Sunday, March 04, 2007

Green Lib Dems

I have just witnessed the Sunday morning debates at the Lib Dem spring conference, and - in order not to miss out on this whole 'I am here, look this is me blogging' thing - a bit like the 'hello I'm on the phone' kind of conversation that briefly provided comedians with a little material when mobile phones were fairly new -I thought I would comment briefly, while waiting for Ming's speech.

We debated a pair of good motions on green and prosperous communities and on sustainable housing. The interesting thing is that in both cases we had a speaker from the Green Lib Dems complaining that a) they hadn't been consulted, and b) it didn't go far enough with all the green stuff.

However, as another member of Green Lib Dems, I had no difficulty in supporting both motions. While I agree that wider circulation of draft proposals would always be a good thing, the complaint that there was expertise going unused struggled to hit home. Because the only gems of wisdom offered were additional policy content that was actually quite debatable.

The example that springs to mind was the suggestion of reduced VAT on DIY goods which can be used for energy efficiency enhancing improvements. In one sense this is perhaps all grist to the mill, little measures will add up, etc, etc. On the other hand we are talking about tinkering with an already complex tax, VAT, to slightly reduce the price of a class of goods that might bring energy effiency gains, without, as far as I can see any analysis of how much energy we expect to save, for the known revenue cost and unknown administration cost.

There is a dangerous principle here, that all goods should be assessed for their environmental impacts, including potential impacts depending on what uses they are put to, and that everything from apples to zeppelins has its own tax rate. And surely this tax shouldn't be VAT which is effectively free to most businesses.

A greater purist than I would say that a simple levy on fuel will suffice and the market will determine how much insulation people install. I think this is a fairly reasonable approach to business [with some caveats off the point for this blog], but individual behaviour is more driven by habit than by calculations of costs and benefits. So I think there is a good case for sending signals to individuals, signals such as energy ratings for appliances, and perhaps a few supertaxes on common poor products with good alternatives, such as disposable batteries and incandescent light bulbs.

I don't think reduced VAT on anything comes close to being a clear signal. And assessing individual goods, given the number of different products that exist would be bureaucratic beyond Sir Humphry's wildest dreams.

Simplicity and clarity of signal: these are the keys.

So, anyway this proposal wasn't included in the sustainable housing motion. Not because the drafters hadn't heard of it, I would guess, but because it is a better, clearer motion without it.

Is the party failing to use the green expertise it has? No it is merely failing to agree with a few members of a particular group of enthusiasts. There's no harm in that. Green expertise clearly extends far beyond the Green Lib Dems, and perhaps that group needs to reflect a little on the ways in which it can still add value in a party that understands the environmental cause and has taken it on board.

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