine backing down before the Fuel Tax protesters, was that no Minister sought to make the link between the Escalator and government policy on climate change and the environment.

Now I think all political parties should take to heart some of the latest evidence from surveys and opinion polls about the very strong underlying levels of public support for clear, consistent action on the environment. If that action is properly communicated, in the way that enables people to see what their role might be. Indeed, I want to point out, perhaps unnecessarily, to politicians, to party activists such as yourselves, that communication lies at the nub of this particular leadership challenge; explaining, informing, engaging people, so they don't just feel dumped on by a succession of arbitrary decisions that appear completely disconnected from the reality of their lives.

It is not enough to make sure that these issues are out there in the public domain. We have to debate them in the right way, to bring people into those complex issues, rather than keep them at a distance and alienated. Just think what's happened for instance to the Energy debate since the Energy White Paper nearly 18 months ago. That White Paper for me was a very serious benchmark, in terms of changes in Energy policy and strategy in this country. I am not cynical about the broad thrust that it took; the 60% target in CO2 abatement by 2050, the emphasis on renewables, energy efficiency, CHP. All enormously important statements about the need to build a very different energy future for this country.

But just look at what has happened since then, given that there has no been no real attempt made to engage with people about the significance of that shift in emphasis. Indeed, it would appear that we are now rapidly losing the debate about the centrality of wind power to that strategy, where we now have a very peculiar position, where the Tory media, largely, are now in league with the likes of the pro-nuclear countryside guardians, to spin a medley of misleading and mendacious propaganda {Applause}.

As many contributors to your debates this morning pointed out, that needs to be taken seriously, because if we continue to get this wrong there will indeed be those dark forces lurking in the wings, who will insist on bringing the nuclear option back into the mix, on trying to persuade us that it really does have a contribution to make to our energy future, when we all know that it really doesn't.

Perhaps most concerning of all however, is that even as we debate the rights and wrongs of wind versus nuclear or fossil fuels, there is still far too little emphasis on energy efficiency. Why is that? Do you share my view that it's because far too many politicians in the public eye are still enamoured of big, intrusive macho machinery that speaks to their own sense of their self-importance and technocratic arrogance. Even as committee after committee, expert after expert, tells us that pound for pound investment in energy efficiency is most cost effective and more supportive of other policy initiatives, fuel poverty initiatives for instance - regenerating city centres, than any other policy and investment mix.

I don't want to underestimate here today the level of political leadership and sophistication required to get across this difficult and very challenging set of messages. We don't just need the right kind of economic instruments to drive this transition in our lives, we need the right kind of engagement and empowerment strategy. And that's really the last point that I want to raise with you this morning if I may.

Over the last few years really, I have been watching with enormous interest the ideologically charged debate about choice in our public services. A debate of enormous importance to the Lib Dems, given some of your own positioning, your own ideological commitments in that area. And yet in a way I suspect many people find deeply disturbing really, we've ended up with Labour and Conservatives competing between themselves to offer the electorate more superficial choice, when it's perfectly clear the choice is really the least important of all the attributes people are looking for in terms of health and education {Applause). And yet with an apparently blind disregard of what people really say they want from those public services, users of those services are exhorted to become 'co-producers' of those services - active participants in a modernisation crusade that would appear to have no end.

Yet at no stage in the last seven years have I heard a single Minister inviting people to become 'co-creators' of a sustainable future. And yet that I suspect, even as we debate the intricacies of the policies that you have been talking about this morning, that I suspect is the one dimension of sustainable development that is still missing, not just on energy issues, with the particular reference to energy efficiency, but on waste and recycling as many of you raised this morning, on water and demand management, on a whole array of public health issues, but particularly; food, diet and exercise, on community activism, on volunteering, on a commitment to protect green spaces in our towns, a commitment to protect our countryside from some of the worst depredations of so-called modern intensive farming.

The policy mix is important, of course, but so too is the engagement process. Empowering people as citizens, consumers, even as investors, to make the changes that we need. Now, my final point here is simple, people are rightly concerned about levels of disengagement of citizens today in the UK, particularly young citizens, from the political process, in terms of voter turn-out, levels of trust and so-on. But my feeling here is that instead of reaching ever greater heights of flagelatory despair, politicians would be much better advised to drive forward a completely different kind of political crusade, to enable citizens to become co-creators of that much longed for sustainable future.

So much of your debate this morning has in essence been about precisely that aspiration, finding ways of bringing people into this sense of shared purpose and a transformative process in our lives. Given the historical record of the LD's, you may well claim that you are far better placed to carry though that kind of crusade than any other party in the UK [Applause]. With commendable but uncharacteristic discretion I couldn't possibly comment on that [Laughter].

But what I can do, genuinely, is to commend the kind of leadership and the kind of far-sightedness that I have enjoyed this morning, and that I believe now characterises the contribution that you are making to the political debate in this country. And simultaneously to urge to take that challenge even more purposefully to the other parties than in any other proceeding election period.

Thank you very much indeed.

[Applause]

· Summary. Norman Baker:

Well Jonathan, thank you very much indeed. You'll see how warmly your words have been received, and thank you again a typical perceptive and inspirational contribution, which I think chimes very much with what we want to see as LD's for the way forward on the environment and society as a whole. Thank you very much again for coming to join us today {Applause}. END