Monday 3 October 2011

Eye-catching, but generally silly

It is conference season for the major political parties of the UK. It doesn't need to be said that, in and around conference season, the major parties tend to release a flurry of new, eye-catching policy ideas, and this year has been no exception. The Conservative Party conference is being held this week in Manchester and two of the mooted policies have caught the eye for being distinctly lacking in environmental consideration.

Firstly, Eric Pickles, the Communities and Local Government minister, seems to have won the day regarding bin collections. Before the general election, Mr Pickles went on record saying that weekly bin collections were a "basic human right". Now, he has announced that new money will be made available to councils to ensure that they can maintain or re-instate their weekly collections.

Well. I am very pleased the government includes ministers who are proponents of human rights. But this one doesn't come as high on my list as suffrage, education and good health care.

In fact, if I were to meet Mr Pickles, I would tell him that, personally, I would prefer my bin not to be taken away weekly. Wheely bins are completely animal-proof and there's no food waste in it anyway (I prefer my food to go into my stomach). In fact, I don't throw much away at all, with the recycling facilities that are available.

So it's not difficult to reduce the amount of waste you generate. And if all the bins contained less waste the bin lorries would have to come less frequently, they would not need to be so large, they would not use as much fuel and they would not fill so many acres of our valuable and beautiful land with our garbage. Everybody wins.

And personally I think there are far better "human rights" the government could be spending our money guaranteeing for us. Please Mr Pickles, build a new school or hospital somewhere instead.

The second government initiative that circulated hours before the Tory conference began was a revised motorway speed limit. Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, has called for consultation on raising the speed limit to 80 mph on our motorways. An 80 mph limit, it was claimed, would bring major economic benefits to the country, and besides the 70 mph limit was outdated.

Well. Perhaps I am outdated myself, or a contrarian, or both. If I were to meet Mr Hammond I would ask him to consider reducing the speed limit on our motorways to 60 mph. A car travelling at 60 mph is less likely to be involved in an accident and any accident is less likely to be fatal. The risks increase with higher speeds. The fuel efficiency of any car falls off a cliff when it is driven faster than 70 mph. An increase to 80 mph, over the millions of journeys that take place on our motorways each year, is going to increase fuel consumption and drive up our nation's collective greenhouse gas emissions.

It has been suggested that an increase in the number of 20 mph zones within towns would offset the environmental damage caused by the 80 mph motorway limit. This is sadly not true. 20 mph zones were introduced as a way of reducing the number of accidents (with some success, it is true). They do nothing for our overall fuel consumption because cars are, in general, as fuel-inefficient at lower speeds as they are at very high speeds. From an environmental point of view, 30 is better than 20.

Besides, various studies have shown that lower speeds on the motorways actually improve traffic flow on congested routes. This is the reason we see variable speed limits on our most congested motorways.

And I would increase enforcement of my lower speed limit as well.

So I would call on the Tories to avoid these unnecessary populist measures. Think more deeply - perhaps there are votes to be won by taking a more radical line on such issues. A lot of people care for the environment these days.

What is going on here? Are these issues part of traditional Tory dogma? No, of course not. These are populist measures, aimed at winning a quick headline and a few cheap votes. What happened to the idea of the "greenest government ever"?

And finally, I suspect such announcements are designed to distract attention from the Tories' other, somewhat dangerous and damaging policies. Yes, George Osborne, your cuts are still wrong. And, I suspect, they are designed to distract us from the fact that there are still very serious differences with their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. When George Osborne says that taxes will only be cut when the government can afford to do so, it is a political statement, not an economic one. Abolition of the 50% tax rate will create divisions in the cabinet like no other issue that the government has faced so far in its 18 month lifetime. The government may find tax cuts difficult to finance, but they would dearly love to do it. The real problem is that, with the Liberal Democrats prepared to fight any tax cut for the rich, what they really cannot afford is the trouble this will bring around the cabinet table.