Biting the hand that feeds you: Is there a link between Britain’s foreign aid budget and clean air zones?

By Policy Analyst, Jeremy Hutton.

At the TaxPayers’ Alliance we don’t waste a moment and it’s pretty standard for everyone in the office to be working on completely different projects. Hence whilst I’ve been analysing reams of data for the next research paper (see my work on council spending on award ceremonies to be released next week) our grassroots team have been roaming the Brecon Beacons fending off local council tax rises. If we weren’t fighting on multiple fronts, we’d soon get itchy feet.

A rare occurrence that really gets us going, however is when two projects that might seem completely separate, are actually intricately connected. So when we had one of these eureka moments this week, we thought it was worth sharing.

Certainly, foreign aid and clean air zones aren’t two things you’d usually connect with one another. But sometimes, not everything is as obvious as it seems.

The current surge of proposals for new clean air zones actually came about after the government was sued for being too lenient on local councils with air pollution levels in breach of EU limits. In response, the UK government had to crack the whip and councils started scrambling for whatever high-visibility policy they could lay their hands on to keep central government off their backs. Unfortunately for taxpayers, the weapon of choice has often been clean air zones with charges.

Yes, they have a nice name; who could possibly oppose something called a clean air zone? The problem is (as my colleague Ben Ramanauskas explained recently) they simply don’t work. And if they don’t work, they are just another excuse for local councils to tax residents through the nose (even though charges aren’t actually necessary for a clean air zone according to government guidelines), and another tax for the TPA to fight vigorously against.

Still wondering what this has to do with foreign aid? Bear with me, we’re nearly there.

The organisation which sued the government is called ClientEarth, a trendy East London NGO, specialising in environmental law and generally obstructing the energy policies of governments all around the world.

To support its work in developing countries, and despite the bumper £232,000 salary of its chief executive, ClientEarth has received £3 million from Britain’s foreign aid budget. As you might imagine, we were pretty shocked when we realised that yes, the British government genuinely is funding an organisation which has successfully sued it no less than three times.

Now, it’s not just the British government that ClientEarth have been picking on. The firm has also been a thorn in the side of governments in Germany, Poland, and multiple poorer countries in Europe who struggle to afford expensive sustainable ways of providing energy. It is one of many groups who make up the foreign aid ecosystem, who often seem more concerned about virtue signalling than the real needs of developing countries. This is not a boots-on-the-ground agency which is digging wells in Lesotho or delivering humanitarian aid in South Sudan - far from it!

Rather, these East London lawyers are more concerned about going to developing countries to enforce international regulations, such as the European FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) Action Plan. Not only is this far from the sort of meaningful aid we are told about in DFID press releases, but like so many of these projects, it is pretty debatable as to who actually benefits from this sort of “action plan.”

The Implementation of FLEGT in Guyana for example has, in some cases, actually made it easier for the government to grant land titles to commercial interests, at the expense of indigenous communities and other impoverished villages across the country.

Unsurprisingly developing countries are getting sick and tired of this kind of patronising 'assistance'. The increasingly complex web of international rules that they must abide by cripple the ability of poor states to pursue prosperity.

As former secretary of state Priti Patel has pointed out, this is only the tip of the iceberg, not least where energy policy is concerned. Renewable energy systems are enormously expensive to create and maintain, in many cases they are simply out of reach of countries like Nigeria, where energy blackouts are a constant and longstanding problem. Naturally, the UK is the second biggest contributor (£2.5 billion from 2017 to 2020) to the World Bank, which sets these strict rules.

Manipulating developing countries in this way is not what the public expects of foreign aid. The whole point of international development is to help the worlds’ poorest, not to enforce unhelpful ideological crusades. Yet UK aid is funding a firm that jet sets across the planet suing governments over matters of energy supply, including our own.

The British public want to see foreign aid have the greatest effect possible, and they want every pound to have as much impact as it can. The jury is out on whether or not funding a law firm that has a penchant for suing the British government is the best way to do that.