Gove the environmentalist?

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The speech by Michael Gove today is just fantastic – but is it fantastical?

I don’t really care whether he believes what he says or not, I just care whether he implements his quite detailed words of today during his time as Secretary of State for the Environment.

Since 2010 we have had one pretty good environment secretary (Caroline Spelman), one pretty poisonous one (Owen Paterson) and two absolute duffers (Liz Truss and Andrea Leadsom). This has not done the Conservative Party’s green credentials any good at all, and in fact things are even worse than that, the Conservative Party is now the party of killing nature (Badgers, Foxes, Bees and Buzzards) not of defending it.

Being anti-environment is an electoral liability, particularly with young voters, and having Environment Secretaries who are either loathed or despised by environmentalists is not a great idea even if a few farmers still grumpily support you.  And if you arrive in the Environment Department at a time overlapping with Brexit then this is actually a time for action on many fronts. It is a chance to sink or to swim but treading water just won’t do.  It’s a role and a time made for a consummate politician. Now I don’t know whether it was luck or judgement that led to Michael Gove getting this role and making today’s speech, and if judgement whether it was Theresa May’s or Michael Gove’s, but it is quite a remarkable speech. It’s certainly the best from a Conservative minister since the days of John Gummer around 20+ years ago.

There is no talk of ‘green crap’ or ‘green blob’ here, instead Gove praises the campaigning abilities of the NGOs (some of whom deserve it more than others, but that’s what politicians do).

Any suspicion that Mr Gove is on the climate-sceptic side of things is allayed (whether he really is or not) by a good passage on the danger of climate change and a dig at Trump’s US policy of isolationism.

Any suspicion that he’d rather have houses than heathland is diminished (though not completely removed) by his mention of them here.

Any memory of his remark about not needing experts (which, to be fair was about economists – and are they really expert?) is pushed back by a passage about the importance of rationality, evidence and science. Whither the badger cull, one asks?

Any worry that he was put here to dismantle environmental protection post-Brexit is assuaged by his remarks about having no intention of watering down environmental protection. Well, we’ll see – this is where I think the pressure from others will be greatest and therefore where the need for support from the environmental movement is also greatest.

And his sketch of the future of agricultural support is just what we would like to see – and not exactly what the NFU would like to see.  It’s a good sketch and with CLA support for its basic outline it might be what we get. It is a good idea for a the leading Brexiteer to demonstrate how good a job we can do in this area outside the EU, and he’s right, it’s possible that we could do much better.

There’s a little bit of re-writing history and also ignoring some of its pertinent facts, in that he tends to blame the EU for all environmental ills and credit the UK (even if it were a Labour government) for the good things but then he didn’t have much option really since his predecessors at Defra have left him nothing much to point to as the Conservative’s great successes.

Our job as environmentally aware citizens, and that of the NGOs, is to watch Gove closely – for I don’t wholly trust him.  We should praise, sometimes unnecessarily enthusiastically, every good thing he does and point out sharply every time he departs from the route he has mapped out today.

If Mr Gove delivers even a quarter of what he set out today then he will be a very successful environment Secretary; if he tries and fails then he will have been better than most; but if what he said today is just talk and there is no action then he will have set himself up for a massive fall, his political career will be further damaged (this is his comeback tour – you don’t get many chances) and the damage will stick to the political prospects of his party and for that he would not be forgiven.

I am very much a pragmatist and on this agenda, the agenda which Michael Gove has chosen to set out so clearly, his success will be a success for the environment and so he deserves the chance to succeed, with our support – even though at first that support should be given with a certain amount of suspicion.

 

 

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The new Gove – ‘I am an environmentalist’

New Cabinet Ministers after the 2017 General Election
Pictured Michael Gove,
Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

 

Michael Gove’s speech ‘The unfozen moment – delivering a Green Brexit‘ is very, very good.  It’s, by far, the best speech made by a government environment minister since at least 2010.

