Guest blog – Make Great Britain Green Again by Richard Benwell


Richard has worked in the Westminster parliament as a researcher in the House of Lords and as a Senior Clerk for the Energy and Climate Change Committee. He is now Head of Government Affairs at WWT after spending a couple of years as a Parliamentary Officer at the RSPB.




“Make America Great Again” – what a slogan!

However much you recoil at the anti-environmental rhetoric of the new President of the United States, you must acknowledge the power of his promise to turn back the clock and restore his country to some halcyon heyday.

That message of regaining lost prosperity is wonderfully evocative.

Of course, Mr Trump will be judged by the actions he takes to turn this romanticism to reality. Unfortunately, all the signs suggest that he will act and the actions he’ll take really will turn things round, but to a past that prizes coal above clean energy, introversion over internationalism, and development over sustainability.

Now turn to the Conservative Party Manifesto and you’ll find another promise to turn back the clock.

On page 55, you’ll find a promise to deliver “a 25 Year Plan to restore the UK’s biodiversity, and to ensure that both public and private investment in the environment is directed where we need it most”. What a fantastic aspiration! Albeit a less compelling slogan than Mr Trump’s.

Since then, Defra Ministers have repeated the promise. Andrea Leadsom has made a mantra of her “department’s vision to be the first generation to leave our environment better than we found it”. But so far we’ve seen little sign of the action that could bring this particular vision into being. Two years into this Parliament and the plan still hasn’t been published, never mind acted upon. At the moment, most people haven’t even heard of the idea.

Of course there are good reasons for that. The actions that could actually reverse the loss of UK biodiversity (with 56% of species in decline), clean up our water (with only a fifth of rivers and streams in good condition), and make our air fit to breathe (with air quality targets shattered the first days of the new year) are difficult to plan and difficult to agree. What’s more, they’ve been made many times more complex by the prospect of Brexit.

But at last there are signs of movement.

In the next few weeks, we’re expecting the Government to publish its consultation on the 25 year plan. As environmentalists, it’s our job to help the Department succeed. To do that, we need to turn DEFRA’s vision into an action plan and we need to demonstrate the public demand to make it happen.

So, how do we do it?

First of all, we need to be positive and precise about what we want. Too often, environmentalists are reactionary and uncertain. Part of the reason for blogging here is that these pages are often an exception, setting out very clear proposals for change.

Second, our action plan needs to be as bold as our ambition. The day-to-day work of environmental advocacy is about a small nudge here, incremental change there, compromise and pragmatism. But the changes taking place at the moment are huge —massive infrastructure and energy developments and the redesign of our farming support system. We need to be daring.

Think back 25 years and you can see that transformational change really can happen. In 1992 the world agreed the Framework Convention on Climate Change and that led to truly revolutionary change, shifting the global energy system away from a hundred year path. Another 25 years back and you’re in the era of Silent Spring. 1967 saw the creation of the Environmental Defense Fund, and the beginning of the end for DDT.

This time, I believe the hallmarks of a successful 25 year plan are:

  • Legally-binding milestones for restoring nature – like a Climate Change Act for wildlife, water, soil and air. An Environmental Protection Act.
  • The money to make our countryside thrive – in place of old farm subsidies, we need to invest more money in paying land managers for looking after nature.
  • Strong monitoring and accountability – public and Parliamentary reporting to make sure we succeed.

But there are probably a thousand different ways we could succeed. Most of all, we need to act together and we need everyone to raise their voices in support of DEFRA’s ambition, with a call to action.

In the clamour of Brexit, the rush for house-building, the race for economic growth, it could be easy for our environment to be side-lined. I’m pleased to report that one of the unexpected side effects of the Brexit decision is that the UK’s environmental NGOs really are working together with new energy and resolve in coalitions like Link, Greener UK, The Climate Coalition and Sustainability Hub. Expect to see some action soon.

