'Build back beaver': Johnson endorses rewilding in conference speech

The prime minister’s first in-person speech to the Conservatives’ annual conference endorsed rewilding but there was no mention of zero-carbon power, as had been expected.

The prime minister's first in-person speech to the Conservatives' annual conference was light on environmental matters, with no new policy announcements. Photograph: Ian Forsyth / Getty Images The prime minister's first in-person speech to the Conservatives' annual conference was light on environmental matters, with no new policy announcements. Photograph: Ian Forsyth / Getty Images

“We are going to rewild parts of the country,” he told a packed hall in Manchester. “Otters are returning” and beavers are back, having not been seen since Tudor times; “If that isn’t conservatism, I don’t know what is”. “Build back beaver,” he punned.

COP26 also received a glancing reference, Johnson describing it as the “summit of our lifetimes” that will see if the ambition of the Paris talks can be kept alive.

But his speech largely focused on the economy, immigration, the “untiring, unbeatable, unbelievable NHS”, the response to the pandemic and addressing “long term structural weaknesses” in the British economy. References to green issues were scattershot and limited, profoundly unlike his address to the UN General Assembly, while concerns about soaring energy prices, the petrol crisis and empty supermarket shelves were dismissed obliquely as “present stresses and strains”.

A rumoured commitment to decarbonise the power industry by 2035, consistent with pledges made by the US and Canada and with advice from the Climate Change Committee, failed to materialise, despite being briefed in advance. In fact the entire speech was bereft of new announcements of any kind.

One of the few oblique references to green issues was in addressing his agenda of ‘levelling up’ the country’s poorer areas, which he described as “the greatest project any government could embark on”. Making them more attractive places to live and invest in will “take pressure off the overheating south east”, he said, making a reference to the landscape impacts of building on chalk downland.

Johnson also attacked the Insulate Britain campaign group, which has been blocking major roads, without mentioning their demand to see all social housing properly insulated by 2025 and all homes by 2030.

“I don’t call them legitimate protestors, I call them a confounded nuisance,” that is stopping people going about their daily lives. He said that “new powers to insulate them snuggly in prison where they belong” are being introduced in response.

He went on to describe the state of the UK’s infrastructure as a “disgrace”, noting that Leeds, for example, is the largest city in Europe without a metro system, and repeated a pledge to deliver 4,000 more “clean, green buses, some of them running on hydrogen”. But he also emphasised that the government will invest in roads, “the sinews of the union”.

In one of only two references to decarbonisation, Johnson added that “becoming less dependent on hydrocarbons from abroad” will help “turbocharge” the economy. He added that he had recently met apprentices that have moved directly from the oil and gas industry into wind power, giving them the satisfaction of knowing “you are doing something for the planet” and to help the UK move towards net zero, the only time he mentioned the phrase.

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