Not only is it erudite and clever, it shows a better grasp of the issues than his two immediate predecessors could muster after months or years in the role. We have a serious player at Defra who says he wants to do some serious good and we should support him in those aims. Although Mr Gove has a lot to live down in his past he is making a very good attempt to get that done as quickly as possible.  Please read the whole thing, but here are some quotes (and I will come back to this with more comment later in the day):

I am an environmentalist first because I care about the fate of fellow animals, I draw inspiration from nature and I believe we need beauty in our lives as much as we need food and shelter. We can never be fully ourselves unless we recognise that we are shaped by forces, biological and evolutionary, that tie us to an earth we share with others even as we dream of capturing the heavens.

But I am also an environmentalist because of hard calculation as well as the promptings of the heart. We need to maintain and enhance the natural world around us, or find ourselves facing disaster.

Unless we take the right environmental action we risk seeing more species die out, with potentially undreamt of consequences in terms of the health and balance of nature. We risk flood damage to the homes in which we live and devastation to the islands others know as their only home. We will see the forward march of deserts compelling populations to be on the move and the growing shortage of water creating new conflicts and exacerbating old rivalries.

 

I deeply regret President Trump’s approach towards the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. I sincerely hope the recent indications that the President may be minded to think again do signal a change of heart. International co-operation to deal with climate change is critical if we’re to safeguard our planet’s future and the world’s second biggest generator of carbon emissions can’t simply walk out of the room when the heat is on. It’s our planet too and America needs to know we can only resolve this problem together.’

 

Environmental organisations – from WWF to the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts to Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth – enjoy memberships in the tens and hundreds of thousands, the support of millions more and a capacity to move hearts more powerful than any other set of institutions in our civil society.

Their campaigning energy and idealism, while occasionally uncomfortable for those of us in power, who have to live in a world of compromise and deal-making, is vital to ensuring we continue to make progress in protecting and enhancing our environment.

And on everything from alerting us all to the danger posed by plastics in our oceans and nitrogen oxide in our air, to the threats posed to elephants by poaching and cod by over-fishing, environmental organisations have driven Governments to make progress. They have demonstrated that we can halt and reverse those trends and forces degrading the natural world and we can improve the environment we are handing on to the next generation.

 

The decision to leave the European Union has been interpreted in many ways, and I won’t revisit the debates which led to that decision being made. But now that decision has been made, it creates new opportunities, and challenges, for the British Government. And nowhere more so than in the area of environmental policy.

We now have an historic opportunity to review our policies on agriculture, land use, biodiversity, woodlands, marine conservation, fisheries, pesticide licensing, chemical regulation, animal welfare, habitat management, waste, water purity, air quality and so much more.’

 

In this unfrozen moment new possibilities occur.

I can understand why, for some, this is a moment of profound concern.

The European Union has, in a number of ways, been a force for good environmentally. Beaches are cleaner, habitats are better protected and pesticides more effectively regulated as a consequence of agreements reached since we entered the EU. And I have no intention of weakening the environmental protections we have put in place while in the EU.

But the EU has not always been a force for good environmentally. In this decade alone, the EU has ordered member states to vote against international action to protect polar bears and to abstain on measures to protect bluefin tuna. And as the UK Climate Change Act shows, this country is more than capable of bringing in our own strong legislation to protect the environment, independent of the EU.

Environmental policy must also be insulated from capture by producer interests who put their selfish agenda ahead of the common good. And here the EU has been weak recently. The EU’s handling of diesel emissions, the way in which car manufacturers rigged testing procedures, and the consequent risk to public health which we have to deal with, do not reflect well on the EU’s internal processes. The EU’s laboratory-based mechanisms for testing emissions have proven inadequate, and allowed manufacturers to game – or directly cheat – the system. Outside the EU, we can do much better. We will be saying more when our Air Quality Plan is published later this month.

 

But farming is so much more than a business. 70% of our land is farmed – beautiful landscape in so many cases has not happened by accident but has been actively managed. The Lake District, which recently secured World Heritage Site status from UNESCO, is both a breath-taking natural landscape but also a home to upland farmers whose work keeps those lakes and hills as Wordsworth saw them, to the delight of millions of visitors.

