The playing fields of Eton – infinitely level

By Copyright by World Economic Forum, by Remy Steinegger. [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Copyright by World Economic Forum, by Remy Steinegger. [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Have you noticed that Britain’s future in the EU has been in the news recently?

David Cameron’s speech on the subject says that if he is Prime Minister after the next General Election then he’s going to ask us all whether we want to stay in the EU.  I can tell him my answer now  – I do.

Now that isn’t because the EU is perfect – it is a long way from that. And I am quite happy that the UK renegotiates a few bits of the EU deal to make it better, but it would be madness to be isolated from our nearest geographical, cultural and economic partners.

But in any case, all of this is moot until David Cameron emerges triumphant from the next General Election and the current Betfair odds are that Labour is the favourite to gain an overall majority at around 5/4 with ‘no party having an overall majority’ at around 7/4.  A Conservative majority is at odds of longer than 7/2.  In other words, there is less than a one in four chance, at present, as judged by the weight of money, that David Cameron will be able to give us a choice on Europe.

In fact, all this posturing on the EU is far more about what happens on 7 May 2015 than afterwards.  Cameron’s position on the EU is more about fighting the UKIP threat to Tory votes (including the threat of MP defections to UKIP) and clinging to the chance of retaining ‘power’ than it is about getting a better deal for us all.

It’s well worth reading the text of the Prime Minister’s speech.  It’s not an anti-EU speech, on the whole but it is not an inspiring one either.

Cameron points out that the EU has worked in many ways – big ways – and has become a force for good in the world.  His concerns are about how the EU works, and how it works for a rather narrowly-drawn definition of prosperity – economic prosperity. This speech is Cameron’s ‘Ask not what the UK can do in the EU but what the EU can do for us’ speech.  It’s a speech of self-interest and what he calls a ‘practical’ approach.  Cameron is keen to say that he is not un-European and not a British isolationist because you could well get the impression that he might be.

The environment crops up in his speech only as a problem in keeping with the Osborne line on the environment as follows ‘we need to examine whether the balance is right in so many areas where the European Union has legislated including on the environment, social affairs and crime‘.  I cannot speak for social affairs and crime but the EU has done a good job, particularly in the past, on the environment.  And it’s important to have EU-wide environment legislation for two main reasons – to improve the environment for EU citizens and to provide a level playing field for EU businesses.

The current EU legislation, in which the UK has a full say, of course, is the type of protection that we need against an environmentally illiterate government like that of Cameron and Osborne.  Without the backstop of the EU then this lot would be wreaking even more damage to the natural world in the name of economic progress.  And we in the UK face an environmental deficit compared with most of our EU partners.  We are not living in a wildlife-rich land – we have natural austerity compared with most EU countries.

By Brakspear at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
By Brakspear at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
But Cameron is clearly aware of the weakness of his line on the environment.  Different environmental legislation across EU countries would impose different obligations on EU businesses – a non-level playing field.  Business is always calling for a level playing field and certainty in order to plan for future investments.  Cameron’s line on an in-out EU referendum removes the certainty and if we were to leave the EU then it would presumably be to reduce environmental protection rather than to increase it.  If the PM were on an environmental crusade I’m sure he would have mentioned it.  And that’s why Cameron says there’s no need for an ‘infinitely level playing field’.  Well Mr Cameron, do you want a level playing field or not?  Business needs and has got a level playing field – what are your aims?  Haven’t you got a poorly thought through and poorly justified hankering after removing environmental protection because you still hold to the Osborne line that environmental protection is holding back recovery.  If so, you are absolutely bonkers.

It’s tempting to look to our future in Europe but from an environmental perspective we need a green government here first – and we certainly don’t have one. We all get the chance to choose on that front on 7 May 2015.


27 Replies to “The playing fields of Eton – infinitely level”

  1. Hi Mark,

    I think at the simplest level, the UK would have no one to trade with unless we were to go to a politically unacceptable deal with the Chinese. The example I have been given is that BAe would not be able to sell a spanner let alone aeroplanes from outside the EU.* However, as you rightly suggest, who would police our environmental policies were we to leave the EU? It is also easy to be critical of CAP but it can work with the right application and the right level of offsets for conservation – none of which, would be available or obligatory outside the EU. Basically, an independent UK could set its own agendas and whilst this may seem attractive to the tubthumping sceptics, it is actually a recipe for environmental anarchy. Then again, Mr Cameron only seems to be interested in the square mile of The City.

    * I know citing the aerospace industry is not a good conservation exampe but it is difficult to outline a well-known area of industry where the UK has significant export power.

