No easy ride

29th May 2015

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  • Politics & Economics ,
  • England ,
  • UK - Devolved Governments, Overseas Territories


Elizabeth Ainslie

Now the post-election dust has settled, the government will need to make some urgent decisions on several controversial environmental questions, says Catherine Early

As the surprise from the unexpected election results subsides and the new government shuffles ministers, reassigns responsibilities and gears up to deliver manifesto pledges, one thing is clear: it will not be long before it has some big decisions to make on issues with potentially significant environmental impacts.

One of the first will be on the location of airport expansion in the south east. The independent airports commission is due to publish its final report this summer, having already shortlisted Gatwick airport and two separate options for Heathrow. Although business groups, including like the CBI, are understood to back expansion at Heathrow, this option risks a rebellion in the government's own ranks. Several MPs in constituencies nearby are opposed. On being elected MP for Uxbridge, Boris Johnson pledged to lie down in front of bulldozers to stop a third runway at Heathrow, while Richmond MP Zac Goldsmith has promised to resign if expansion is given the green light.

Similarly controversial and also due this summer are the results of the 14th onshore oil and gas licensing round. Decc has received 95 applications for 295 blocks that will give operators exclusive rights to apply for permission to drill. With a parliamentary majority and no need to pacify the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives will be able to push ahead with its ambitions to exploit shale gas. Energy and climate change secretary Amber Rudd has already promised to allow extraction under national parks, which previously Decc had said it would ban. Rudd also wants to block onshore wind, which could lead to a confrontation with the newly powerful Scottish voice in parliament, with SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon demanding agreement of her party before subsidies are cut.

Meanwhile, Defra will have its work cut out meeting the deadline imposed by the Supreme court to submit new air quality plans to the European commission by the end of the year after the UK government was found to be in breach of the air quality Directive for failing to meet EU limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels. The UK is so far from achieving these that, by Defra's own estimation, it will not do so in some cities until after 2030. The deadline was January 2015. Meeting the thresholds will require the government to adopt politically difficult measures, such as low emission zones and congestion charging.

All this will be taking place as government departments battle to find further savings to meet deficit reduction pledges. Resources to protect the environment, already under extreme pressure, will be cut further. The Conservatives may have secured an unlikely parliamentary majority but that does not mean they will have an easy time.


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