Support for farmers in areas like the Lake District, upland Wales or the Scottish borders is critical to keeping our countryside healthy. Indeed, whether it’s hill farmers or island crofters, or those running small family farms in England and Northern Ireland, there is a need to ensure that the human ecology of rural areas is protected.

But while continued support is critically important, so is reform. And indeed I have been struck in the conversations I have had with organisations like the NFU, The Farmers Union of Wales and the CLA that it is farmers themselves who most want the CAP to change. I have particularly appreciated the open, constructive and imaginative engagement shown by the NFU’s passionate and energetic President Meurig Raymond.

 

‘And from all the conversations I have had so far I with farmers, land owners and managers I know there is a growing appetite for a new system of agricultural support which puts environmental protection and enhancement first. Our approach should be, in Byron’s words, to love not man the less but nature more.

That means support for woodland creation and tree planting as we seek to meet our aim of eleven million more trees. Because trees are not only a source of beauty and wonder, living evidence of our investment for future generations, they are also a carbon sink, a way to manage flood risk and a habitat for precious species.

We should also support those land owners and managers who cultivate and protect the range of habitats which will encourage biodiversity. Heathland and bog, meadow and marsh, estuaries and hedgerows alongside so many other landscapes need care and attention if they are to provide home to the growing diversity of animal and plant life we should wish to encourage. Doing this well depends on developing the skills and farming practices of land owners and managers. Understanding how to create and protect habitats should be as much a part of good farming as understanding the latest crop and soil science.’

 

But while natural beauty moves us deep in our souls, environmental policy also needs to be rooted, always and everywhere, in science. There will, of course, always be a need to make judgements about the best method of achieving environmental goals, in ways which improve rather than upend people’s lives. But it is only by adherence to scientific method, through recognising the vital importance of testing and re-testing hypotheses in the face of new evidence, through scrupulous adherence to empirical reasoning, that we can be certain our policies are the best contemporary answer to the eternal questions of how we live well and honour the world we have inherited and must pass on to our children.

 

Outside the European Union there is scope for Britain not just to set the very highest standards in marine conservation, but also to be a global leader in environmental policy across the board. Informed by rigorous scientific analysis, we can develop global gold standard policies on pesticides and chemicals, habitat management and biodiversity, animal welfare and biosecurity, soil protection and river management and so many other areas.

 

I have set out what I believe is a deliberately ambitious agenda today because I believe the times demand it. Leaving the EU gives us a once in a lifetime opportunity to reform how we manage agriculture and fisheries, how we care for our land, our rivers and our seas, how we recast our ambition for our country’s environment, and the planet. In short, it means a Green Brexit. When we speak as a Government of Global Britain it is not just as a leader in security or an advocate for trade that we should conceive of our global role but also a champion of sustainable development, an advocate for social justice, a leader in environmental science, a setter of gold standards in protecting and growing natural capital, an innovator in clean, green, growth and an upholder of the moral imperative to hand over our planet to the next generation in a better condition than we inherited it. That is my department’s driving ambition – it should be central to our national mission.

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Farming subsidy debate gets moving…

We’ll have to see what ‘Green Brexit’ Gove actually says today, and then watch like hawks (harriers, eagles, kites and falcons) what he actually does.  But there is clearly something afoot when the Today programme stirs itself on the subject of agricultural payments (click here and two bits – at 08:10 and 08:55).

The first clip tends to confuse subsidy with environmental grants but that’s not very important. What is fascinating is that the representative of the Duke of Grafton says that he’s worried that their big payment from the pockets of the working classes might be transformed into a ‘wishy-washy scheme just  for the environmental goods, supposedly’.  Those will be supposed goods like flood alleviation, wildlife and carbon storage – rather than being a hand-out just because my boss is a big landowner?

