The coalition has lost its momentum as a reforming government seeking to be green.

There was a time when the UK led the world as an environmental champion, under both Conservative and Labour governments. The coalition government has had a harder job, with tough economic conditions and fewer low hanging fruit. However, in its first 18 months it did impress: a strong decision on the fourth carbon budget, the commitment to scrap Heathrow’s proposed third runway, and a clear strategy to restore Britain’s besieged natural habitats.

Three years on and it feels very different. All three of the flagship policies above are under review or been undermined by weak delivery. The coalition has lost its early momentum as a reforming government seeking to be green. The Green Standard 2013 review, published this month by Green Alliance and six other leading green NGOs, shows how it has happened. It charts the highs as well of the lows of ministerial performance, but concludes that all party leaders have failed to champion the UK’s environmental interests effectively.

In private, the three party leaders remain enthusiastic about environmental stewardship, but in public they rarely make the case. The vacuum they have left has been filled by those who want to blame high environmental standards for our economic troubles. As a result the quality of the public debate has lowered, and business confidence in long run policy has fallen.

The paradox is that the UK is investing billions in greening its economy. There remains overwhelming public support for nature conservation, renewable energy and better transport. But politicians need to put their mouths where our money is and celebrate our progress. This would begin to restore private sector confidence, and drive new investment. In fact, low carbon transport and energy projects are such a dominant part of the UK’s infrastructure pipeline that it can make a big contribution to economic recovery in the next few years.

There are some signs that Labour and the Liberal Democrats have clocked this, but the Conservative Party remains deeply divided. The next year will show us whether any of the parties manage to translate this opportunity into new programmes for their manifestos, and whether Cameron, Miliband or Clegg can rebuild the case for the environmental modernisation of Britain. The alternative is that environmental debate will become more polarised, investment will be lost, and energy, nature and transport policies will risk becoming partisan battle grounds, just as they did in the US.
Matthew Spencer, director, Green Alliance