  2. He didn’t go to Eton but did I read somewhere that our illustrious MAFF minister wants to double the size of the national dairy herd?
    Nice one Owen, more industrialisation/intensification of the counrtyside, more opportunities for spreading disease, perhaps less animal welfare and that’s before we get into all those extra methane emissions.


    “The benefits system has needed attention for a long time. The last Labour government spent billions on welfare, but their approach lacked results. During that administration, welfare spending increased by 60 per cent, but that increase was never reflected in the number of people getting back to work. In fact there were half a million more unemployed people by the time Labour left office, compared to when Blair was elected.”

    Reversing New Labour’s crass ideological ‘policies’ – just part of the ‘getting real’ project!

  4. Some might say David looked at them odds too, and it’s a good ploy to get re-elected after all it’s a bit of a presumption for him to think he’ll be in power to bring in a refrendum in 2017, but hasn’t he promised this once before, so are we to believe him?
    The sad fact is that there is a lot of nonsense spouted about the EU and expect to see some come through on the comments at some point. Working in the logistics industry I think it would be suicidal to withdraw from the EU, I see at first hand how much we export to the EU comapred to the USA and Far East, there would be no more car manufacturing at Cowley (BMW) and Nissan in Sunderland might have to think hard wether it relocates to an EU country to carry on trading in the EU zone. Then there is the CAP sysytem, who’s going to pick up that “tab” and whilst I’m typing about farming, to the farmers of the East, who’s going to stand in your fields and pick your crop, young Brits don’t want to do that job anymore, I for one am very happy with the working time directive, no more 12 hour shifts before overtime!
    I know for a fact in my region (east) we export 60% of our goods to the east, then there is the road infrastructre programmes like the dualling of the A11 and improvements to the A14 all partly funded by the EU, but sadly I feel the whole EU debate will go down the route of “immigration” and “straight bannanas” 🙁
    Sorry for the long comment

  5. A touch ‘classist’ in the headline Mark; sign of an inferiority complex usually exhibited by Labour supporters.

    I had a problem with my first blog so here it is again:-


    “The benefits system has needed attention for a long time. The last Labour government spent billions on welfare, but their approach lacked results. During that administration, welfare spending increased by 60 per cent, but that increase was never reflected in the number of people getting back to work. In fact there were half a million more unemployed people by the time Labour left office, compared to when Blair was elected.”

    Reversing New Labour’s crass ideological ‘policies’ – just part of the ‘getting real’ project!

    1. Trim,
      One of the stupidest laws labour brought into the workplace, that I feel impcts on employment, was the “Right to Work” legislation. Under it UK citizens have to provide an employer with photographic id that proves they’re born and are allowed to work in the UK, this includes both a birth certificate and/or a photographic driving liscense or passport. Now on the face of it not a big problem, but imagine a too common scenario, you’ve just left school and are looking for employment, you’ve only just turned 17 and as of yet not passed your driving test (so that’s one id scratched off) and coming from certain background you and your family haven’t had a holiday abroad and mostly holiday in the UK so no passport, to get a passport you have to stump £80 for one and because it’s your first you have to travel to passport office for a “verication interview”, we had a lad come to our firm and it cost him £135 in total for a passport just to earn after tax £185….people wonder why youth unemployment is so high?, I tackled my MP who before being an MP was an employment law lawyer, his response, nothing. Have the Tories reversed it, no they’ve made matters worse, my neighbour he’s been unemployed for 6 months and had his phone and internet disconnected to save on bills, the tories now have put all the jobs via jobcentre on the net and the net only, not a problem he thought “I’ll go to the library” sadly the tories have swung the axe on public libraries budgets so their internet is now restricted which now makes it harder for him to find work, sadly the “idelogical “policies” of all three parties are disconnected from the real world hence no-one has any real interest in politics,politicians or political issues, yet the politicians will still get a pay rise whilst the rest of the country struggle on by.

    2. Sorry Trimbush, I’m not really clear whether you are arguing for or against Britain turning its back on the EU and rolling back environmental (and other) legislation emanating from Brussels…
      I wasn’t aware this thread was about Labour Party policy on the benefits system.

    3. Trimbush playing the class card is typical tory bullshit which is just about all you come up with. Being a socialist or social democrat has absolutelyu nothing to do with envy, its about striving for fairness. Personally I abhor everthing Cameron and his ilk stand for they CON ordinary people into voting for them, but their policies always favour the haves over the have nots and they have a history of being really crap at any environmental or wildlife protection ( I wonder how many SSSIs and LNRs the new train routes will go through?).
      Can you please explain why we are supposedly the fifth richest economy in the world but pay the second or third worst unemployment benefits and pensions in Europe. Our economy was shafted by greedy bankers and banks not government, but ordinary folk are paying the price and I bet those bankers vote Tory to a man or woman. Rant over.