He goes on to predict a mass-exodus from farming in the uplands because farming there is pretty much ‘non-viable now’. He’s right and this is a touching concern for upland farmers (though I wonder whether the Duke has any upland land too?) but speaks volumes.  Farming in the uplands is non-viable on traditional economic grounds (see pages 184-7 in Inglorious for a short discussion) – and yet we are pouring taxpayers money into the uplands. We should either stop, or make sure that money works better – I opt for the second not the first option. Working better means delivering those supposed environmental goods – landscape, wildlife, better water retention to reduce flooding and peatland recovery to store carbon and water.  That is what we should be doing and that’s what land owners should have to do in order to get our money.  The Duke’s man does have a good point though on the difficulty of monitoring some of these things – whereas now we just tick the box when the money goes from the treasury to the landowner.

A lady farmer from Cumbria, Nicola Rennison (?), agrees that if subsidy went then upland farming would be doomed. So we all seem to be agreed on that, but she then goes on to criticise the subsidy system very cogently for holding back innovation and for being inherently unfair to those, all of us, who pay for it.

We then hear an academic telling us that in Liam Fox’s ultra-free-trade world agriculture is doomed because cheap food would be imported. That’s right. And that would be good for the consumer (all other things being equal) who would get cheaper food and be able to pocket the current agricultural subsidies or at least see them spent on the NHS or schools rather than on our hard-up Dukes.

There was then a slightly irrelevant bit about form-filling. It’s difficult really to feel sorry for landowners because they have to fill in forms to get public subsidies – I have to fill in forms to pay my taxes so I’d expect the recipients of them to fill in forms too! But if we stop paying subsidies (which I don’t want to happen) then farmers will be able to rejoice at the time saved.

We then go back to the Duke of Grafton’s man who trots out the hoary old story that us paying subsidies makes our food cheaper – apparently ‘it’s very simple’ – although we had just heard that we could get cheaper food without paying subsidies under free-trade rules.

The Duke of Grafton didn’t seem to have got the memo from the CLA, or if he did then he didn’t pass it on to his manager who appeared on the radio this morning, as the CLA president, Ross Murray, was pretty good on the need for reform. It’s difficult for any CLA President to be completely straight on these matters because it would entail admitting that large landowners have been milking the system to the taxpayers’ disbenefit for decades.  But that is what has happened and it is good that the CLA sees the need for change.  The CLA is in a difficult position as it holds the view that subsidies are ‘a bad thing’ because they distort the market and soft-bed inefficiency, but if they espouse ‘public money for public goods’ as they do, then this is tantamount to admitting that their members have been crap at delivering those public goods up until now.  They can’t defend the status quo, and all credit to them, they never really have, but the changes that are necessary will go against the interests of some of their members who won’t be chuffed about it. We’ve already heard George Eustice saying that grouse moors would be in the firing line, appropriately enough, for a reduction of public support as they aren’t really farming.  I welcome the CLA position on this subject and I hope that they are saying the same thing in private as they said on Today, and that Mr Gove is listening to them rather more than to the NFU but alongside sensible views from the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and others.

Just at the end of Today, in the second chunk, Molly Scott Cato, a Green MEP, took apart Jamie Whyte (Institute of Economic Affairs) who appears to be on the far right of this argument: the market is perfect and the state should get out of things and let the landowners deliver cheap widgets.  Scott Cato also used the grouse moor example very effectively – the Greens have got this ahead of, ahem, the Labour Party which needs to do some catching up fast (maybe some Labour signatures on Findlay Wilde’s thunderclap would be a good start and a strong presence at the 12 August march in London too).  I liked the expression ‘only the real free-market head-bangers’ in particular.  Mr Whyte wanted to know who would decide what is an environmental benefit  – and his contribution suggested it certainly shouldn’t be him. And it shouldn’t be the recipients of the money either – not to decide the principles at least, though involvement n the practical details would be very good. So, if not right-wing think tanks and not land owners and farmers who should decide what is an environmental benefit? Well, why not ask environmental experts? Government has a few left, though not that many, in Defra, NE and the EA but there are plenty of environmental experts who are working in academia and NGOs whose very being this subject is.  They are the experts – and we still need experts, don’t we Mr Gove?

