16 February 1998

Cynog Dafis MP (Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion)

The New Labour Government claims that it will put the environment at the heart of its policies.

Suddenly Government ministers are peppering their remarks with reference to ‘sustainable development’ – commonly defined as meeting the needs of present generations without undermining the ability of future generations to meet theirs. And there is no doubt that many of the new intake of MPs at Westminster are taking this big issue seriously. The support for the Road Traffic Reduction (UK Targets) Bill, at its second reading debate a fortnight ago, was really impressive, and the discussion was thoughtful and well-informed.

If it is enacted – which is by no means certain, as supporters of the anti-hunting bill are currently deliberately wasting time in committee – it will oblige the Secretary of State to set and publish national targets for the reduction of road traffic in the UK. It is difficult to imagine such a proposal getting majority parliamentary support five, much less ten years ago.

The question now becomes, not whether, but how?

How do we deliver sustainable development?

How do we reduce road traffic?

Various policy mechanisms are put forward, but prominent among them are green taxes. If you shift the burden of taxation from social and environmental goods, like energy conservation and employment, to bads like pollution and wasteful use of resources, you could get a win-win-win scenario — more jobs, more conservation, a better quality of life; less pollution, less ill-health, less waste, less damage to natural habitats. That sounds fine, but as we saw with 17.5% VAT on domestic fuel, supposedly a green tax, it’s not always as simple as that.

Raising VAT on domestic fuel was seen as discriminating against the poor, and the resulting furore certainly helped bring about the downfall of the Conservative government.

Sustainable development is about social equity as well as improving the environment.

Let’s think about cars. They cause enormous human, social and environmental damage and because of their increasing numbers, their use is becoming less and less convenient. The case for making those who use them pay for the damage they cause is powerful. But what of some of my constituents in Caredigion, living on low incomes in rural areas where public transport is poor, and not even feasible? Swinging across-the-board increases in petrol prices could hit them hard.

So my plea to Gordon Brown is this. "Pursue the green tax option, but design the change carefully, building in the compensatory mechanisms that can protect vulnerable individuals and regions. Only if you do so can we build the consensus for change that is necessary for sustainable development".

It’s not enough to blunder into such a radical change, using the environment opportunistically to raise a bit of revenue here and there.

Unless we have a proper strategic approach, green taxation will get a bad name and the prospects for a sustainable future will be grim.

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