  6. Yes, there are things that need changing but the right way to go about it is by building coalitions not isolating our country.

    There’s a rather important angle to the idea of reducing environmental protection and the level playing field – next to Holland, England is by far the most crowded country in Europe. most of our competitors have far more space and therefore far more options for development without destroying their environments – look at the relative ease with which France & Spain can build high speed rail – the reason is that the new lines run through vast areas of countryside with very low population densities.

    It is perhaps typical of this Government’s thinking that its bright ideas are more likely to leave Britain less rather than more competitive.

  7. Hello Mark, maybe the government are too dis-connected with their environment and the wildlife that depends on it? Perhaps there ought to be a House of Commons Wildlife Group, or maybe they already have one. Field trips would be interesting with the various factions arguing about the ID of small brown birds. The House would be filled with pressed flowers, pieces of fungi, lichens etc. It may even promote friendship and co-operation? Recesses would be used for surveying the various habitats with a view to announcing more nature reserves! Policies protecting wildlife and habitats would actually be used in a positive way. Sorry, I was thinking of the 22nd century. There was a referendum on the common market, after we joined. What a waste that was.

  8. Interesting Mark. Like you I think, my reasons for wanting to stay in the EU are (i) on balance and despite it’s imperfections overall it is a force for good, (ii) similarly, on balance, it has delivered environment benefits, e.g. statutory environmental protection as a backstop to that passed by our own Parliament, and (iii) anyone is bound to be better at protecting the environment than our own government, especially a Tory one, and especially given that many environmental problems don’t recognise borders. Though granted there is much a greener UK government could do to put our house in order – vote watermelon on May 5 2015!

    Europe seems to provoke near hysteria in sections of the press and political class, yet my feeling is that for most of us whether we like Europe or not tends to be based on a fairly pragmatic assessment of whether ‘on balance’ we are better or worse in or out. It will be interesting to see if this balance of benefit shifts in the environmental area. For example, if our own government’s attempts to revive the economy may increasingly resemble Basil Fawlty’s attempts to revive his ailing Morris 1300, imagine the pressures on leaders in those southern European economies caught in their debt austerity straight jacket. All the same nonsense arguments about environment as a brake on growth will presumably be deployed with increasing force and in Spain, Italy, Greece et al and in a climate of increasing political instability. This is bound to filter up to the European level – how would that influence, for example, a review of the Birds Directive or other environmental protection, funding for the environmentally friendlier bits of CAP (discussed recently by yours and Martin Harper’s blog) and the chances of some actual action on climate change? A guess would be that pressure for ‘infrastructure projects to boost growth’ – some of them EU funded – will come across Europe as well as in the UK. Our own glorious contribution to this seems to be a revival of the Thatcher era roads programme – if a new tree disease doesn’t destroy your local woodlands that new bypass just might!

    Then there is the question of how to make growth genuinely sustainable, and why even very slight contractions in GDP should cause such wild reactions in the wider economy. If we can’t bring an end to boom and bust we must surely learn to get better at living with it, especially the bust. I mention this here because I believe there is an environmental aspect to all of this, e.g. over-reliance on fossil fuels, vulnerability of commodity prices to extreme weather (just as well we we haven’t been meddling with the climate then!). And of course as soon as we have a recession the environment is the first to suffer in the increasingly desperate (and self defeating) efforts to generate ‘growth’.

    The other point is that kicking the Eurozone countries while they’re down is bad enough, but is that much worse when you’re lying in the same gutter. A general worsening of relations and lack of goodwill among member states is not quite the ideal backdrop for better environmental co-operation, e.g. on wildlife crime and biosecurity. Oh deep deep joy!

    Apologies for the length and slight randomness of the comment.

  9. I can’t help but feel that some of today’s contributors views on EU environmental regulation is a little optimistic.

    From an agricultural view point all I see is a raft of regulation which is badly thought out and based more on political consideration than it is on solid evidence.

    The water framework implementation has cost UK farming tens of millions in increases slurry holding capacity, reduced yields from lower fertiliser rates and forced smaller livestock producers out of mixed farming; all based on nitrate levels which had no scientific backing which completely ignoring phosphate pollution.

