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Simon Hughes answers GLD questions

February 13, 2006 8:15 PM

Simon Hughes' green platform

Here are Simon Hughes' replies in full to our nine questions, the same questions we have put to all the candidates.

Simon Hughes speaking

1. The Government has just launched its Energy Review. Are you personally for or against the building of additional nuclear capacity, and why?

Climate change is far and away the most serious threat facing Britain, and the world, and although the Prime Minister has talked a good game on the subject, his policies on energy and transport have not risen to the challenge. So having failed to invest sufficiently, over the last ten years, in renewable energy and energy efficiency programmes - for which there is enormous scope - his preferred solution is now apparently a new generation of nuclear power stations.

This is an astonishing development. No one has built a nuclear station in the UK for twenty years, quite simply because the sums don't add up. Nuclear power in Britain has always required subsidies, not least for the decommissioning of radioactive waste. For new stations, guarantees on revenues for decades ahead will be needed - likely to be regarded as unacceptable by the domestic energy regulator and the EU. Planning considerations alone could delay construction for years. This is not an intelligent answer to the challenge of climate change, and Liberal Democrats need to lead the fight against Labour and Conservatives by presenting a coherent, detailed and convincing argument for a sustainable alternative.

2. Can green taxation work? And should the party support personal carbon allowances?

Yes, clearly green taxation can and does work - the much higher fuel-efficiency standards of British (and European) vehicles compared to US ones is largely related to the much higher levels of fuel taxation over here, which gives manufacturers greater incentives to produce fuel-efficient cars and consumers greater incentives to buy them. There is much more scope for green taxation in the UK; we should be aiming to reach at least the level of public revenue generated from green taxes in Denmark - about 10 per cent.

We also need to bear in mind, however, the constraints. In general consumers need time to respond to the price signals generated by green taxes. In the example above, for instance, drivers may be able to switch to public transport, but not all of them and not always by very much; the bigger impact comes when they buy new cars, and opt for more fuel-efficient ones. Raising the price of gas and electricity will have the biggest impacts when householders have time to improve the energy efficiency of their homes (and without help with, e.g., home insulation, the poorest will simply be tipped further into fuel poverty). So the important thing is to use green taxes to ensure that prices rise gradually and predictably. With fuel and energy prices at historically high, and rising, levels at the moment, there is not such a strong case for large green taxes right now - though that may change in the future.

We also need to remember the regressive impacts of green taxation - since they are consumption taxes, they almost always have a greater relative impact on poor households than on rich ones. The growing inequality of British society is something I am passionately committed to tackling - so we have to come up with an overall tax package (including retaining our commitment to a higher top rate of income tax) that is genuinely fair.

Personal carbon allowances are certainly worth looking at, as they will bring home the real facts of environmental limits much more directly to consumers than any other measure. But since some kind of trading system will have to be set up, allowing those who need more allowances to buy them from those with a surplus, this could be a very costly measure. Emissions trading works well with small numbers of participants - e.g. a few hundred big businesses - but it's not yet so clear how it could work with millions of small participants. And it would also have a regressive impact, in the same way as green taxes. Still, it's worth investigating.

3. Predicted regional airport expansion could blow a large hole in our Kyoto targets. How would you convince the public that cheap air travel is unsustainable?

The increasingly obvious impacts of climate change will help, but still too many people don't connect the fact of cheap flights with the outcome of global warming. Green taxes (including an EU-wide aviation tax and the replacement of airport passenger duty with a pollution charge related to an aircraft's emissions), personal carbon allowances and the inclusion of aviation in the EU emissions trading scheme will all help to drive that message home. They will also create substantial incentives for aircraft manufacturers to produce more fuel-efficient planes. Alongside these, we need a major public education campaign (stressing the fact that cheap flights mean that popular tourist destinations such as Pacific islands, or coastal areas everywhere, will simply disappear) and investment in more sustainable forms of transport, such as high-speed rail.

4. Despite our excellent record on national campaigns there is concern that some Liberal Democrat-controlled local authorities are not yet as green as they should be in practice. What will you do to change this?

