More good from Gove

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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15 Comments

  1. SteB says:

    I am very cautious about this. Yes, Michael Gove can have quite radical ideas which change things for the better, but then he has other less savoury facets. However, this is not just about Michael Gove, because even if his aims were as genuine as he claims, the Conservative Party is paid for by vested interests, and landowning and farming interests have huge influence in the Conservative Party. In other words there would be great internal pressure in the Conservative Party to tone down the powers of any such regulatory body.

    We have after all been here not that long ago. David Cameron's supposedly green vision seemed genuine to some extent before he was in office, and look what happened to the greenest government ever.

    It is very difficult when people say one thing, and then do something entirely different in practise to know exactly what's going on i.e. it is not clear whether they were being knowingly deceitful and disingenuous to get support, or if those intentions were at one time real, but they got shelved because they got in the way of other agendas.

    The other thing to bear in mind is that this government is failing in a big way and may not be around much longer. Who knows, only time will tell.

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    • Mark says:

      SteB - well we don't have to believe anything you say either! Or anything that I say, come to that.

      This announcement is specific and testable - we'll see.

      The rather more important point is that rather than just standing by, we need to respond to this as an opportunity because others will respond to it as a threat.

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      • SteB says:

        What I mean Mark is that we should welcome the proposal, and push for such a body to have real teeth and independence. However, at the same time we need to be very wary of any backsliding, or the implementation of something quite different to that outlined. It wasn't just David Cameron offering the greenest ever government, but his members of his government made big flowery promises about conservation. But what we got were schemes to control Common Buzzards on pheasant shoots, Badger culling and big cuts to Natural England's budget, so on and so on. And essentially the government is composed of very similar figures to those in Cameron's government.

        I'm old enough to have seen plenty of big promises on action, and have then seen that what we got was something very different. For years I tried to point out that the general situation was getting much worse, and I'd get members of the NGOs saying you're being far too pessimistic pointing out successes. I'd say any progress is good, but unfortunately the big picture I see is one of things generally getting worse, an impression confirmed by the State of Nature report. But you wouldn't believe how many conservationists would insist that this was not the general picture until the State of Nature reports. It's just if you had your eyes open this was apparent for decades.

        Believe me, no one would like to see this being a success more than me.

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  2. Lyn Ebbs says:

    Hold out a hand of friendship to him by all means, Mark, but count your fingers afterwards!

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  3. Tim says:

    Mark ,
    Do you have an “ in “ to Michael Gove, getting past the gate keepers is often a big hurdle and like you I desperately want him on the stage next August to help celebrate thev30 th Birdfair , Tim

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  4. Random22 says:

    Don't fall for it. He is just using the David Cameron "Hug a Husky" style of campaigning, this is just to get him into No. 10.

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    • murray marr says:

      Gove for No. 10? Give us strength.

      https://news.sky.com/story/johnson-calls-nazanin-zaghari-ratcliffes-husband-as-gove-stumbles-11123493

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  5. Paul Leyland says:

    The guy is a curious mix of the sane and the insane. It’s hard to know if he has any grand strategy or is just electioneering. His past record suggests the latter, but we must live in hope.

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  6. Greenfly says:

    Gove does keep saying good sounding things but if its a case of getting key principles enshrined in law now - or having a consultation over some potentially really good stuff - I'd take the former.

    My concern is that he is proposing a consultation on these key issues to distract us from the fact that we need an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill (as proposed by Mary Creagh: on page 12 of https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/2017-2019/0005/amend/euwithdrawal_rm_cwh_1103.pdf) to ensure that the environmental principles of EU law (i.e. precautionary principle, preventative action and polluter pays) are retained in UK law.

    I assume that key votes on the EU Withdrawal Bill will be long before the results of the consultation that he is proposing. I think we should be campaigning for the amendment to the Bill now rather than waiting for the results of this consultation.

    Forgive me for my cynicism but he has made pretty strong anti-environmental statements in the past...and these principles are what we need to fight for.

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  7. Tim Bidie says:

    Far more important than tinkering with some toothless watchdog would be to introduce an amendment to various English laws so that:

    'Any person who intentionally causes undue suffering to any wild
    mammal or bird shall be guilty of an offence.'

    That way, the only watchdog with real teeth, English law in English courts, can provide the protections that all our mammals and birds should always have had.

    That will never happen. Why? Politicisation of animal welfare.

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  8. David Lomas says:

    Hi. I'm suspicious too, but if we had an Office for Nature Responsibility (think of a better title, please) that operated along the same independence lines as the Office for Budget Responsibility, then I'd give the thumbs up. The ONR would be the "go to place" for independent (i.e. apolitical) scientific evidence/support/challenge and challenge to DEFRA.

    DaveL.

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  9. SteB says:

    Just clarifying my points.

    Firstly and foremost there is a need to be cautious because there is clearly a case precedent for modern Conservative politicians using disingenuous "green" posturing to detoxify their image, and then to directly renege on what they promised, without any attempt to put it in place. It must be remembered that David Cameron's green posturing lasted for nearly 5 years (10 if you count his false pronouncements that it was the greenest government ever). I think I can safely say that David Cameron was thoroughly disingenuous with his green posturing, because there was never any evidence of him trying to put it into place. What's more his quick axing of the Sustainable Development Commission, the attempt to sell of NNRs, promoting fracking etc, were entirely contradictory to his posturing. The "lets get rid of the green crap" sentiment was never denied by Downing St, who carefully said only that they didn't recognise the exact form of the words.

    As @Greenfly notes, Gove has got a history of saying things which seemed anti-environmental.

    Today the news is full of articles about how May's government and her leadership is in trouble, enough to cause the pound to rapidly drop in value. In addition is other reporting about Boris Johnson and Michael Gove's edict to Theresa May about Hard Brexit. Even if Theresa May fell as leader and it didn't lead to the fall of the government, it would mean a complete cabinet re-shuffle, and Michael Gove may no longer be in place.

    Yes, I say conservationists should seize on the suggestion of a proper independent regulatory body on the environment, because it should have happened decades ago. But conservationists should also be prepared for this not being put into place as suggested, because there are a number of likely eventualities where Michael Gove may no longer be Environment Secretary, or may no longer pursue it in the manner suggested. Being cautious is not being negative, it is being sensible. There have been too many false dawns when it comes to protecting our biodiversity, habitat and the natural environment in general.

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    • Mark says:

      SteB - if you had someone saying the right things, and promising to do them, would you encourage them or not? It's not very difficult really.

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