Supporting our environmental future

glass globeNow that much of the initial excitement – and the scepticism – at the prospect of a coalition government has subsided, the time has come for Chancellor George Osborne to announce massive spending cuts to help plug £6.2 million deficit.

Following a consultation amongst public sector staff to find ways to save pounds, the Treasury Department launched its Spending Challenge website (www.spendingchallenge.hm-treasury.gov.uk) on Friday 9 July to aid communications and good-will between the public, businesses and government. Here, individuals are invited to suggest “radical, creative and imaginative” cost-saving initiatives based on where they believe there is currently waste. Osborne called for the public’s help, pleading: “Tell us where is the waste, what should we cut out, what can we improve... your government needs you, please get in touch.” 33 web pages of suggestions have already been submitted, focusing on everything from total governmental reform to the abolition of road tax.

Abandoning infrastructure projects
After six successive quarters of negative growth, the worst economic outlook since the Great Depression, the Treasury may welcome these real life cost saving suggestions as some of those ideas could just help other projects survive the financial cull. However, there seemed to be little or no public, business or trade body consultation required to reach the decision to abandon many infrastructure projects.

On the same day (16 June) that Transport Secretary Philip Hammond stated that London’s Crossrail project will forge ahead despite the looming cuts, saying “we live in difficult economic times, but that does not mean that we should scrap big projects which would give the economy a vital boost in the future”, the Local Government Association (LGA) announced that housing, major transport projects and social development programmes will be some of the public sector services that will be hit hardest by cuts. It was also revealed that some city and borough Councils in Lancashire, Norfolk, Essex, Yorkshire and Kent are facing at least a two per cent cut in their grants. On top of that, the Department for Transport (DfT) is suspending progress on all local authority projects that are part-funded by the DfT or that have not been fully approved, evidenced by the £300m Scottish Borders Rail project that is struggling to get going despite the Crossrail project and Manchester’s Metrolink scheme continuing unaffected (however, we should remember here that London in particular has the 2012 Olympic Games to host in two years).

Fallout from cut backs
Although Housing Minister Grant Shapps has recently welcomed the confirmation of £390 million to fund the building of over 8,500 new homes, running costs at his Communities and Local Government (CLG) department and its associated quangos are to be cut by ten per cent (around £50m) as part of the efficiency savings. Fall out from such stringent cutbacks has meant that planners, through the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), have voiced concerns that the government’s recent decision to abolish the Housing and Planning Delivery Grant (HPDG) could result in a drop in the standards of any developments that do go ahead. RTPI’s head of policy Matt Thomson said the removal of the HPDG could damage the UK’s economic recuperation, declaring: “Strong visions are needed for the future of places as an essential part of attracting investment for recovery.” The National Housing Federation (NHF) has also stated that according to its calculations, the cuts could result in up to £45 billion dripping from the economy and damaging our recovery.

A development standstill
Looking at these cuts as a collective – department after department being faced with multi-million pound reductions in their budgets – it could be argued that much of the UK is facing something of a development standstill. If that is so, we can expect this to affect overall economic recovery, international investment, environmental development, housing availability, employment numbers, social mobility and perhaps a dip in the collective confidence in the new government’s future vision. Current estimates from the National Housing Federation state that around 200,000 jobs within the construction industry could be lost or not created at all, and 350,000 individuals will find themselves added to housing waiting lists.

It is obvious that our fledgling government needs to save money and it perhaps seems like a simple choice to scale back on expensive, large scale schemes. But the cuts cannot come at the expense of the transition to a low carbon resource efficient future, according to Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment (IEMA), the most authoritative body for environmental professionals.

IEMA, who represents those working in the environmental field across all sectors, believes that the transitioning of regional and national infrastructure, including transport, energy and utility, housing and sustainability projects, may actually help to maintain economic recovery. In addition, it will reduce the risk that a changing climate represents to critical infrastructure and the people and businesses that rely on it. Jan Chmiel, CEO of IEMA, explains: “As government declared its desire to move towards a low carbon and resource efficient future, it is necessary to invest in sustainable infrastructure projects to keep the UK competitive on the world stage and protect against the risks presented by environmental issues such as resource efficiency and climate change.”

The debate between those keen on making cost savings through easy-wins versus those with the far-sighted vision for improvements made in the name of sustainability is likely to play on until the economy really recovers.

Industry conference   
In the meantime the relationship between government, business and the environment during these tough economic times is the focus of an industry conference in November.       

‘Environment and Business: The challenge and the opportunity’ is being developed and hosted by the IEMA, as part of their mission to place the environmental practitioner at the heart of change and decision making in business and government considerations. The event will be held at the end of this transitional year on 1 and 2 November at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in influential Westminster and the first day focuses on the topic of ‘Environmental Challenge – Shaping the UK’s Infrastructure and Economy’.

As the continued investment and vision of infrastructure projects is so crucial this conference aims to arm those attending with knowledge of how environmental opportunities and challenges must shape the UK infrastructure and economy to deliver growth. Over 300 environmental practitioners, consultants, planners, local authority decision-makers and business leaders will hear the views of leading names as they address the challenges and dichotomies currently facing those working in infrastructure management.               

The following speakers from some of the UK’s foremost development, environmental and private sector organisations will provide food for thought and debate with their keynote sessions:
• James Stewart, chief executive of Infrastructure UK will talk on Transitioning UK Infrastructure
• Professor Paul Ekins, professor of energy and environment policy at University College London will speak on Transitioning the Economy
• Dr Peter Bonfield, CEO of BRE will talk on Rebuilding a Sustainable Britain

• Gareth Stace, head of climate & environment policy at EEF will speak on Transitioning Manufacturing in the UK
•  Mike Barry, head of sustainable business, Marks & Spencer, will speak on Developing a Sustainable Business
•  Martyn Seal, European sustainability director, PepsiCo International, will speak on Mainstreaming Environment into Mainstream Products
•  Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of Futerra Sustainability Communications, will speak on Communication Matters: Environment, Reputation, Brand & Competitive Advantage.

We are all likely to feel the pinch of government cuts somewhere in our lives over the coming months and years. But it is reassuring to know that as citizens we are being given the opportunity to give our ideas directly to government about how to save those precious public pounds. However, it would be even more comforting to know that the infrastructure of our island is not going to be held back as a result of under-spending and that our environmental future is supported.

For more information
For more information about IEMA and Environment and Business: The challenge and the opportunity conference, call 01522 540069 or see www.iema.net