The picture is mixed; some are, some aren't, but in many places where we have recently taken control, the new administrations have often been faced with an enormous task in terms of pursuing greener policies from a low starting point. Nevertheless, many have managed to make huge strides and these councils should be used as examples to others - the achievements of Stockport and Sutton, amongst several others, are probably well known to Green Lib Dems. In my home borough of Southwark, my council colleagues have quadrupled recycling, pioneered the use of bio-diesel in the council fleet and rejected car-centred regeneration schemes. The borough was described by the Independent's 'Green Goddess' columnist, Julia Stephenson, as 'London 's most eco-friendly borough'.

Obviously council group priorities will vary from place to place, but we can and should make it easier for all Lib Dem councils to be as environmentally sound as possible. This means, primarily, spreading examples of best practice and getting lead councillors with environmental responsibilities to get together to talk about the possibilities and challenges and how they've been overcome in some areas. I would aim to work with the Green Liberal Democrats, ALDC and the Lib Dem group in the LGA to set up a regular exchange of information through a newsletter and regular conferences. And the first stage would be to assess just how Lib Dem councils are doing - at present we don't have a systematic survey, just a few isolated examples. Why don't the Green Lib Dems do that?

5. South Central Region adopted a motion in 2004 requesting all local parties and Liberal Democrat council groups adopt the use of Fairtrade products and encourage their communities to work towards Fairtrade status. Should this become party policy nationally?

Certainly we should encourage all Liberal Democrats everywhere to buy ethically traded products - which include, but goes wider than, just those with the Fairtrade brand. Establishing a world trading system that supports, rather than undermines, sustainable development everywhere is one of the biggest challenges we face, and this is one of the ways in which we can ensure that workers and their communities in developing countries receive a fair return for their labour.

Having said that, as a member of the Federal Conference Committee, I agreed with the rest of the committee in turning down the motion on the topic that was submitted to federal conference last year. It wasn't well drafted, and it sought to set up an elaborate and time-consuming process of reporting back to the federal party on the particular steps taken by every local party and council group. Let's have more faith in encouragement and our members' belief in their principles rather than costly reporting mechanisms.

6. Wildlife biodiversity is under great threat globally and in the UK. What should this party do to ensure native wildlife is protected more effectively in the UK?

In 2001, EU leaders in Gothenburg set a commitment to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2010. There are three main ways in which this can be achieved in the UK: we need to protect and enhance threatened species and habitats; we must protect and manage the UK's wildlife sites; and we have to 'make space' for biodiversity, for example by making British farmland, forests, rivers and oceans more wildlife-friendly places to live and increase access to biodiversity's quality-of-life benefits.

In hard policy terms, this means shifting budgets within DEFRA so that more is spent on recovery plans for the UK's most threatened habitats and on protection for existing wildlife sites, and setting higher penalties for those who break wildlife protection laws. Most importantly, it means further reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, so that by 2010 all agricultural subsidies support environmentally friendly farming, resulting in an attractive countryside rich in wildlife. Local action is vital too - in Southwark we never had an ecology officer or a biodiversity action plan before the Lib Dems took control - we do now, and we have increased the protection we give to locally important sites.

And although the question's about the UK, let's not forget our commitment to developing countries, where wildlife is often more threatened than here at home; Britain's aid budget should be used to support more biodiversity-related projects in the poorest countries, particularly those which clearly demonstrate local community benefits from wildlife protection, for example through green tourism.

7. Should this country recycle more, or give up and produce energy from waste?

Recycling has to be the answer, though the question ignores the key objective of encouraging re-use. By recycling more, we focus attention on the need to use less of the world's limited resources, and encourage people to make small, but important, lifestyle changes that may lead on to further action. Incineration may be one step up from landfill, but is still an 'easy option' or fallback. It is also unpopular with communities and has the added problem of the need to deal with hazardous bottom ash produced in the incineration process. There is some evidence that binding tonnage contracts between councils and incineration plants have acted as disincentives to recycling and better waste management.

The long-term goal has to be zero municipal waste, through waste minimisation, reuse and recycling. We should have much more ambitious targets for household waste recycling; we fought the last election on aiming for 60% of all household waste to be recycled within seven years. My colleagues in Southwark are in the process of planning a new waste facility. It is not without controversy but by rejecting incineration and opting for recycling, in-vessel composting and mechanical and biological treatment, they are showing the way and making the proposal more palatable to local people. The vision is very much a local facility for local people's waste.