And it’s great to see young people like the folks behind A Focus on Nature and New Nature Magazine swell the ranks of dedicated environmentalists.

When the consultation comes out for the 25 year plan, let’s add to Andrea Leadsom’s mantra of improvement with our own slogans:

Make Great Britain Green again.

Make our rivers clean again.

Make our air fit to breathe and our wildlife thrive on land and sea again.

And let’s all respond to the consultation with a clear call for DEFRA’s excellent vision to be backed up by action. At WWT, alongside our friends in Link and Greener UK, we’ll be calling for milestones, money, and monitoring to make sure the Government delivers a country rich in nature. What will your call to action be?

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12 Replies to “Guest blog – Make Great Britain Green Again by Richard Benwell”

  1. Oh God, I hope you're right for my grandchildren's sake! You've given me more optimism than I've had in years! Hope education from the earliest years can be included in the plans.

  2. Yes, great idea.

    However, please can we try to call it 'nature' as much as possible, rather than 'the environment'? Environment originally meant that which surrounds something, its context. While it has acquired it's new meaning of 'non-human world', there is a danger that it keeps giving the perspective we are in the middle and everything else only matters in relation to us.
    We could at least use the two words to point up the contrasting attitudes: that nature only matters in as far as it relates to us, vs refusing to take a purely utilitarian attitude.

    1. better than that stop calling it 'the environment' and call it 'our environment'.
      'we need to preserve our environment' is a much stronger phrase than 'we need to preserve the environment'

  3. A lot depends on whether it is indeed an "excellent" vision and on whether the "Action Plan" is a plausible route to delivering that vision. And on whether other departments are also committed to it, in the way that eg Defra is also committed to maximising economic growth.

    If it is that good, that well thought out, and that holistic, then are great deal of credit will go to Leadsom and her Defra Team, and to her predecessors Truss and Paterson.

    Which is why I'll stay cautious until I've seen it.

  4. Thank you Richard for a great, positive, clarion call to action. There can be no doubt that nature needs urgent assistance if it is not to decline even further into a sad ghost of what it should really be. If DEFRA has so far shown little inclination or ability to 'walk the walk' the onus is on all of us who care about wildlife to hold it to account to ensure that bold visions and airy talk are matched by real action and not diluted or buried by acquiescence to the demands of vested interests. Whether we are concerned individuals or major NGOs we should take every opportunity to communicate our insistence that the old habits of always pushing wildlife out of the way are not acceptable and must stop. Ministers, MPs, councillors and others with power and influence over the environment must be left in no doubt of our expectations and of the fact that we are watching.

    In this regard - to go from the general to the specific - I imagine that most readers of this blog will have already responded to the Medway Council consultation on the Lodge Hill housing development that threatens one of the most important nightingale sites in the country but if not then please do so as soon as possible. The destruction of such an important population of a species that is already in disastrous decline is in no way compatible with a desire to make Britain green again. You can respond via the RSPB through this link

    1. No reason we can't have a new one. Over the years there has been much recycling of the names of acts of parliament e.g Clean Air Acts of 1956, 1968 and 1993.

  5. Whilst I agree with the general sentiment of Richard Benwell, I think the rhetoric of this government, and especially Angela Leadsom is hollow.

    I would also take serious issue with statements like this "Think back 25 years and you can see that transformational change really can happen. In 1992 the world agreed the Framework Convention on Climate Change and that led to truly revolutionary change".

    "Revolutionary change"? In the last 25 years since politicians first promised to address the causes of climate change i.e. carbon emissions, we have seen massive rises in carbon emissions, and ever more reliance on the carbon economy. Most expert analysis says the policy of most governments around the world will massively fail to meet the aspirations of the Paris Climate Change agreement of keeping warming to 1.5C. Most indications are current policy will result in well over 2C of warming, perhaps well over 3C of warming.

