Boris Johnson is to set out a “new deal” for jobs and infrastructure on Tuesday, painting himself as a “Rooseveltian” prime minister lifting Britain out of the biggest recession in centuries, and a pledge to use the coronavirus crisis to tackle unresolved challenges such as health, education and regional inequalities.
“To that end, we will build build build,” he is expected to say. “Build back better, build back greener, build back faster, and to do that at the pace that this moment requires.
However, his promise to “build back greener” was greeted with dismay by environmental experts, who were concerned that the climate crisis receives scant attention in what the government is revealing so far of its plans.
Most of the spending announcements will focus on the NHS, education and improvements for town centres. There will be GBP100m for roads and GBP10m for rail in Manchester, as well as GBP900m on unspecified “shovel-ready” local growth projects in England.
Tree-planting is set for a boost, with Johnson re-affirming plans to plant more than 75,000 acres a year by 2025, with GBP40m for local conservation projects creating 3,000 jobs and safeguarding 2,000.
Ed Matthew, of the Climate Coalition, said: “The only thing Rooseveltian about this plan is that it belongs in the fossil fuel age. There is very little announced today which will do anything to accelerate the transition to a zero carbon economy. The prime minister has to back up his rhetoric on a green recovery with action to prioritise green investment. Future generations will not forgive a government that fails to use this opportunity to build a safer climate for us all.”
Tanya Steele, chief executive of conservation group WWF, added: “We are in the midst of a climate and nature crisis, and these lukewarm plans address only part of our nation’s much-needed recovery. The prime minister is out of touch with the scale of the challenges.”
Calls for a green recovery have been gathering steam, with economists, businesses, healthcare professionals, creative industries and the government’s own advisers all making the case for one. Johnson is making his speech in the Midlands on Tuesday morning, while thousands of people are expected to gather online for a “mass virtual lobby” of parliament to discuss the potential for a green recovery.
“Thousands of people are participating in the first ever virtual lobby of parliament on the day of this speech, calling for a green recovery,” said Matthew. “They will not be impressed.”
Missing from the prime minister’s speech were much-trailed plans to boost energy efficiency through a national programme of home insulation, which was a GBP9.2bn Conservative manifesto pledge. The UK has the most inefficient housing stock in Europe, and renovating draughty homes would reduce people’s energy bills, improve living conditions, and cut carbon emissions. However, a report in the Financial Times suggested Dominic Cummings was against the programme.
“If they can’t be trusted to deliver on their biggest climate pledge in their manifesto, what manifesto pledge can they be trusted to deliver?” asked Matthew. “If the government fails to deliver on this pledge, their climate credentials will be in shreds.”
Environmental experts are also concerned that without a green recovery strategy in place, and without clear low-carbon directives, the prime minister’s call to “build build build” will result in high-carbon infrastructure being locked in.
Steele said: “To avoid catastrophe, we need a low-carbon nature-powered recovery, not one weighed down by tarmac and concrete. This is another missed opportunity – and we don’t have many chances left.”
The National Infrastructure Strategy, which is supposed to set out plans on key environmental issues such as energy networks, transport, flood defences and waste, has now been put off to the autumn, having been already delayed in March’s budget.
The UK is in the international spotlight as host of the UN climate summit, Cop26, which has been delayed by a year from its original date of this November. Small developing nations in particular are looking to the UK for leadership at the summit, intended to revitalise the Paris agreement of 2015.
Businesses have also called for a green recovery, with hundreds joining in events for the London Climate Week this week. David Smith, chief executive of the Energy Networks Association, said: “Jobs, skills and infrastructure are core to the UK’s green recovery. The networks are ready to support this growth with shovel-ready projects across the length and breadth of the country, projects which will themselves provide the backbone to our country’s net zero [carbon emissions] future.”
Fatima Ibrahim, co-executive director of the Build Back Better coalition of groups calling for a green recovery, said: “The prime minister is completely right to call for a ‘New Deal’ for the UK, because he knows that Britain wants a change. But, as ever, the proof is in the details and despite the loud and proud rhetoric of a “positively Rooseveltian” economic stimulus, certain aspects of the GBP5bn stimulus package are just prepackaged proposals that show no concern nor plan for decarbonising the UK economy. This is deeply concerning for the millions of us that want to create a green, fair and strong economy off the back of this crisis.”