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What have the main political parties got to say about ‘stuff’?

Look around you. What do you see? Stuff, right? Lots of manufactured stuff.

Even if you’re reading this sat under a tree in the middle of a forest you’ll be staring at a pretty high tech piece of stuff so your eyes can do that reading. Unless you’ve got a spectacular photographic memory and an admirable obsession with Friends of the Earth blogs.

But then, what are you wearing? Let’s move on.

The point is, short of skinny dipping at the local beach, everything we do, anywhere, involves materials that have been extracted, processed, transformed, bought and sold, taxed and subsidised, and shifted across often vast distances. Our society, our economy, is built around stuff.

If you’re a political party wanting to stake a credible claim to having a ‘plan’ for our economy, you gotta talk about stuff

Therefore, if you’re a political party wanting to stake a credible claim to having a ‘plan’ for our economy, for our society, you gotta talk about stuff. Natural resources. Raw materials. Resource efficiency. Security of supply.

Where we get those natural resources from, at what cost to people and the planet, and whether we can be confident of getting hold of more of them, has come to epitomise what for me is the adage of the age: the economy and the environment are two sides of the same coin.

The reason for this is simple: globally the competition for increasingly hard to access raw materials is growing relentlessly. This means more pressure on already unhealthy ecosystems, and more sleepless nights for companies and governments wondering whether supplies will run dry tomorrow.

You’ve only to see how business as well as environmental groups have lined up together on the subject of resources to see that. Take this joint letter for example, which calls on all the party leaders to commit to a review of the UK’s dependence on natural resources, and to set up for an Office for Resource Management (ORM) to inject some much need ambition and consistency into government’s attitude to resource efficiency.

So, half way through the ‘short campaign’ and with less than three weeks to go until the election, how are the parties faring?

‘Stern-for-resources’

Let’s look at that natural resources review first. Friends of the Earth regards committing to running this review to be absolutely pivotal to good stewardship of both the economy and the environment. Or, to turn that around, any party refusing to take the basic step of properly understanding the UK’s resource needs can fairly be charged with neglecting not just people and the planet, but manufacturers and retailers too.

The ‘Stern-for-resources’ featured in the Lib Dems’ ‘pre-manifesto’, borrowing the very term Friends of the Earth coined for the review of UK resource dependency both business and green groups want to see. Then it was voted for at their Spring Conference, and featured in their manifesto. Labour didn’t feature it in their manifesto, though Shadow Defra Minister Barry Gardiner has announced several times over the past few months they’d do the review.

This is too important an issue to play party politics with

So in terms of who announced it first, I’d call it a draw, with the Lib Dems demonstating their stronger commitment by including it in their manifesto. But there’s another important question, which is, what kind of review would they run? Neither party has released details yet, but a key judgement is who, or what department, would run the review.

Friends of the Earth wants the ‘Stern-for-Resources’ to be run by the Treasury. That way it’d have the same degree of clout as its namesake, Lord Stern’s 2006 review into the economics of climate change, and would take the argument for resource efficiency right into the heart of government. The Lib Dem manifesto tasks a renewed Natural Capital Committee, a body reporting to Treasury, with running the review.

That’s sound, but on Friday last week Labour stepped up with Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls’ announcement that they would get the Treasury to run the review. With no disrespect to Barry Gardiner, upgrading the announcement by having it issue from the pen of the Shadow Chancellorship shows Labour taking the issue much more seriously than they’d previously appeared to.

On this vitally important review then, both the Lib Dems and Labour have outlined their commitment, with Labour compensating for the lack of manifesto announcement by pledging to use the clout of the Treasury to ensure it’s taken seriously across government and beyond.

Office of Resource Management

An equally broad range of groups have been calling for the contradictory and confused approach to national resource efficiency to be sorted once and for all through the creation of a central, co-ordinating body called the Office for Resource Management (ORM). This could get involved in running the Stern-for-resources and would certainly help deliver on its recommendations, including through ensuring different departments’ policies on recycling, product design, resource supply and security and so one were adequately ambitious and consistent.

On this, the Lib Dems have – in terms of pre-election pledges at least – delivered the goods. Their manifesto commits to a cross-Cabinet committee on resource use, which is similar enough in function if not name. Labour make no mention of what changes they’d make to the machinery of government in order to boost national resource efficiency. Their silence on the ORM could be defended on the grounds they’d like to see the ‘Stern-for-resources’ review completed before making changes, but our view is there’s plenty the ORM could be getting on with from the get-go.

 

So, in their different ways, both Labour and the Lib Dems have set the pace on resource efficiency politics, with the Lib Dems making the ORM and a slightly weaker Stern-for-resources commitment, whilst Labour go the whole hog on Stern-for-resources but stop at leaving the door open to an ORM.

Where are the Conservatives?

Speaking of silence though, what about the Conservatives? For the self-styled party of business it’s mystifying to see the loud and clear call of big business groups like the EEF being ignored on this vitally important issue. There are certainly wise heads within the Conservative party which get the importance of resources, but so far nothing from the top.

As the joint letter from business and green groups says, this is too important an issue to play party politics with. We need all the parties – and that should definitely include the SNP given their likely influence in the next parliament – to take resource security and efficiency seriously. Our economy and our environment depend on their doing so.

Blog written by Julian Kirby, 18th April 2015.

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