Today’s good thing from Michael Gove, they are coming thick and fast at the moment, is highly important. It aims to plug the governance gap on the environment once we leave the EU (if it happens).
As has been pointed out in this blog many times, although all parties before the general election promised to keep the existing EU regulations governing the environment for a while, the Conservatives (heading towards a massive majority as they thought) were less than candid about what would happen in the following years. Changes to legislation were mentioned which would improve things in the future – but improve them for the Hen Harrier or for the property developer we wondered?
And in any case, even if a future government, let’s imagine a future Conservative government, kept all the legislation just as it is, what would be the means of holding government to account once the backstop of the European Commission and the European courts disappeared?
Today Michael Gove has set out a way forward. Let us just say, before delving a bit deeper, that this alone is important. It shows that the Secretary of State has thought about these matters, realised they are important and wants to fix them. Hooray! That alone is important and that alone is a good sign, for talking usually precedes acting.
What Mr Gove has promised, and he has promised it, is to consult by early next year (before Easter I guess that means, but hopefully by Valentine’s Day) on two things: the policy principles that should guide us and the setting up of a new statutory body with ‘real bite’ which will be independent of government, which will be able to speak its mind freely and which will hold government to account.
Both are important. Will the ‘precautionary principle’ be a policy principle which the UK will adopt? Will the ‘polluter pays principle’ be another? Might ‘more rewilding’ in some shape or form be another? Might ‘ecosystem restoration’ be another? At what level will these principles be set, and will they be any use at all? Those are the issues which we all face and we have a few months to make sure that the forces of conservatism such as the NFU, the shooting industry, the developers do not successfully water down any draft principles.
But the independent body is very important. We could call this the dousing of the bonfire of the quangos perhaps, but the bodies such as the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and Sustainable Development Commission which were torched six years ago can never come back – they are cremated bodies. But Gove is proposing something better than them providing this new body really does have ‘real bite’ and can make government do what it has said it will do to protect the environment.
I could imagine that NE could disappear completely if the Gove Watchdog does come to pass. Some of its functions, most of them, should simply be merged with Defra and then be held to account by the Gove Watchdog. Indeed, part of what the Gove Watchdog would be, would be a version of NE more like NE was set up to be in the first place!
Let us take one area familiar to the readers of this blog, the future of the uplands of England and the future of protected wildlife in those uplands. The existing protection of wildlife species (eg the Hen Harrier as just one example) will remain in place after 29 March 2019 as will the protection of special areas for nature conservation such as Special Protection Areas (Birds Directive) and Special Areas of Conservation (Habs Directive) – will these measures be protected by what Gove plans? Will the policy principles be framed in such a way as to loosen their protection – perhaps by a clause about economic activity? And if so, or just as importantly, if not but some future government backslides on the necessary action, will the Gove Watchdog really be able to hold government to account in the way that the European Commission can at the moment. By the way, we can expect a final denouement of the Walshaw Moor case over the next few weeks or months and dealing with that may have sharpened up Mr Gove’s thinking on these matters.
What sanctions will the Gove Watchdog have at its disposal to hold government to account? And then the question is, will it use them? The composition of the Gove Watchdog must go beyond the great and the average of nature conservation and include some really independent members, not just academics and certainly not landowners and developers, but some real conservation figures who have nerve and guts.
So, Michael Gove’s Unfrozen Moment speech was not just a bunch of flannel. He is making things happen and we are lucky to have him at this time. There’s a long way to go, and the journey probably won’t reach all the places I’d like it to visit, but Michael Gove has put a spring in the step of many of us. Just a word of caution though, what Gove has announced today could be used for ill as well as for good, and some will be working in that direction. Let’s hope the Secretary of State keeps walking in the right direction.
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