You're going green... or else
Zac Goldsmith outlines his plans for the Tories
“The world my children will live in will be very different,” says Zac Goldsmith, father of three, staring into the middle distance. “The way we travel will change, and the way we build, and communicate. But I think the changes will be good. I'm optimistic, for the first time in my life.”
Two years ago, the multi-millionaire former editor of the Ecologist magazine considered his mission thus: to wake people up to climate change. “Now, that has been done. There are sceptics, but people know about the issues. Before the last election I was asked why the environment was so low down the agenda. You couldn't say that now. It has completely changed.”
I’ve never met Goldsmith before, but I’ve read plenty of descriptions of this golden boy of the green movement. He’s clever, rich and good-looking (his sister is Jemima, former friend of Diana and ex-wife of Imran Khan). I expected the former Etonian also to be languid – he was expelled for possession of dope – but instead am taken aback by his oomph.
Dressed in sharp blue suit, he sucks furiously at roll-ups and shoots off ideas so fast I can barely keep up.
We meet, in a garden overshadowed by Conservative HQ on Millbank, to talk about the forthcoming Quality of Life review that Goldsmith, Tory parliamentary candidate for Richmond, Surrey, has prepared for David Cameron. His co-chair on the review was the former environment minister John Gummer. They took advice from a huge range of individuals and groups, from Greenpeace to EDF. “We cast the net wide.”
The full report is published next Thursday, but the party has decided to leak bits here and there beforehand. Goldsmith, though not yet a professional politician, sticks to his brief with only minor wobbles.
Every so often he starts to tell me about something, only to check himself and ask his press aide whether he's allowed to. “Ed, can I talk about food? No. I would love to talk about food. It is biased in favour of food that people don't want. It's called cheap food but it's not.”
The thing Goldsmith does want to talk about, his aide affirms, is energy.
Many geologists believe global oil supplies are approaching peak volumes. Some say they have peaked already. Meanwhile global demand shoots up and up. Pessimists predict severe and unending economic depression.
“Peak oil informs everything,” says Goldsmith. “People ought to know about that, but they don’t. When it's going to peak, or if it's happened already, I don't know, but if oil ran out tomorrow, we would be completely stuffed. We depend on it for everything.”
Goldsmith’s review aims to tackle this grim situation by means of several painless measures. “We have not imagined policy ideas that are going to be repugnant to people.”
I nod, reassured.
For instance, since much energy generated at power stations is lost before it reaches our homes. Goldsmith and Gummer propose to encourage a widely distributed system of micro generation by introducing a “feed-in tariff” rewarding households and businesses that install renewables.
“Under the German system anyone generating electricity from solar PV, wind or hydro is guaranteed a payment of four times the market rate for 20 years. That reduces the time it takes to get the money back and makes it a more attractive investment. Freiberg, in Bavaria, has 200,000 people, but generates more solar power than the whole of Britain.”
The report also has ideas for encouraging energy efficiency. “That is key. It's easy to raise standards on new homes, but that is a tiny part of the puzzle. You can get 33 per cent savings with a little expenditure on a house. You have a variety of ways to do that, but because this is likely to be disruptive the best time to make those changes is when homes change ownership. And that can be done by offering an incentive on stamp duty. When you sell your house and you know you will get reduced stamp duty you will make the necessary improvements. It's a no-brainer.
“We should be incentivising the right decisions. At the moment, if you want to refurbish your house you pay VAT, but if you build a new one you don't. That is mad.
“We want to make this stuff obvious, without pissing people off. There has never been a greater appetite for green solutions. We have to get it right or people will be disappointed and turn off.”
That’s what’s happening with biofuels, I suggest. “Biofuels have potential, they can be good, but only secondary biofuels – such as unwanted chip fat, or cornstalks, or vegetable waste. Primary biofuels grown specifically for fuel are terrible. If you covered every acre in the US you would only produce 10 per cent of the fuel requirement and the carbon saving would be only 2 or 3 per cent.”
And there would be nowhere to grow food – but we’re not here to talk about food.
