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Comparison of UK Policy Failure and Success

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Published: Tue, 14 Aug 2018

Using UK national policy examples, compare an example of a policy failure and a policy success. What criteria can be used to make this judgement? Which criteria do you feel is most appropriate to your examples?

In recent years British governments have drawn up and put into practice various policies to help protect the environment by preventing, reducing, or cleaning up pollution, and by adopting measures that are intended to enhance sustainable economic development and growth.

The following will discuss whether any of the environmental protection policies have failed, or which policies have succeeded. Or more specifically one policy that has been deemed to be a failure and one policy that has been deemed a success. The failure or success of any government’s policies can be assessed by various criteria, such as political, economic and environmental factors or objectives. A single policy might be a failure or success in all of its assessed criteria, or a failure in some, whilst being a success in other respects. Government policy makers make policy decisions on various criteria, although generally political objectives or criteria take priority over economic, environmental, or social considerations. Governments are usually more interested in pursuing policies that will prove electorally popular, rather than policies that, although they might be environmentally important, are not electorally popular. Environmental campaigners have to be aware that the British government may not be quick or as decisive as they would like in making policy decisions to achieve their objectives, yet they cannot always be sure that those policies will be a success. Governments use policies to change people’s behaviour through legislation, publicity or persuasion, offering incentives or deterrents via the taxation system. British governments have also had external influences upon the formation of environmental policy, such as environmental groups, business groups, and the European Union (EU).

An area of the British government’s environmental policy that can be regarded as a failure has been the efforts to reduce the number of vehicles and the amount of fuel that these vehicles use. There are various reasons why this government policy can be regarded as a failure, some environmental, some economic and some political (Coxall, Robbins & Leach, 2003, p 401).

The number of motor vehicles in use and the places and frequency of their use can have a great deal of influence upon the environment, yet also has importance in terms of economic growth and keeping people employed (Jones et al, 2004, p.700). Before the Conservative governments from 1979 became interested in protecting the environment and promoting sustainable development, they sought to attract foreign car manufacturers to build factories in Britain. The Conservatives believed the strategy of having car factories built would promote economic growth, regenerating areas with high unemployment and high levels of social deprivation, such as Sunderland. That was an extension of traditional economic policy that had encouraged Ford, General Motors, and Peugeot to have factories in Britain (Jones, 1999, p.187).

For environmentalist groups persuading the British government to reduce the number of motor vehicles in use would have been a major success. The number of cars built in Britain itself had been declining for years, a decline that was only halted by the cars produced by the new Nissan and Toyota factories. The decline in the number of British cars did not equate to a fall in the number of motor vehicles being used in Britain. It just meant that British consumers were buying imported cars, rather than Vauxhalls, Rovers and Fords (Fisher, Denver & Benyon, 2003, p.335). Car sales have continued to increase for various reasons, some that British governments could control, and others that it could not. More cars have been bought because more people can afford to buy them and can afford to pay their operating costs, such as petrol, motor insurance, and road tax. People also buy cars because they need them to get to work, go shopping, or to take their children to school. People choose to buy cars as they believe that public transport is either inadequate, or that it does not go to the places that they have to go to (Moran, 2005, p.175). The Conservatives did not help the development of effective public transport policies by deregulating bus services and also by the privatisation of the railway network. Arguably, the better the public transport system is then the fewer people will need to buy, or at least use their cars to get to work or wherever they need to go to. (Coxall, Robbins & Leach, 2003, p.405).

It is unlikely that any British government would ever stop people from owning and using their own cars. Judging by the British government’s policy to reduce car ownership or at least halt its rapid rise on purely environmental criteria, then it has been a failure. However, it has not been a failure under every criterion with the policy leading to some changes that improve the chances of other areas of environmental policy proving to be successful. The number of cars built in Britain has declined due to the collapse of the MG Rover group and the closure of Ford and Peugeot factories (Seldon & Kavanagh, 2005, p.192). The inability to reduce the number of motor vehicles in use has had the knock on effect of the government having to construct new roads and maintain existing roads. The construction of new roads obviously causes adverse environmental effects in the areas surrounding the construction. Conversely, traffic congestion is more harmful to the environment than free flowing traffic, as it increases fuel consumption via lower fuel efficiency (Fisher, Denver, & Benyon, 2003 p. 334).

