Senior Conservatives on Thursday called on Britain to get off a “hedonistic treadmill” and start focusing on the quality of life, in a ground-breaking report that puts the environment on an equal footing with economic growth as a touchstone for the opposition party.
The report calls for a series of environmental taxes and transport measures, triggering immediate criticism from business groups, which have long regarded the Conservative party as a dependable free-market ally.
But Thursday’s 547-page document – broadly endorsed by David Cameron, Conservative leader – heralds a radical shift in approach and an explicit recognition that money does not buy happiness.
“Beyond a certain point – a point which the UK reached some time ago – ever-increasing material gain can become not a gift, but a burden,” the party’s Quality of Life policy commission concludes. One section endorses the phenomenon of “downshifting”.
Labour claimed the proposals would split the Tories and that Mr Cameron was caught between rival factions, with one backing a pro-business agenda, the other favouring radical environmental action.
But Mr Cameron said the report proposed sensible incentives for people to make “greener choices” and that any net revenues from new environmental taxes would pay for tax cuts for families.
The Tory leader plans to fight the next election promising to fight Britain’s “social recession”, a strategy that concedes the economy is functioning well but asserts that quality of life has declined.
Thursday’s report “Blueprint for a Green Economy” provides a detailed set of remedies – down to a suggestion that road lines and street lights should be removed from some roads to slow down drivers and cut accidents.
John Gummer, the former Tory environment secretary and chairman of the policy review, denied his proposals would hold back growth. “I see no contradiction between greenness and economic success,” he said.
The most controversial elements concern transport, with plans to encourage a shift of traffic from short-haul flights to rail, with VAT on domestic flights and increased investment in the rail network.
Airport expansion would be curbed, with no new runways at Gatwick or Stansted and a “reconsideration” of new runway plans at Heathrow.
However, extra airport capacity was identified as an important factor in London’s growth last month by John Redwood – author of a separate Tory paper on competitiveness – in a sign of the problems Mr Cameron will have in balancing his party’s conflicting views.
Mr Gummer’s report – co-authored by the environmentalist Zac Goldsmith – proposes using the tax system to encourage motorists to buy more economical cars, and would discourage workplace parking to cut down on car commuting.
He said it might cost £1,500 more to buy an “expensive turbo” but £1,500 less to buy a smaller Volkswagen Polo. Inefficient electrical appliances would be phased out and executive jets would also be targeted, with taxation aimed at ensuring such flights “fully mirror the carbon costs”. The costs of private jets would not be allowable against taxation.
Although the report says economic growth would have to be “retuned” to take account of the environment, its authors claimed its proposals would give Britain a competitive edge.
“The green revolution can do for Britain what the industrial revolution did a couple of hundred years ago,” Mr Gummer said.
Although he insists the proposals would be fiscally neutral, Labour claimed the Tories were confused about the extent to which green taxes would fund improvements to public transport.
Green groups broadly welcomed the proposals, particularly the aim to cut emissions on a global level in order to limit temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which has long been a goal of environmentalists.
Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth director, urged Mr Cameron to make the proposals party policy. He asked: “Will they go with John Redwood’s outdated proposals for an economic policy hell-bent on growth at any cost? Or will they choose the route set out today that takes account of the quality of life and our environment?”
But the proposal to withdraw the assistance given to onshore wind farms was attacked by some renewable energy groups, because it would make turbines uneconomic. Chris Tomlinson, director of programme strategy at the British Wind Energy Association, said: “[It] would cripple the UK wind industry [and] make a mockery of David Cameron’s commitment to renewable energy. Wind energy is the only renewable source capable of meeting the looming energy gap by 2020.”
Other groups criticised the proposal to give nuclear power stations a “carbon levy”.
By George Parker and Fiona Harvey
13 September 2007
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