What the election manifestos could mean for nature and heritage

The three main parties published their manifestos this week. So what might they mean for those working to protect heritage and the natural environment?

The 2015 Conservative manifesto was billed as a plan of action and shied away from an explicit philosophy or analysis of society. In contrast, the 2017 version is full of philosophy, with a long introduction on the positive role that government can play but that this should be in the service of the “mainstream of the British public” rather than the interests of elites. There is such a thing as society and it is based on the “obligations and duties” of citizenship.

The manifesto also emphasises the role of national and local institutions in binding people together, and that society is a “partnership between those who are living, those who have lived before us, and those who are yet to be born” – a sentiment that would appeal to the founders of the National Trust, who applied this thinking to how places should be owned and managed:

“The land of a country is a limited commodity, and is an ever-present factor in the production and distribution of material wealth. It must therefore be put to different uses from time to time, as a nation lives and grows; and each generation will naturally deem of supreme importance that use of land which its day demands. Absorption in the needs and views of the time will therefore tend to the neglect or destruction of the results of prior uses.”
(Robert Hunter, founder of the National Trust, speaking in 1907)

“Prosperous towns and cities”

The Conservative manifesto is also interested in places, not just individuals and markets. It calls for towns and cities to be “healthy, well-designed and well-tended” places. This is all well and good but someone also has to do the tending, the everyday maintenance. Local councils face increasing pressure to carry out that role, particularly for the parks and green spaces in their care but also for historic buildings too.

Although local councils are being given more control over business rates, overall cuts in funding mean that there will be little money to look after parks and heritage after paying for statutory social care services.

On council funding, the Conservative manifesto hints at further changes to the distribution of funding and says that growth funding will go to local enterprise partnerships and city-region combined authorities, particularly linked to delivering the national industrial strategy. A new cultural development fund is promised to use cultural investment to turn around communities (though with no indication of funding).

On planning, the Conservatives commit to protections for designated areas like Green Belt, National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (though losing from this list Sites of Special Scientific Interest, which were mentioned in a similar commitment in 2015).

A new approvals system for fracking?

The planning system does, though, face changes when it comes to oil and gas, where non-fracked drilling will come under permitted development (where planning permission is not needed) and some fracking proposals could come under the nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIP) planning process, run by the national Planning Inspectorate rather the local council. The worry with this is that NSIP becomes less about a planning approach appropriate to big infrastructure and more about a process to favour the kinds of development that ministers want to push through.

A new regulator just for fracking is also proposed, which would take over roles currently performed by a number of bodies. The worry with this is that a regulator for one specific industry could lead to regulatory capture by that industry, where frackers are the only major stakeholder rather than one sector amongst many.

What might ‘Brexit means Brexit’ really mean for the environment

But the real issue for the environment is Brexit and its implications. On this, the Conservative manifesto is consistent with the Conservative government Brexit approach so far, of taking into UK law relevant EU laws, principles and regulations.

The manifesto is also more positive about the potential for regulations, though this is more about how business operate (eg not ripping off customers, treatment of employees) than what they do (eg a Conservative government would “promote efforts” to reduce unhealthy ingredients and “encourage” landlords to offer longer tenancies rather than regulate to achieve these aims).

The manifesto recommits to publishing the long-awaited 25 year plan for the environment but this is now framed more around Brexit, including how the country “takes control of our environmental legislation again”. The 25 year plan’s link to the Natural Capital Committee that was in the last manifesto is no longer there.

Recently, Defra ministers have started to hint at what they think should replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) but the manifesto doesn’t take that thinking further forward, and in some ways retreats from it. There is confirmation that funding levels will remain the same till 2022 but quite what the “new frameworks for supporting food production and stewardship of the countryside” should be are left unsaid. The following parliament will see “a new agri-environment system” implemented, but whether this would be the totality of funding or a very small amount of the overall system as under CAP is not clear.

There are also some nods towards landscape scale approaches to delivering environmental improvements (current CAP-funded environmental schemes can often operate more at a farm level, which is less effective) and to build on natural flood management approaches.

Labour and the Lib Dems: Brexit and the environment

Labour are also reticent about what exactly might replace CAP and how much money there might be – funding would be reconfigured towards “smaller traders, local economies, community benefit and sustainable practices”. A new science innovation fund would work with farmers and fisheries, though to what end is not clear.

The manifesto includes strong commitment to EU derived environmental rules, and against UK farmers being undercut by competition from countries with lower standards.

The Lib Dem manifesto policy on this is framed around switching money away from direct subsidy towards public benefits, which would include countryside protection, flood prevention, food production and climate-change mitigation. As with Labour, the Lib Dems also don’t want trade deals undermining environmental and other standards in UK farming (Defra ministers under Theresa May have also talked about UK farmers competing on quality too, though the manifesto doesn’t repeat this).

Labour and the Lib Dems: Planning and place making

As with the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems are also interested in the power of culture to reinvigorate places – the Lib Dems with “creative enterprise zones” and Labour with a £1 billion “cultural capital fund”.

The three parties are also converging to some extent on housing and planning, with all three looking to councils and housing associations to do more to meet the housing challenge. For the Conservatives this is quite a big shift from the 2015 manifesto, which was about shifting funding and focus towards private house building and buying.

All three parties are also interested in ideas around how the state might capture some of the increase in the value of land once planning permission is granted for homes. The Conservatives suggest some kind of deal with developers to capture the increase in land value and reinvest it for local services. Labour and the Lib Dems would look at whether land value taxation could work.

All three approaches would suggest a move away from the land speculation model of housebuilding in the UK, where developers compete to buy land, pushing up the price and then reduce costs to a minimum to deliver a short-term profit as they move on to the next site, with less interest in design quality and the long-term character and maintenance of the development.

Consensus or polarisation?

So while much commentary is focused on the significant differences in approach between the parties, there are hints at where the centre ground (or “mainstream” if you’re Theresa May) is on the natural environment and place making. Whoever wins the election, there will be a shift towards

  • stewardship of the natural environment as a stronger focus in farming policy
  • a greater role for the state in housebuilding to drive up numbers and (hopefully) quality
  • recognising the power of culture and heritage to regenerate places

The great unknown is how Brexit will impact on all of this, and what space and money there will be for national and local government to deliver these ambitions as the country finds its new place in the world and new trading relationships for its economy.

 

Richard Hebditch

External Affairs Director

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