 

 

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A Gove for good?

Michael Gove is a consummate politician and he’s no fool either. There are also rumours that he is quite keen on wildlife and the countryside (though he has managed to keep this fairly well-hidden to date).

The new and dynamic Secretary of State for the Environment is about to make a speech at WWF’s HQ where he will promise, according to the BBC, ‘a Green Brexit‘ which is ‘a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform how we care for our land, our rivers and our seas, how we recast our ambition for our country’s environment, and the planet‘.

That sounds good, and all the coverage ahead of the actual speech suggests that Gove will say some very welcome things.

He is likely to suggest that public payments to landowners must be earned by delivering public goods that the market doesn’t reward, that government should look at the sums paid to very wealthy landowners (note – this may include wildlife conservation organisations like the RSPB and NT (but less so the 47 individual Wildlife Trusts)) and that future funding should recognise good environmental practice much better. Hooray!  Those are the right things to say.

We’ll have to see what the details are, and whether Defra actually follows up on this or whether the words are left hanging in the air, but it is good to have a Defra Secretary who is out there doing stuff after a long Truss/Leadsom hibernation. Gove has seen that his department has the opportunity to do something good post-Brexit that will be a good thing for the exchequor, a good thing for the taxpayer, a good thing for the government, a good thing for the Conservative Party and a good thing for Mr Gove’s ambitions.  Didn’t I say he is a consummate politician?

This blog has not fallen in love with Mr Gove – we still expect this apparently good news to be balanced by some excruciatingly bad news in the future (didn’t I say he is a consummate politician? ), and that bad news might just be removal of environmental protections for sites and species post-Brexit so let’s not get too cheerful?  But fair’s fair,  the signs are promising on this subject and he has had the wit to spot it as an all-round opportunity (as any opportunist would).

Betfair odds for the next Conservative Party leader include: David Davis 4/1, Jacob Rees-Mogg 13/2, Philip Hammond 8/1, Boris Johnson 15/2,  Andrea Leadson 24/1, Michael Gove 29/1, Rory Stewart 35/1,  Liam Fox 110/1, Owen Paterson 219/1, Liz Truss 409/1. Watch Gove’s odds come down over time provided he can deliver future environmental policies that gain widespread support.

 

 

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Banking on wildlife

Ba’Gamnan at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

I went to the bank the other day, which entails a car journey, and I was hoping to see a Bittern at a local nature reserve a few miles further on.

I was only a hundred yards or so from home when I stopped at a T-junction and looked right; there was no traffic but there was a Hummingbird Hawkmoth feeding on Valerian by the roadside. Super! The first I can recall seeing for a couple of years.

There really wasn’t any traffic so I could watch this insect hovering and inserting its proboscis into the flowers. I even pointed it out to a bloke mucking about with his car and he was quite impressed with it too.

Later, as I came out of the bank wearing my Hen Harrier Day T-shirt I was buttonholed, although there are no buttons on T-shirts, by a birding friend.  We had a chat, he gave me a tip and then we went our separate ways.

I spent half an hour in a hide with a bunch of chatty photographers listening to their cameras whirring away.  I might have stayed longer were it not for the sound of camera clicks. And I should have stayed longer for I see that the Bittern was seen 5 minutes (yes, just 5 minutes) after my Birdtrack session ended. Grrrrr!  Never mind, I enjoyed watching the brood of Tufted ducklings, five of them, to which nobody else paid any attention.

When I got home I parked and remembered the tip I’d been given. Apparently a young Peregrine has taken to sitting on my local church spire.  I’ve seen Peregrine from the bedroom window once, and I have checked the church spire a few times before, but I ought to step up my checks. Nothing there then,  but the next day the Peregrine was often sitting near the top of the spire looking out over our small town of Raunds in east Northants. Super!  I wonder when they will nest – and whether the Stock Doves that also use the spire might need to find other accommodation?

By Stefan Berndtsson – Pilgrimsfalk / Peregrine Falcon, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25446705

 

 

 

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