Under slightly different criteria the policy has not been a complete failure. Government policy towards controlling the growth of car ownership and slowing its environmental impact has helped to put such ecological issues on the political agenda. The British government has used the taxation system to establish the principle that the polluters pay to protect the environment and to clean up the pollution. Originally, the government had levied road tax so those motorists should contribute towards the cost of building and maintaining roads. The Conservatives started to practice of charging different rates of road tax dependant upon the engine size of the car. New Labour has taken that concept further by charging much higher rates for fuel guzzling sports cars and off road vehicles, which cause higher levels of pollution. Another way in which the polluter pays for causing pollution is by paying duty on petrol and other oil based fuels. These duties and higher taxes certainly raise extra revenue for the government, yet that is of no benefit to the environment if the government does use the extra money to improve public transport or take action to cut pollution (Coxall, Robbins, & Leach, 2003 p. 405).

It could be strongly argued that were the amount of pollution or environmental damage caused by cars has decreased, it has been the result of action by the motor companies themselves. The motor companies will have taken measures to reduce pollution due to environmental legislation passed by the EU, as well as by the British government, whilst improvements in technology can improve the fuel efficiency of cars and reduce their environmental impact. For instance, motor and oil companies have introduced unleaded fuels and catalytic converters that have done much to reduce air pollution levels (Coxall, Robbins, & Leach, 2003 p. 405).

A policy area in which the British government has been successful in has been a reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases in general and carbon dioxide in particular (Schott, 2006 p. 205). These gases are generally considered to be the greatest threat to the environment, although such gases are produced through natural activities, human generated emissions are threatening to adversely effect the planet’s environment (Moran, 2005 p. 175). British governments have taken an interest in reducing levels of air pollution for much longer than any other environmental issues. For instance, steps were taken to clean up smoke emissions from factories and domestic coal fires that reduced the incidence of smog during the 1950s, especially in London (Jones et al, 2004 p. 696). British governments’ had a tendency to handle environmental issues on a piecemeal or ad hoc basis, usually as an after thought to deciding on political, social and economic policies (Jones et al, 2004, p.697). The clean up of smog was not the only example of such an ad hoc method being effective. During the late 1970s and the early part of the 1980s, the problem of ‘acid rain’ became a prominent environmental issue that mainly affected Scandinavia and Germany. Sulphur dioxide emissions from coal fuelled British power stations were considered to be a major contributory factor to the acid rain problem. The Conservative government agreed to have filters fitted to the power station, which greatly reduced the problem (Jones, 1999 p. 279).

It was during the late 1980s that the Conservative government, or at least parts of it, became convinced that tackling the greenhouse effect was starting to become a policy priority. In part that change of opinion was brought about by the publicity of environmental pressure groups, such as Friends of the Earth and growing evidence of global warming from scientific research. The British government therefore, set about limiting then reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases in conjunction with other EU member states, the United States, Japan, and China amongst other countries. To their credit, British governments have played a role in the decisions and the targets set by the Rio Earth Summit and the Kyoto Protocol (Coxall, Robbins, & Leach, 2003, p. 406) Britain has done very well in comparison with other countries in reducing carbon dioxide emissions especially. Britain is as good as, if not better, than most of the other EU members and its record are much better than the United States (Jones et al, 2004 p. 700, Schott, 2006, p. 205). The British government has also decided to reduce the demand for electricity and central heating by increasing the energy efficiency and insulation of all domestic homes, which currently make up a quarter of Britain’s carbon dioxide emissions. Individuals as well as the government and businesses are responsible for protecting the environment (Whitaker’s, 2007 p. 519).

