Zac Goldsmith @ the Guardian & Observer Open Weekend

Last weekend (24th & 25th March), I attended an open discussion between Ian Katz (Deputy Editor of the Guardian) and Zac Goldsmith (Conservative MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston), which was part of the Guardian and Observer open weekend. After a particularly early start, I managed to take my seat in the auditorium, a bit bleary eyed, also still panting after my brisk walk in warm spring sunshine from King’s Cross station. Thank heavens the air-con started to work just in time.

The event began with the introduction of Zac Goldsmith MP – one of a small number of MPs in the House of Commons who is particularly outspoken, therefore doesn’t always tow the line of the Conservative Party ‘three line whip’. As a result, I was excited about hearing him talk more openly about his passions, with particular focus on the environment and green issues.

In the discussion, he focused on three particular areas of Environmental policy, as follows:

    • Pricing of forests – he highlighted the botched policy proposals last year by DEFRA and their privatisation proposals, which in the end didn’t get through the legislature process. He then went on to emphasise the importance of the price of forests “being worth more alive than dead” and how they have a strategic importance to the country and not just for the vested interests of the few.
    • Planning Reform – the purpose of this legislation is to remove some of red tape that surrounds planning permission. This legislation is currently being pushed through, and Mr Goldsmith felt that it may eventually be at the detriment of the environment and beautiful parts of the English countryside. The argument was compounded when he pointed out that there are currently 30,000 hectares of ‘brownfield’ not being used (this is where commercial / premises used to reside but have since been knocked down), there are also 2,000 planning developments that have been approved but no spades have yet entered the ground. It appears that this legislation may simply not be necessary.
    • Lack of consideration of ‘scale’ – when organisations become too big, they start acting in a ‘predatory’ fashion. He made the point of the importance of keeping smaller local markets to safeguard the future of farming in this country. In addition to this difficult position larger shops (such as Tesco’s) can squeeze local shops out of the market place as they have way too much buyer power over their suppliers, which, doesn’t help the industry in the long run.

Following on from the discussions on policies the conversation between Mr Goldsmith and Mr Katz turned to the current administration, and their role in the green debate, as after all, it was only two years ago that Mr Cameron entered No10 promising to head the ‘Greenest government ever’. This focused on two things in particular, whether the government was ‘green’ enough and the proposed expansion of Heathrow.

Interestingly, on the question from Mr Katz, whether this government has been the ‘greenest ever’, I felt that Mr. Goldsmith sat on the fence a little. He pointed out to the fact that government has been sending out confusing messages on ‘cleantech’ technologies, which hasn’t resounded well with investors. Yet he pointed out to specific measures like the Green Deal, the Green Investment Bank, FITs and electricity market reforms as policies implemented by this government, and that each should be celebrated as a real achievement, however we know FITs, energy market reform debates and deregulation were started by the last government. I suppose as the current administration has only been in power less than 2 years, there is still time for new ideas to come out.

Finally the debate moved on to the proposed airport expansion in the South-east (with focus on Heathrow in particular). This has been a bit of a hot topic recently in the media. Mr. Goldsmith was asked about his view in this area – so strong was his view against a 3rd runway expansion at Heathrow, that he is prepared to resign over this issue area and trigger a by-election if the government goes back on its promise and supports it.

You may have heard in the news last week that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne (Conservative MP) is in favour of this idea of a 3rd runway at Heathrow. It would be tough for this administration to contemplate legislating in this area, no matter what the final, engineered solution is.  Also the Conservative Party MPs that have constituencies bordering on the Heathrow flight path (including the current Sec. of State for Transport) would find it very hard to sell this expansion to their constituents at the next general election, given their current view, which has been to oppose it.

I think in the end, I managed to get a good perspective of how our legislators approach debates to green and environmental issues. Further insight was also offered on some really important tricks missed by the current administration in its legislative programme for planning reform for example. What I think was lacking was an actual point-of-view by Mr. Goldsmith, on what he though the solutions were. I enjoyed his views on farming, but I think overall there was a lack of time to go into this in too much detail, as after all, this debate was only penciled in for an hour.