As the Lima climate talks enter their second week, MPs gather for the second reading of the government’s Infrastructure Bill. This bill, as Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, points out is written in a way that will lull you into a stupor. But the contents of the infrastructure bill she says should snap you wide awake.
The main elements of the bill are:
Air pollution is now the world’s chief killer. In 2012, it was the source of around 7 million premature deaths. In the UK, it has reached illegal highs and takes the lives of 29,000 people every year. Today, a new report from the environmental audit committee (of which Caroline Lucas is a member) dubs air pollution “a public health imperative”, and concludes that to save lives “urgent change is needed”.
But the infrastructure bill doesn’t mention anything about clean air targets. Instead, it emphasises big road investment to the tune of £15bn. This includes 1,300 miles in new traffic lanes.
Road traffic is the primary contributor to air pollution in most parts of the UK. And new roads don’t cut congestion. Even government studies show that. They simply lead to more jams, exacerbate emissions and erode our countryside. Increasing major road capacity simply stimulates a further growth in traffic, which means that more road schemes are needed etc etc. In the long run, congestion returns and pollution is greater as total traffic volume increases. The main beneficiaries are road building companies.
Labour is outraged. Not from any climate or health concern – it simply sulked that the government was all talk, and chastised it for failing to invest sooner – not just for roads but for airport expansion too.
Earlier this month, Department for Transport figures showed that local sustainable transport schemes returned £5 for every £1 spent. Clearly therefore, our £15bn would be far better used repairing existing roads, improving footpaths and adding cycle paths and on initiatives to boost public transport, walking and cycling.
Oil & Gas
This year, David Cameron dubbed climate change one of “the greatest threats” we faced. Just yesterday Ed Miliband proclaimed tackling climate change as “the most important thing” he could do in politics. But the infrastructure bill doesn’t mention climate change. Whilst the science is clear that to avoid catastrophic climate change about 80% of our existing fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground, this bill includes a new duty to maximize the recovery of oil and gas – just when we’re duty-bound to reduce it.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise as we know that the government’s on a shale crusade and the infrastructure bill paves the way for this whole new fossil fuel industry. The bill awards the fracking industry sweeping new powers to run pipelines under private land without the consent of owners. It’s opposed by 75% of us, but what does public opinion matter?
Meanwhile, the UK’s renewables industry struggles to get a word in edge ways. The bill rightly talks a lot about jobs creation – the Department of Energy and Climate Change predicts fracking could generate up to 32,000. But despite the government’s cuts, the renewables industry already supports more than 100,000 jobs and a nationwide energy efficiency programme could create an additional 108,000 jobs every year between 2020 and 2030.
To be fair, the bill does give a nod to community energy ownership rights – a small step in the right direction. But we should be taking giant leaps. Fracking has a limited lifespan. We’d receive a far richer return on our billions, economically and in energy security by going all out for homegrown renewables and engergy efficiency. This would create jobs, slash emissions and cut fuel bills.
The UK has some of Europe’s least energy-efficient housing – energy efficiency should be our number one infrastructure priority. But the infrastructure bill doesn’t even mention it.
Public sector land assets
The proposed bill will also in some cases end the rights of councils in granting or denying planning consent.
The bill would permit the transfer of up to 90% of brown field sites (previously developed sites that have become vacant) to the Homes and Communities Agency (a new quango) where Eric Pickles (and his successors) and just 2 inspectors will control planning decisions.
From the government’s perspective, it’s all about speeding up planning decisions and avoiding the delay caused by local ownership of the decision making process. Is this because the landed classes would rather new things be built on our land than theirs? The fact that The Queen is exempt from the Bill despite being the largest landowner in the world, surely confirms this.
This government promised localism, but is delivering a further shift of power from local to central government.