You might be forgiven for thinking that the Conservative party has spent the past month or so taking all the green rubbish – or ‘crap’ as one source close to the Prime Minister was quoted as saying – out and forgetting it ever loved environmentalism. But visiting Energy and Climate Change Minister Greg Barker’s office is a reminder that the party hasn’t quite purged its green, climate-change conscious past. He still has a green Union Jack cushion on one chair, and another with ‘Save the Planet’ embroidered on the case. There’s still a picture of the Prime Minister with a husky on a side table. Clearly Barker still thinks that you can vote blue and go green, even after the past month.
As one of the best-known green modernisers behind that ‘vote blue, go green’ slogan and those huskies, Barker is clearly unimpressed with the ‘green crap’, which The Sun reported in November was an order from the Prime Minister to aides to ‘get rid of all the green crap’ (and which the PM was rather vague about in his interview with Fraser). He says:
‘Firstly, I don’t recognise the “green crap” phrase. I think that’s certainly not the Prime Minister’s words. But I think to see it as green crap, I think is a slightly, um, curmudgeonly way of looking at the world.’
He also tries to argue that the removal of some green levies and taxes from energy bills in the Autumn Statement wasn’t in response to Labour, saying that ‘both Labour and us if we are honest were responding to exactly the same thing, which is basically the consumer’. Of course, the Coalition had been talking about energy bills for months before Ed Miliband’s autumn conference speech in which he promised the price-freeze that appears to have panicked ministers so. It’s just that ministers only seemed to go into overdrive once that conference pledge had skipped out of the Labour leader’s mouth. Does Barker really think Miliband’s policy had no bearing at all on the way things worked out in the Autumn Statement?
‘You can’t deny that the political temperature didn’t inform the thinking, but I can tell you this: we’ve been thinking about consumer bills, have been worried about these issues long before Ed Miliband made his speech. I think we were slightly startled that he came up with such an extreme proposition that was just barking mad, and dangerous, frankly. But Ed Miliband didn’t put concerns about energy prices on the political agenda. The Big Six did that.’
Barker thinks the Tories were already on the right track on green policy from the beginning of the Coalition, rather than performing any sharp about-turn on green levies and taxes. He points to the early decisions on the renewable heat incentive and the levy for the carbon capture and storage project. ‘We made clear that that was our direction of travel,’ he argues.
But doesn’t the minister think that his party’s support for the Climate Change Act (he led on the legislation for the Opposition) has made it much more difficult for it to appear at all principled on energy when it has now decided to roll back some of the levies that its own MPs once supported?
‘What I think is that we mustn’t allow ourselves to enter a sort of binary political world where it’s expensive green policy versus nothing at all. There is actually a sensible, credible green progressive proposition which says just because you’re green doesn’t mean to say you shouldn’t deliver value for money.’
That’s about as close as Barker comes to saying that his party might have made some wrong decisions in Opposition on energy policy. By and large, he clearly doesn’t regret a great deal.
But where he does think ministers have got lessons to learn is the beleaguered Green Deal. This programme of loans for energy efficiency improvements to homes has taken so long to get off the ground that in the summer, with only 36 households signed up by the end of June to the full finance package, other ministers were briefing that Barker had ‘mucked it up’ and was for the chop in the reshuffle. He survived, and so has the Green Deal, although progress remains sluggish. Barker doesn’t try to spin this one. He says:
‘The Green Deal has been criticised because of the number of finance plans have been much, much lower than anticipated. We thought we’d do about 10,000 in the first 12 months, but in the first eight months since the plans have been available, there are just under 2,000 in the system. So we’re much lower than we expected.
‘However, we have done really well on the Green Deal assessments. They have proved extremely popular. Over 100,000 have been completed and the latest research shows that over 80 per cent of people who’ve had a Green Deal assessment have either taken steps to install the recommended measures, are currently putting them in or intending to install them.’
He suspects that the slow start on the finance side is because a fair few of those people who have been given an assessment are the keen beans who are enthusiastic about installing the insulation and other energy efficiency measures themselves. ‘To a certain extent maybe we should have anticipated that the first people to get the Green Deal will be the early adopters, the keen ones,’ he says.
But there are plans to improve the Green Deal to attract more applicants. This will involve making the application process for Green Deal finance much easier to go through. But Barker also suspects that other big companies who have been reluctant to sign up as Green Deal providers may be persuaded to do so as it becomes more popular.
What he is really unashamedly proud of is the policy that he describes as his ‘baby’: the Green Investment Bank. Barker sees this as a truly Tory green success story, claiming that ‘we were the first party in Opposition or in the last Parliament to call for the Green Investment Bank’. Clearly he’s keen to stop the Lib Dems claiming credit for this, which they regularly try to do.
‘The creation of the Green Investment Bank in a relatively short period of time has really fulfilled all of my expectations and ambitions in opposition and actually it exceeded it. It has now become an enduring part of the architecture of the City of London and is playing a role at galvanising private sector investment at real scale, and other countries around the world are looking enviously at the model.’
The next step for the government is to reduce its stake in the bank, though Barker doesn’t want it to be wholly privatised because even a smallish stake sends a message to investors that the government ‘has skin in the game’. How big that stake will be in the end isn’t something ministers have decided yet.
But it is this, and a projected 25 per cent cut in government energy consumption in Whitehall by 2015, that Barker believes will mean the Tories can go into the next election with a loud and proud green offer. In fact, he argues that the problem in 2010 wasn’t too much greenery, but too little of the right sort:
‘I think we’ve got, you know, we need to put our mouth where our money is, and have a credible distinct centre-right pro-business entrepreneurial green offer. I think that there was not enough of those things [in 2010]. We’ve moved on, the world has moved on a lot since 2010.’
What he sees is a kind of hard-headed Tory vision for tackling climate change that doesn’t cede ground to the Left. ‘We need to do a better job collectively of speaking up for our successes and defining our approach to the green agenda more distinctly, which is to give it more of that commercial edge,’ he says.
That commercial edge involves shattering the current energy market from the Big Six to what Barker likes to call the ‘Big 60,000′, or a ‘new army of disruptive energy entrepreneurs’. And it involves shale gas, hated by much of the green movement, because Barker sees that as having a ‘bigger impact on reducing emissions than practically any other energy source’ in the short to medium term.
But it also involves reassuring people that if they vote blue to go green, they won’t also be voting to pay more on their energy bills. ‘I think the Prime Minister is right that the pre-condition for doing that is to assure people that when we talk of an exciting green future, they don’t reach for their wallets,’ he says. ‘We’ve got to demonstrate, just as we demonstrate that we can actually put our own house in order by becoming energy efficient by driving down bills, that our vision is affordable and credible, and we’re not going to just persist with some of the sloppy green programmes of the past.’
So when the 2015 campaigning really does begin in earnest, there will be at least one minister telling voters that they can still vote blue to go green. The question is how many of Barker’s colleagues agree, or whether they prefer to continue being ‘curmudgeonly’ about the ‘green crap’.Tags: Coffee House interview, green crap, Green energy, Greg Barker, UK politics