12 June 2024

The Tories need to double down on the environment


After the environment failed to feature much in the opening phase of the campaign, it was welcome to see the Prime Minister announce some positive green pledges this week. The Conservative manifesto trumpeted the party’s proud environmental achievements in government and included several practical ideas for building on them.

While the manifesto does not include everything conservative environmentalists would ideally want, it avoids further rowbacks and lays some good foundations that should be built on. Further policies will be needed in the next parliament, however, to show that a conservative approach is best placed to meet the full scale of the environmental challenges the UK faces.

Although there has been a lack of policy until this week, barring a pledge to give driving licence points to fly-tippers, ministers have, however, launched attacks on Labour’s green proposals. Some of these critiques are legitimate and important, such as pointing out the poor value for money of schemes like Great British Energy, which risks duplicating the work of other government bodies and crowding out the private sector. But others are less justifiable: for instance, the criticism of faster timelines for the uptake of electric vehicles exaggerates the difference between the parties.

The lack of green policy so far, and the strength of the criticism of Labour’s net zero plans, no doubt reflects the Conservatives’ strategy of trying to win back Reform voters. But Reform voters’ views on the environment are more mixed than is commonly assumed. Recent polling from CT Group for the Conservative Environment Network found that around a third of Conservative to Reform switchers support net zero, while separate Opinium research found that large majorities of Reform voters want a consensus on both climate change (62%) and on renewables investment (69%).

Moreover, the research showed that the main issue that is driving their vote is migration rather than climate action. Climate action by contrast is especially popular and salient among Conservative to Labour switchers, with 72% of Labour switchers saying net zero emissions will affect how they vote this election. The views of Labour switchers matter because they are roughly equal in number to Reform switchers.

To win a majority again in the future, the Conservative Party will need to appeal to all its former voters, not just Reform switchers. To achieve this, the polling suggests that adopting a tougher stance on immigration and a greener position on the environment would be a more successful strategy.

In the context of this political strategy, it was welcome to see several measures that we at the Conservative Environment Network had championed feature in the Conservative Party manifesto.

Proposed reforms to water regulation will unlock billions more investment from water companies in nature-based solutions to pollution, such as wetlands, leading to better outcomes for wildlife and for bill payers. Uprating the farming budget by £1bn over the parliament will enable the proper funding of new post-Brexit Environmental Land Management schemes that will restore the foundations of our food security, such as healthy soils, and the natural environment. Cutting red tape around tree planting grant schemes and regulation inside designated zones will speed up woodland creation in areas where it is most suited. And the pledge to work with the UK Overseas Territories to expand the Blue Belt of marine reserves will protect some of the richest biodiversity hotspots in the world.

But there are areas where the party could and should have said more, both to get on track to our environmental targets and to highlight an ambitious alternative approach to left-wing parties. While the funding pledged for energy efficiency vouchers is welcome, they missed the chance to set out a more conservative approach to home upgrades, which would use tax breaks to attract more private capital in retrofits and liberalise regulations to increase the number of green tariffs and loans on the market.

Similarly, the funding to support green supply chains could have been used to turbocharge tax breaks for firms inside freeports and be complemented by easing planning rules for on-site renewable energy. Despite the recent legal clash between the UK and EU, the manifesto also failed to grasp the opportunities offered by Brexit to confirm the end of harmful bottom trawling practices by large fishing vessels, which overwhelmingly come from the EU, at the expense of Britain’s coastal communities, sustainable inshore fisheries, and wildlife.

This week’s good policies will have been announced in vain if the party does not adopt more positive messaging in its public campaigning. Negative rhetoric will not win over the small number of sceptical voters, but will alienate the much larger cohort of pro-environment, traditionally Conservative voters. The party has taken a positive step forward with the manifesto. It should now double down on the positive messaging in the remainder of the campaign and win the argument for why a conservative approach is better for the environment.

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Sam Hall is Director of the Conservative Environment Network.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.