As we're aiming to achieve in Southwark, there should be a presumption that each community is responsible for its own waste and it is not seen as 'someone else's problem' to deal with. By involving people directly in decisions about the future management of waste, it becomes easier to foster behavioural change. There are many examples of this in Liberal Democrat-run councils, such as Bath and North East Somerset, where recycling rates are high and waste management systems have received recognition. Manufacturers should be encouraged to develop new products which are more easily reusable, and held responsible for disposing of products and materials that are difficult to reuse or recycle.

In the short term, new incinerators for municipal waste might occasionally be justifiable where waste reduction and re-use are not possible. They should not be allowed, however, unless they can be shown to be the best environmental option after considering all alternatives, including new technologies such as pyrolysis and anaerobic digestion.

8. Although there is a clear demand for new homes in the UK, John Prescott stands accused of trying to concrete over the South East. Do you think the Labour Government's policy is sustainable, and what should be the Liberal Democrat stance on this issue?

John Prescott seems to have forgotten everything he learned when he was Secretary of State for the Environment, and many of the new developments his department is supporting are clearly unsustainable, being built in areas without decent public transport links, or prone to flooding or likely to suffer from water shortages as climate change accelerates - or sometimes all three! We do have to recognise, however, that the growth in the number of households in the UK, due to people living longer and living in smaller family units and small, but steady, net immigration, is a real challenge to our environmental credentials.

There's much that can be done in reforming the planning system so that local authority development plans incorporate targets for CO2 emission reductions, and making sure these can't simply be overridden by central government diktat. And let's remember that opportunities come with challenges. The new housing that is built must be constructed to the highest environmental standards, in terms particularly of energy and water efficiency - huge gains on the average UK standards are already possible.

The only sustainable solution, however, is to relieve the pressure on land use. We should stick to our 2005 manifesto pledge to make available public sector land currently owned by the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Health and English Partnerships -this should be sufficient to build 100,000 more homes for rent and affordable purchase. We can reform VAT to encourage developers to repair and reuse empty buildings and brownfield land. And, perhaps most importantly for the long term, we can decentralise political and economic power in the UK so that local people can create prosperous and viable local communities which are worth living and working in - everywhere, not just in the south-east of England.

9. Some say the Liberal Democrat 'green thread' is wearing thin. What should this party do to stay at least three steps ahead of David Cameron on green issues and what weaknesses in current Liberal Democrat environmental policy should be addressed before the next General Election?

I don't agree that it's wearing thin, but it's probably looking a little faded by now. The party has essentially stood on the same environmental policies, presented in the same way, for the last three elections - a problem inherent, of course, in being right in the first place! But we do need a new approach in selling our environmental policies.

I think we will be helped by the steady rise in public awareness of environmental issues, mainly triggered by the growing evidence of the impacts of climate change, and the major debate that's about to develop over nuclear power. We have to try everything we can to encourage this rising awareness, and get over the message that it's urgent. We used to talk about the environment as a 'quality of life' issue, but in reality it's just as much about human survival. The human race has probably thirty years, at the outside (some scientists think less) to put in place the energy infrastructure that can halt and reverse the growth in greenhouse gas emissions - if we haven't managed it by then, we won't be able to stop the climate becoming too unstable, a few decades later, to support human civilisation.

At the same time as presenting the challenge, however, we need to present the means of tackling it - otherwise, we just spread defeatism. We need to be more innovative in the policy solutions we come up with. For example, while fully supporting the Kyoto Protocol, and encouraging the setting of targets for its second commitment period as soon as possible, we should also support work alongside it - for example, a technology agreement with China (currently opening a new coal-fired power station every week) to develop clean coal technology.

And more fundamentally that that, we need to be the optimistic party. As a member of the FPC's 'Meeting the Challenge' working group, I've been fully engaged in the process of trying to define the party's 'narrative', the story it tells the electorate. At base, what this party is about is putting people - individuals and their communities - back in control of their own lives and futures. This means creating a political system which allows people to take their own decisions, and believe they can influence their own destinies. In that way we create the belief that challenges - including the major environmental ones I've touched on here - can be met and overcome. As well as the party of the environment, I want the Liberal Democrats to be the party of hope.

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