Judging the British government’s policies to cut omissions of greenhouse gases on environmental criteria, those policies have been successful. For instance, carbon dioxide emissions have been reduced as a result of switching from coal fired to gas fired electricity generating power stations. To some extent that switch had started before the decision to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was made, and was a consequence of the closure of the vast majority of Britain’s coal mines (Jones, 1999 p. 214). Gas emits less carbon dioxide when it is burnt than coal does. The British government has also made attempts to increase the amount of electricity generated by renewable sources, such as wind turbines and hydro- electric dams. More controversially, the government had approved new generations of nuclear power stations, although in not enough numbers to become the main generators of electricity (Moran, 2005 p. 175). The government has also introduced other measures to cut the emission of greenhouse gases, such as promoting the use of lower emission fuels for cars, buses and other motor vehicles, which has compensated for its inability to reduce the numbers of motor vehicles that are being used. There might be more cars, yet they are causing less pollution than older makes of vehicles used to do, due to lower sulphur levels in fuels, greater fuel efficiency and lead free fuels (Jones, 1999 p. 279). The British government itself aims to set a good example by having its own departments develop and implement sustainable development strategies to preserve resources and lower gas emissions. The government has influenced its suppliers to develop greener resources (Coxall, Robbins, & Leach, 2003 p. 405).

In terms of political criteria, the British government’s policy to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions had been a success. The government’s policy has certainly raised public awareness of environmental issues. Where the British government has been astute in relation to the success of the policy of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to counter global warming is in claiming the political credit for carrying that policy out. Although British governments have become convinced of the need to counter global warming, most of the legislation to reduce pollution is passed by or inspired by the EU, rather than the governments of its member states. British governments might try to influence the environmental policies advocated by the EU, yet those policies are now approved by majority voting in the Council of Ministers (Jones et al, 2004, p.700).

However, it could be argued under certain criteria that the success of the British government’s policy to reduce greenhouse gases is more apparent than real. Some environmental groups argue that the government’s strategy is not going to lead to sustainable development over the long-term, or continue to cut greenhouse gas emissions. They contend that the British government has not taken enough measures to find alternative energy sources for when fossil fuels are eventually exhausted and that the measures taken to counter global warming are effectively too little, too late (Coxall, Robbins, & Leach, 2003 p. 405).

Thus to conclude, the main environmental protection polices of British governments have met with failure and success. One noticeable policy that has failed has been the attempt to maintain or even reduce the number of motor vehicles used in Britain. However, British governments have not been able to achieve that policy at all. Government policy had attempted to persuade people to use public transport instead of their own cars, although the privatisation of the railways and the de-regularisation of bus services have hampered that. The government has increased duty on fuels and altered road tax so that people with vehicles that cause higher levels of pollution have to pay more. These measures have certainly raised extra revenue for the Treasury, yet they seem highly unlikely to reduce car use overall. This failure of policy has not been as harmful as might have been expected, as through a combination of legislation, innovation, and greater fuel efficiency, the environmental damage caused by newer cars had been reduced. An area of success for government environmental policy has been the reduction in the level of greenhouse gas emissions achieved since 1990. British governments should be commended for their efforts in that direction although part of that success is down to the legislation, regulations and directives set by the EU. There are however, doubts about the completeness of sustainable development over the long term, especially as the level of energy from renewable sources would not be efficient to replace fossil fuels once those have been exhausted.


Coxall B, Robins L & Leach R (2003) Contemporary British Politics 4th edition, Palgrave, Basingstoke

Eatwell R & Wright A, (2003) Contemporary Political Ideologies 2nd Edition, Continuum, London

Fisher J, Denver D, & Benyon J, (2003) Central Debates in British Politics, Longman, London

Jones B, (1999) issues in British Politics Today, Manchester University Press, Manchester

Jones B, Kavanagh D, Moran M, & Norton P, (2004) Politics UK, 5th edition, Pearson Longman, London

Moran M, (2005) Politic and Governance in the UK, Palgrave, Basingstoke

Seldon A & Kavanagh D, (2005) The Blair Effect 2001 – 5, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Schott B, (2006) Schott’s Almanac 2007, Bloomsbury, London

Whitaker’s, (2007) Whitaker’s Almanack 2007 – today’s world in one volume, A & C Black, London

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