Prudent is the last thing they want us to be

There are those – and I am not making this up – who honestly believe that party conferences are a waste of time. That they are a schmooze for lobbyists, a general goosing-up of the party faithful, but they hold nothing of interest for the rest of us. How wrong these people are. The past few days may have revealed little in terms of policy but, when it comes to the more important stuff about how the Government believes we should all be living our lives, it has been tremendously useful.

All that stuff about the environment, for example. It turns out we don’t have to take it seriously after all! Over the past year, ministers have been dutifully churning out the acceptable line – green this, sustainable that – but apparently their message was just an emission of hot air.

It was the debate around last-minute changes to the Prime Minister’s speech which cleared things up. Until this week, there had been a general feeling that there was too much waste and profligacy around. We had all become pampered, hooked on credit. It was bad for us, and bad for the planet. Now, it turns out, restraint is a bad thing. Spending is good, and over-spending is even better. The fuss over Cameron’s speech, combined with a small dip in supermarket profits, caused pundits to hurry into the TV studios to explain that the idea of reducing personal indebtedness was disastrous.

There were grim interviews. Shoppers revealed that they were only buying what they needed. Motorists were admitting that, such is the price of the petrol, they sometimes actually walked to their destination. Once these would have been good news items; today they are a cue for government concern.

Now that it is clear that ministers’ green talk was little more than political marketing, the reasons behind other policies become clear. Seen environmentally, the idea of encouraging a building bonanza across the countryside, rather than on brownfield sites, or the creation of large out-of-town shopping centres, seems reckless. But if the only criterion is to get money coursing through the system, then these policies are entirely logical. More roads will be needed, for more cars, using more petrol: it is all terrifically good news for the economy.

As for the green message, thanks are due to the Housing minister, Grant Shapps, for illustrating how that works. On The Politics Show he explained what “sustainable” means in the contest of “sustainable development”: “Sustainability is something best judged when you know the lay of the land and, guess what, the people who know the lay of the land live locally and understand how their particular communities operate, and sustainability will be judged at a local level.” In other words, it means pretty much what you want it to mean. It is a warm, fuzzy, meaningless word included to indicate a fake concern for the environment.

Completing, rather appropriately, a perfect circle of policy is Eric Pickles, that living symbol of belt-busting growth. In cheerful defiance of environmental thinking about waste, the Local Government minister proved that significant money can be found, even in an age of cuts. His great cause is the right of every English man and woman to have the remains of their takeaway chicken masala collected weekly. Recycling is for wimps, disposing of household rubbish responsibly at a municipal tip is something for which you should now pay – but the throwaway society can continue to produce millions of tons of landfill, thanks to public money and the generosity of Eric the binman.

No one can accuse the Government of inconsistency. The message from Cameron, Shapps, Pickles and others is as plain as it can be. Spending , expansion and profit are the only priorities now. Buy, develop, consume, throw away – and if anyone demurs, explain that you are doing it all “sustainably”.

Independent, 7 October 2011