The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, Goldsmith affirms, but too often people think it’s the other way round. “From the point of view of the environment, the market has been disastrous, because carbon does not appear on bottom lines. But if you tax carbon effectively you will change people's behaviour.”
He tells me with palpable excitement about is a huge construction company that has reduced landfill enormously because executives feared they might soon be hit by a huge landfill tax.
“We have a big emphasis on the market in our report, and the role of the government is to understand the market. Without government intervention we wouldn't have fixed the hole in the ozone layer.”
He talks a lot about using the market, but how do his recommendations square with John Redwood’s recent report on Competitiveness? That called, among other things, for expansion of the roads network.
“I have honestly not had time to read John Redwood's report. I've been so busy with this.” But he accepts there will be arguments. “I hope our ideas will be powerful enough to win. But in terms of reducing the regulatory burden we're saying the same thing. We have the highest regulatory burden at the moment and the lowest standards in Europe. We want energy efficiency and so on but how people implement that is up to them.”
Goldsmith has put a lot of work into this report, and exerted considerable influence, despite being unelected. So why be an MP? And will he even see through the election if Cameron decides to ignore his recommendations?
“I’d be happy if only half of it was accepted. I have done all kinds of campaigning and raised dosh and lobbied and tried to identify the best campaigns. But because the Conservative party were brutalised at the elections” – not least by the wrecking tactics, in 1997, of his late father Sir James, and his Referendum party – “it started them thinking about things from scratch. I am genuinely excited by the opportunity that David Cameron has opened up.”
Goldsmith originally put himself forward for East Hampshire, a safe seat, but the night before the selection panel, he changed his mind. “I didn't know East Hampshire. One of the problems with politics is that it's not local enough. People get parachuted in with no feeling for the place and it's wrong. I wrote to them telling them I couldn't do it.”
Richmond, where he grew up, was different. He put himself up and was accepted. And the great thing about running for parliament, he says, is that he can even effect change as he goes along. He’s spoken to about 25 schools, and recently funded a ground-breaking postal ballot of residents to fight a proposed supermarket development in Barnes.
(He hates supermarkets: “They are screwing farmers every day.” He is a farmer himself, when he can get to Devon at half-terms and school holidays, but accepts he doesn’t endure the same pressures as others.)
Sainsbury’s had properly secured permission for the Barnes store through official channels but Goldsmith showed that local people were overwhelmingly opposed. Of course, the result was not legally binding. “But it was great, a local issue with big national implications.”
On the subject of referenda, does he think Gordon Brown will allow one on the European constitution? “There really does need to be a one. It's about honesty. The new constitution is pretty much the same as the old one, with the same authors. It's unbelievable political dishonesty. It upsets me almost as much as the constitution itself.
“There are good things that can be done by Europe, particularly on the environment, such as setting standards on cars, but a lot should take place locally. And the same applies in Britain. There is a decision on planning in Sheen (in Richmond) that has been taken by some prick in Bristol, who has never been to Sheen in his life.”
There remains something charmingly innocent about Goldsmith. Some of the greatest dictators of all time used referendums to engineer outcomes they wanted. Won’t Brown, if pushed, do the same?
“No, because a lot of organisations will be involved in setting the question,” he says. “When I did my referendum I asked Sainsbury to look at the question and I said they could veto it if they liked.” (The company refused.) “The job of the opposition is to lobby for things to be done properly.”
He pauses. “I do hope you are wrong, and Brown won't fix it.”
The omens aren’t good. On the day we meet, several green organisations pulled out of the government’s latest round of consultation on whether to replace Trident because they felt it was a stitch-up. They’d already taken the government to court over the first, perfunctory consultation.
Goldsmith had been too busy to follow that story but he’s on record as somebody firmly opposed to nuclear. I wonder how he squared that with Gummer, and other Conservatives who favour nuclear.
“I make no secret of my position. But our position in the report is about the market. If there is a future for nuclear power it has to be without government subsidy. We make clear that you must show you can afford the decommissioning and waste disposal before you start the process. And I’m happy with that.”