Green businesses will be furious to hear senior ministers implying they are lazy and guilty of moaning too much
I can feel your frustration, your anger – perhaps even your outrage.
With echoes of Tebbit's "get on your bike" instruction to the unemployed of the eighties, foreign secretary William Hague finally laid bare the government's growth strategy to the Sunday Telegraph. "There's only one growth strategy – work hard," he said. "I think they should be getting on with the task of creating more of those jobs and more of those exports, rather than complaining about it."
In some ways we should be relieved – at least Hague's comments suggest there is a growth strategy, all be it one of kindergarten simplicity.
As if enough damage had not already been done to the previously cordial relations between the business community and the Conservative Party, Eric Pickles and Philip Hammond waded in to agree with Hague, telling businesses to stop whinging and "work that little bit harder".
"Growth will only come from people making things, people selling things: it cannot come from government – government can only create conditions for growth," said Pickles, which is fair enough if there were a shred of evidence of credible policies that were creating conditions for growth.
It is hard to fathom what these ministers were thinking. Only a few weeks ago, business leaders were the "wealth creators" who needed to be rewarded by a tax cut for the highest earners. Now they are layabouts who selfishly refuse to invest and deliver the growth the country needs.
Business leaders do not like taking lessons from career politicians whose experience of the private sector is often far less extensive than they advertise. The lessons are even harder to take when they imply our top business leaders are lazy. Is it any surprise that business groups responded angrily to Hague's comments, both in public and private, pointedly arguing they can only justify investment if there is the tiniest slither of confidence in the economy, something the government has seen fit to strangle at birth? "Get on a plane" and go sell abroad, Hague said. But you can only do that if there are markets to sell to, business groups countered, and thanks to the austerity doctrine, growth markets are few and far between.
Green business leaders should be even angrier than most. They have been working hard, back-breakingly hard, and have delivered around five per cent growth. Yet instead of being celebrated they are largely ignored by the prime minister, chancellor and most of the Conservative Party.
For them to be told to "work harder" by a government that has bungled changes to microgeneration incentives, created confusion over the future of carbon legislation, not properly launched the promised Green Investment Bank, delayed the Renewable Heat Incentive, taken two years to reach a simple decision on carbon reporting rules, still not clarified the details surrounding the Green Deal energy efficiency scheme, delayed the Green Deal scheme for businesses and – breathe... there's more – singularly failed to promote greener forms of transport, delivered a waste review that contained nothing but voluntary agreements, failed to make tangible progress on public sector green procurement rules, slashed spending on crucial green business support services and flood protection infrastructure, failed to make any progress on promised environmental taxes and – breathe again, nearly finished – failed to deliver the promised £1bn of carbon capture and storage funding, seen its nuclear strategy stall, required a sizable internal row just to get long-promised electricity market reforms on to the parliamentary agenda for this year, had to bend the PM's arm to speak for even seven minutes on the topic of the low-carbon economy, and allowed ministers to talk down green businesses is little short of a disgrace.
I've consistently argued that the government is quietly making progress on its green agenda and should be given more time to deliver the flagship policies it has promised. It would be nice if ministers offered more vocal support to the green economy, but until these policies come into full effect it is too early to determine whether the government will make good on its pledge to be the "greenest ever". Many green business leaders feel the same, and as such relations between green businesses and ministers remain (with some notable exceptions) pretty good considering the pressures everyone is under.
But crass comments such as those from Hague, Hammond and Pickles, not to mention previous utterances from Osborne, only serve to burn through whatever goodwill remains and leave business leaders such as those unemployed people patronised by Tebbit back in the 80s angry, alienated and undermined by their own government.
The problem is that ministers are left to resort to exhortations to our puritan work ethic because they feel they have no other options left.
As Bloomberg New Energy Finance's Michael Liebreich pointed out on Twitter yesterday, the grossly simplistic media debate over austerity versus growth ignores the fact that the opposite of austerity is not automatically growth – it is spending. The current political debate should not be an absurdly binary row over whether to continue cutting or borrow more. It should be an urgent exploration for stimulus measures that can drive growth at little or no cost. That there is little evidence within the coalition that this search is going on is arguably this government's biggest dereliction of duty.
The most frustrating thing is you do not have to look far for options. I am sure they are evident in every sector of the economy, but sticking with the green economy there are numerous steps the government could take that would require either no upfront spending or relatively limited sums.
Taking just a few of the most obvious examples, mandatory carbon reporting rules would create both short-term demand for consultancy services and long-term demand for energy and carbon efficient technologies, driving growth without the need for any public spending. Some businesses might claim there would be an increased regulatory burden, but it would not be that large and would be outweighed by the benefits associated with emissions management.
Similarly, delaying the next wave of cuts to feed-in tariff incentives and promoting the RHI for businesses would restore growth to the employee-intensive, previously fast-growth small-scale renewables market, helping to bring costs down to a point where these technologies can operate without subsidy. The small cost would be borne by energy bill payers, not the government, so there would be no impact on the deficit. This would, of course, spark anger from some energy bill payers, but in that case the government needs to have confidence in its claims that energy efficiency measures mean bills will come down over the next decade and really step up efforts to promote the Green Deal, which will be available to all from the autumn.
Green procurement rules would cost nothing and would drive growth, as would more demanding appliance efficiency standards, which, as Ed Davey has pointed out, can usually be met without driving up costs for manufacturers. New tax incentives for green products such as low-emission cars, efficient boilers etc, would not cost the Treasury much and could be paid for if the government made good on its pledge to increase environmental levies and upped taxes on carbon-intensive products. If you can afford to buy and run an SUV in the current economic climate, you can afford to pay a higher rate of tax on it to help pay for incentives on lower emission vehicles.
More ambitious still, the recent report from Green Alliance on how to better target tax allowances and green ISAs to support fast-growth, low-carbon industries should be a must-read for ministers keen to stimulate growth without adding to the deficit.
Add in a willingness to allow the Green Investment Bank to lend, another look at the viability of a Severn tidal barrage, fast-tracked passage for the electricity market reform bill, and more direct funding for emerging, high-growth sectors such as marine and geothermal energy, and you have genuine conditions for green growth that would cost at most a few billion pounds – money that could easily be raised through tweaks to tax rules elsewhere or cuts in the media training budget for ministers, which judging by the last few days isn't working.
The government does not need to worry about how hard the green business community is working. These are business leaders and entrepreneurs who are just as committed to creating jobs, growth and prosperity as they are to tackling the planet's environmental challenges. What it needs to worry about is the tragic paucity of ideas at the heart of government when it comes to creating the conditions for future growth. In short, it is Hague and his colleagues who should be working harder.
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