    The minimum safe levels of pesticides in ground water again just set totally arbitrarily based on what was them the standard ppm minimum of could be checked using measuring at that time. No attempt to classify chemicals into safe minimum levels in regard to the environmental harm they do.

    The recent legislation based on endorphin disrupting agrochemicals which was put in place despite massive scientific representation to the contrary which was totally ignored.

    Total political opposition to GM cropping combined with legislation to prevent imports from countries which grow GM, completely unscientific again (with massive damage to some African growers) and not based on one shred of evidence that consumption of GM produce is harmfully to humans or livestock.

    If you think all this dose not effect you your wrong, next time you buy bread or wheat based products in your shopping basket the price you pay is the result of the worst harvest in the UK and Europe since the mid 70,s The reason; the EU is stripping the agrochemical base away from a production system based on the CAP which they created all in the name of environment protection based on principles which at times trade scientific research for political expedience. If this was a set policy to bring EU agricultural onto a more sustained footing then it would be more credible but its not. Ultimately it is based on the precautionary principle and on a deep mistrust of scientific research in agricultural production. Without meaning to be too political it’s is a left wing mentality which has led to agrochemical and fertiliser taxes in countries like Denmark and crop rotation restrictions proposals from France which have polarised the debate at a time when cutting agricultural production could be seen as foolhardy.

    Personally even though the CAP supports my business and unilateral action in leaving Europe would not result in a level playing fuels as the French and Germans would riot before they gave up their farm support I’d rather we got out. From UK farmings view point we are the most efficient in Europe and receive by far the lowest subsidy support of any of the original member nations. I think that this combined with the lifting of an environmental framework which lowers output and increases costs would allow UK farming to survive quite well thank you.

    As far as the rest of industry is conserved why would trade be so badly effected. The idea that the Euro zone would stop trading with its nearest most economically sound neighbour just out of spite is daft. China and the US aren’t in the EU or have I missed some recent developments ?

    1. “The water framework implementation has cost UK farming tens of millions in increases slurry holding capacity, reduced yields from lower fertiliser rates and forced smaller livestock producers out of mixed farming; all based on nitrate levels which had no scientific backing which completely ignoring phosphate pollution”

      I meet very few dairy farmers who genuinely regret having invested in additional slurry storage to comply with the NVZ 5-month storage rule. In fact all I have heard this winter is how glad they are that they have extended their slurry storage facilities as it has meant that haven’t had to trash their soil structure whilst emptying their stores, although I do concede that most farmers in my area are able to construct clay lined lagoons which reduces the cost considerably.

      I am firmly of the view that had the farming industry had taken the time to properly examine the nitrates issue over a decade ago they wouldn’t have pursued a series of small but ultimately pyrrhic victories. If the farming unions that taken ownership of the nitrates issue, pre 1998, they could have negotiated a serious package of capital infrastructure grants and tax breaks that would have massively reduced the cost to the livestock sector in the long term. This would have been to everyone’s benefit.

      I’m not sure that your assertion that the nvz regs have resulted in lower yields is correct. Can you provide an example of this ?

  10. P.s and before anyone has a go at me a out our trading position with the EU just remember what our biggest export is ; Empty Lorries. The problem is closer to home.

    1. Wrong on that Julian I’m afraid as a lorry driver collecting containers in and out of Felixstowe and Harwich you’re off target by at least a mile. I repeat what i said in my original comment, that from the east of england alone we ship 60% of freight to Europe, we actually export more to china and the middle east then the US in fact it seems to be a one way street as far as the US in concerned. The sad fact is though are exports are lower then imports. Can’t remember what an empty lorry feels like.

  11. It was interesting to see the odds quoted at 1 in 4 of getting a referendum. In my opinion Cameron cannot be trusted to hold a referendum even if it is in his next manifesto. If you add in the 50/50 prospect of a no vote, the chances of UK coming out must be less than 5%. In my view that is good. I trust our fellow Europeans with our environment marginally more than the current bunch claiming to be the greenest government ever. They are a bunch of self interested posh boys.

  12. Don’t need to worry about the loss of jobs at Nissan etc., surely they will simply move to the nearest EU member state…an independent Scotland, where the Habs Directive will reign supreme protecting increasingly precious GB wildlife while the Former UK (FUK) continues to disappear under concrete and steel (no HS rail in Albion – well not anytime soon, just some new car factories…apparently!).