    I have been concerned about our impacts on the natural environment for over 45 years. I have repeatedly heard the empty rhetoric of politicians, the optimism it engenders, and yet actually the situation gets far worse, not better. As I was a keen naturalist when I was very young I've seen the massive decline in our biodiversity with my own 2 eyes. In the early 1970s I heard Cuckoos every Spring in the village where I lived, Grey Partridge were widespread, the fields were full of Lapwings in the Winter, the streams and rivers were full of Water Voles which were incredibly numerous. Skylarks were the sound of Summer, and Yellowhammers were everywhere in the Gorse. All that has gone now, and much, much more.

    Personally I believe the declines in our biodiversity have been much greater than that detailed in the State of Nature reports, because so few people are capable of recording our biodiversity. In other words no one was recording this abundance, and only a few people capable of recognising it were aware of it's decline. When I was young I used to wash my father's car each week 1960s-early 70s). The front of it and the number plates would be covered in splatted insects. Yet in 2003-4 when the RSPB started a bug splat citizen science project based on car number plates, it had to be abandoned as so few insects were stuck to number plates. Sometime between the early 1970s and 2003, there was a gigantic decline in the biomass of our insects, but no one knows when it occurred.

    I'm not trying to be pessimistic, and what drives me on to write this is optimism, that eventually people might wake up to see what is happening. We need to be realistic. To solve a problem we need to acknowledge the problem in a brutally honest way, and it is not happening. We need to understand why this rhetoric has not led to the necessary change.

  6. Congratulations on a great blog Richard.

    Another phrase from The Donald that stood out, this time from his inauguration speech, was "you will never be ignored again" - now that would be a hell of a thing for the environment if Defra could deliver it. Or how about "the environment first"?!

    Say what you like about Trump, (what's not to not like?), but he does know how to deliver a message with the utmost force and clarity. Contrast that with the fudge of the Corbyn Labour party over Brexit for example and it's clearer why the 'other side' in politics is in desperate trouble right now. Your blog is refreshing in its clarity. The success of the campaign to save the EU Nature Directives shows what it's possible for a well lead movement from civil society to achieve.

  7. A 25 year plan also needs adaptation to climate change embedded throughout, or it will fail: we can expect a global temperature of around 2 Celsius above pre-industrial by then. Scary but realistic!

  8. I think we are a crunch point - the point where we need to make the transition from the 20th to 21stC.

    Lawton represents the 20th C: spot on that we need space for nature of a much larger, linked, scale. Wrong to see achieving it as sectoral - the land must be nature conservation as opposed to farming, water, recreation etc. Also wrong in seeing a big spend as central - it isn't going to happen.

    Contrast with the Natural capital Committee approach: outcome-led: what do we need reagardless of current land use ? And led by real economics that work - NCC has gone where The Labour party and conservation lobby have failed, in making a head on challenge to the Conservative position that environment costs.

    Look at the sums: between cleaning diffuse pollution from our drinking water (nitrogen runoff, the effects of over-burning in the uplands) and conventional flood defence we are spending at least £1.5 billion pa, and losses from flooding are running at least £1 billion pa + (1) Government commissioned reports suggest that could go far higher (2) there is serious political risk over insurance. So that is £2.5 billion to play with, 2/3rds of the UK CAP spend to play with before looking at any other heading - imagine what that spend on 'soft' approaches - re-engineering catchments to stem the flood, buffering along water courses to catch diffuse pollution, a new deal for the uplands that cleans the water & captures carbon etc.

    The models for most of what NCC propose are there already - I was involved in restoring straightened rivers nearly 20 years ago. We are just so, so, so slow and so restricted (mainly by the food production religion) in our imagination.

    I'm not waiting with baited breathe for the Defra plan - I'm still wondering how on earth conservation signed up to a biodiversity plan quite separate from a plan for farming which head in the diametrically opposite direction. And, of course, 25 year plans are all about just talking for the first 5 years. And in the meantime I'm searching my Matures Home( and my Waterlife) for any mention of the NCC.


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