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Peter Ainsworth: Speech to The Low Carbon World Conference 2008

First of all, may I thank the organisers of this important conference for giving me the opportunity to share some brief thoughts with you today.

You have a packed and fascinating schedule ahead of you, and I am aware, as Jim Naughtie has just pointed out, that you are particularly looking for practical solutions to take away with you, to help make your own contribution to the drive towards the low carbon economy we need to achieve.

Practical solutions? I cannot help wondering, then, why you invited a politician to get things underway.

Politicians certainly have a key role to play in creating a low carbon future. But it doesn't involve micro-managing, or providing detailed advice on what businesses should do. We've had too much of that.

In fact, the best role that politicians can usually play is to butt out of the daily decisions taken by companies and individuals as they go about creating the economy.

It's the task of politicians to agree objectives, and to set a logical and coherent framework to ensure that they are achieved.

Get that right, and everything else falls into place.

Right now, that logical, consistent framework is nowhere to be seen.

Forgive me if what immediately follows sounds like a bit of a rant. I used to advocate a cross-party approach to meeting these challenges; but I am becoming impatient.

Here are some of the reasons why:

Our Government goes around the world, wringing its hands about climate change, whilst the trend in our own domestic C02 emissions over the last decade has been up.

They spend our money on programmes to promote energy efficiency whilst the majority of Government departments are less energy efficient than they were in 1997.

They tell us to be more carbon conscious whilst ushering in a huge increase in airport capacity at Stansted and Heathrow.

They frequently cite China's programme of expanding coal fired power generation as a problem - which it undoubtedly is - and then we find them teetering on the brink of permitting a whole new raft of coal fired power stations to be built here in the UK.

And this week, without having taken the trouble to explain to motorists what is being done in their name, they have imposed a new biofuels obligation on transport fuels which will increase the risks of climate change, threaten food security, worsen global poverty, and damage vulnerable habitats and species which are already on the verge of extinction.

All that in the name of the environment. You couldn't make it up.

But enough of this Government.

How do we go about creating this logical, coherent framework which will enable you to develop the low carbon future which our children's welfare demands?

Firstly, it's about price signals.

We need to price carbon across the economy, so that what we pay for goods and services today at least approximates to the price that will be paid by our children and grandchildren for the damage we are doing to the places where they will live.

This means replacing the Climate Change Levy with a Carbon Levy, which would differentiate between high and low carbon sources of energy.

And it means introducing a Waste Heat Levy on energy generators, so that we capture the heat which currently just disappears into the sky, and put it to productive use.

It means revolutionising our outdated energy supply systems.

It means reforming the Renewables Obligation whilst bringing in a system of feed-in tariffs, so that community groups, schools, hospitals, businesses and families can have certainty that they will be rewarded by switching to green power.

It means saying no to any new coal fired power stations in the UK unless carbon capture and storage technologies are applied from the outset.

It means rebalancing our tax system - not increasing overall taxation - so that the polluter pays, but families and low carbon technologies are rewarded.

In terms of the planning system, it means returning decisions which impact on, or, benefit - or both - local communities to those very local communities themselves.

There is general agreement that we need to build more affordable homes for local families.

But it's not happening.

Instead, we are witnessing the piecemeal destruction of suburban streets as gardens are grabbed by developers and family houses are knocked down to make way for luxury flats.

Instead, we have grandiose schemes in Central Planning for 'Eco' towns.

John Prescott trashed the word 'sustainable' by slapping it onto the word 'communities'. His successors are in the process of trashing the pre-fix 'eco' by slapping it in font of the word 'town'.

It is hard to conceive of a better way of achieving nothing worthwhile than the present planning system.

It starts in Whitehall; it permeates through a Regional bureaucracy; it is undemocratic; it ends up as a series of impositions on locally elected Councillors who find themselves caught between their electorate and their legal obligations.

It is disputatious and ineffective.

The whole system needs to be inverted. And to those who say - and they often do - that placing planning decisions in the hands of people elected to be responsible for local places will result in nothing being built, I say that is patronising.

There is a real problem in providing affordable homes. The way to deal with that problem is to give it to local communities to own, confront, and solve.

In fact, nothing better illustrates the dysfunctional nature of our current politics than the present top-down approach to planning.

It's no good complaining about the poor turnout at local elections if local authorities constantly have their powers subsumed by central government.

Again, there is a need for a coherent, over-arching strategy.

Today, that means encouraging a landscape wide approach to planning. We need to recognise that a new building, or a new settlement, has an impact well beyond the immediate plot where the bulldozers are at work.

It means factoring in the consequences of climate change; for example by avoiding flood risk, or taking proper account of water supplies.

Above all, it means recognising the vital importance of green spaces to natural and human health.

Green spaces are not just good for nature; they are good for human well-being. Which is hardly surprising, since we are as much a part of nature as any other species on the planet.

We must learn to give effect to these words from Oliver Letwin:

"Beauty, human scale, loved landscapes, well - designed house and public buildings, peace, clean air, and room to move, are not abstractions; they are conditions in which we all want to live and in which we all want our children to grow up."

It cannot be that hard to work out how to achieve these things.

We know that ignoring them has not only ecological but also enormous social and economic costs.

And finally, we must stop the endlessly intrusive, boring, expensive, useless and ineffective way that Government tries to micro-manage the way that buildings are built.

We need to consider moving away from complex and usually unenforced Building Regulations, towards a system of Building Standards.

Let's get away from the stultifying mindset which is focussed on the process of what is done, and think instead about what we want to achieve.

From tackling climate change, to preserving and creating green spaces and habitats, to developing the homes we need: it is for the government to set the standards society requires.

Of course government must lead by example; of course there is a role for smart regulation to help stimulate the market for green products; of course the tax system has a role to play in driving the green economy.

But let enterprise do the rest.

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