  13. A more likely Severn Barrage, should we renegotiate our environmental responsibilities? To many (did anyone say Hain?) such ‘barriers’ seem the only reason for holding up what is entirely in the nations economic interests (well, maybe the Welsh interests, and then still deeply dubious). What have we left to ensure fair compensation for damage to nature should all that be swept away? No very much. Very concerning indeed. Surely just pie in the sky, and just think what example it would set for those nations barely keeping up with their obligations as it is.

  14. Douglas very pleased to hear that but I know in 2011/12 season we exported straw in curtain siders to Holland and Low Countries in quite high volumes as back loads since it was the only volume export around.

  15. I’m going to be slightly picky Julian but it sounds to me you’re coming from the farming angle etc exported to EU. A lot of freight we export goes in “solid” sided trailers or containers, to try and stop when the trailers return for the EU being stuffed with illegal persons thus preventing us getting massive fines from immigration, mass volumes to Antwerp and Rotterdam have been gobbled up by/cartelled by 6 major transport firms (of which one I work for) in the UK so if you’re a small transport firm you’re sadly going to struggle to find big loads also added to that firms importing from the EU gobble up big back loads to make up for the hit they take at UK fuel pumps so sadly smaller firms struggle to find backloads to exports also you have to take into account were your trailers are heading back to in the EU, if I remember right, you’re in the old “soviet” bloc countries or am I getting you confused with someone else. In terms of Exports to the EU in total for the last recorded/published quarter data availiable from the office of national statistics we exported a total of 48.6% of British goods to the EU (43.6% to Eurozone countries) which is a drop but is offset by the increase in the pound/eurozone crisis/world wide recesion and lack of consumer confidence, that leaves 51.4% to the rest of the world, now if you add the number of countries in the rest of the world compared to EU states their are far greater number of countries in the” rest of the world” so in terms of “averages” we do export more to the EU. I will obviously concede if we pulled out of the EU trade wouldn’t cease but WOULD fall some experts say as low as 20% some more optimistic say 33-34%, this would arise from a rise an EXport duties, Local taxes imposed by the importing country on firms importing from outside the EU, red tape and beauracy etc, could British industry take that sort of hit?
    I haven’t even started on the services we export to the EU either, and apologise for commenting on economy on a conservation blog, however without big business I think it would be kind of fair to say a lot conservation projects would struggle to get funding and some conservation organisations would see a drop in funding.

  16. Joe, thanks for your response to my comments.

    I can give you some examples of how NZV regs effect both yields both in terms of yields and in some cases soil structure and organic matter. The most obvious limitation is the effect of the N Max regulations which limit the total inorganic N that can be applied. I do conceded that better utilisation can mitigate yield reductions and that given that inorganic fertilisers are finite (and dam expensive) this is no bad thing however the N Max limit was not implemented with this in mind it was purely a response to a very badly thought out environment policy.

    The second and most damaging effect of the NVZ regulations is the closed period where applications of inorganic N is prohibited. Frankly this is madness given the move to crop establishment systems that use minimum tillage or no till systems. These new techniques aim to save carbon in soils by reducing oxidisation so maintaining or improving soil organic content (and reducing fuel and applied fertiliser use). In order for this system to function there is a need for both applied N and Phosphate to maintain the crop through the seedling stage when the available soil N is locked up from the increases residues in the seeding zone. This is not allowed or even considered by current NVZ regs which are based on a badly understood knowledge of Nitrates and how they oxidise and leach through soils. There is no attempt to differentiate between Urea and Ammonium Nitrate or NO3 and NH4 which behave totally differently both in the plant and the soil structure. In short the whole NVZ regs are rubbish and based on no scientific basis at all apart from the fact that someone thought if you put Nitrate on a crop what it doesn’t use ends up in ground water which is a gross oversimplification.

    1. Julian,

      I also find Nmax an odd concept; however with the exception of the odd WOSR crop it hasn’t caused my clients any issues, certainly not to any grass, cereal or maize crops once the permitted adjustments are taken into account, although I can’t comment on sugar beet or potatoes. Also bear in mind that Nmax limits can be exceeded provided that the average application rate to the whole area of crop does not exceed the Nmax limit.
      You are wrong about the closed periods for inorganic N. The regulations do allow applications of inorganic N during the closed period on the basis of written advice from a FACTS qualified adviser. You can find this detailed in Leaflet 9, p2, para 4 and also on page 26 of the last NVZ Q&A doc found here:

      You are right in that some of the thinking for some of the rules is based on oversimplification; the 12-month rolling field limit for manures for example. I’m not going to argue for one minute that the NVZ regs are ideal but overall they are a step in the right direction towards reducing nitrate levels in our ground and surface waters imho.

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