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We Do Not Want to Go to War With the Government - But Things Are Going Rapidly in the Wrong Direction

31/07/2015 09:32 BST | Updated 30/07/2016 10:59 BST

There is a damning passage about green NGOs in Tony Blair's memoirs, once regarded by David Cameron and his colleagues as an instruction manual for government:

Over time, I'm afraid I came to dislike part of the NGO culture, especially the Green groups.... Because their entire raison d'être is to get policy changed, they can hardly say yes, we've done it, without putting themselves out of business. And they've learned to play the modern media game perfectly. As it's all about impact, they shout louder and louder to get heard. Balance is not in the vocabulary. It's all "outrage," "betrayal," "crisis."

Nonsense of course, but just plausible enough to be worrying. There is a danger that today's letter to David Cameron from the leaders of the main UK environmental NGOs will be dismissed as the usual whingeing from special interest groups who cannot get all they want from a government that must also listen to others.

That would be a mistake. Green groups know that the times are against us, that there is more media debate about lack of housing than loss of countryside, more concern for growth than sustainability; that 'vote blue, go green' (or, indeed, 'vote red, go green') is a distant memory. We spent much of the last five years biting our collective lip as hopes were disappointed. The ten organisations who signed up to the letter have millions of members between them, including many Conservative voters and many who think charities should keep out of politics. We have no wish to alienate either our supporters or a new government with five years (or more) to go.

So the decision to write to the Prime Minister about our shared concerns was not taken lightly. I can remember no similar initiative during the last Parliament. But we felt the need to raise the alarm because of a rush of damaging decisions in the Government's first 10 weeks. These decisions will damage the environment, of course, but in many cases they also harm the economy. It is almost as if some within government are motivated by a belief that what is bad for the environment must be good for the economy. Duh!

It is not all bad. On planning, the Government has declared strong support for the Green Belt (though it needs to do more to safeguard it); it has taken steps to maximise the use of suitable brownfield land for housing (though it is far from clear that brownfield developments will consist of good quality, energy efficient housing in well-designed places); and it is promoting neighbourhood planning so that people can shape developments where they live, including by planning for more housing.

Different environmental groups have different priorities. I am very well aware that some who love nature and the countryside loathe wind and solar farms. They may be relaxed about the Government's decision to cut renewable subsidies. But the letter to the Prime Minister argues "that wind and solar PV... with appropriate planning and environmental controls can help meet the nation's energy needs". It does not propose wind and solar farms everywhere, only with appropriate planning and environmental controls. Less renewable energy and less energy conservation means more of some other form of energy, and energy production always comes with landscape and environmental issues.

Finally, it is worth reiterating the letter's concern about the Government's sudden abandonment of its long-standing commitments to zero carbon construction. How on earth has a Conservative government got itself into a position when it is deliberately embracing future problems of energy security, fuel poverty and controversial infrastructure, and doing so in the face of opposition from most of the construction industry? This is not evidence-based policy making, it is listening to the anecdotes of some chap on the golf course.

The NGOs who signed the letter to the Prime Minister do not want to go to war with the Government. We welcome the Government's good intentions, not least its aspiration that ours should be "the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than that in which we found it". But things are going rapidly in the wrong direction.

I very much hope that the Prime Minister, who cares about the countryside and recognises the importance of climate change, will now act to get his government back on course.

Shaun Spiers is the chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE)