Defra achievements in 2017

I asked a bunch of wildlife NGOs what they thought were Defra’s greatest achievements in 2017 (as I have done in 2016 and 2015).

This year they had a much easier job and I agree with the thrust of their assessments, which were as follows (in the order in which they responded):

  • WWF-UK: ‘Probably our favourite thing about Defra this year is the increased engagement and interest in our agenda at ministerial level – particularly from Michael Gove, who delivered his first major speech as Environment Secretary at WWF’s Living Planet Centre in Woking.  And Gove has begun to back up the words with some actions – including a consultation (soon to close) on significantly toughening the UK’s ivory trade ban ahead of next year’s London Conference on the illegal wildlife trade.  But, in the spirit of looking forward to a new year as well as backwards into the current one, there is a lot more to do, and we want to see real priority from Defra and the whole Government on global leadership on the environment in 2018.  That means a 25 year environment plan committed to tackling our environmental footprint in other countries, a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London with an ambitious agenda for sustainability, and work on trade deals that will uphold and strengthen high environmental standards, not undermine them.

 

  • Buglife: ‘Defra’s greatest achievement of 2017 has been to bloom.  After years of ministerial drought on environmental progress we might have feared that the green blood had run dry in Defra, that the die had been cast and Defra was set in its ways.  In the last six months the heavens have opened, the direction of flow has changed and there is a belief that “leaving the environment in a better state than we inherited it” is more than just an empty slogan.Of course this is still new, will –
    • standing against neonicotinoids;
    • establishing a new body to hold decision makers to account on the environment;
    • setting out clear environmental principles and delivering these through ambitions environmental objectives;
    • restoring wildflower meadows;
    • stepping up biosecurity in the potted plant trade;
    • and bearing down on plastic use and pollution –

    stand the test of time and ministerial changes?  Who can say?

    Clearly, as the response to the sentience debate showed, a couple of slightly clumsy steps and the Conservative Party takes a lashing on green and ethical issues.  Will this fragility hold the changed ethos in place or discourage future Conservative ministers from setting out an ethical stance in the first place?  And what of the Labour Party, environment does not seem to be a key plank of the Corbyn agenda, how will they respond to the renewed blue/green agenda if they come to power?

    But these are questions for the future, at the moment it is eye-opening to watch the Defra civil service machine flex and shift towards the new agenda.  Civil servants who previously pulled you to one side for a hurried conversation now stand tall and talk loud, it is their time in the light and they are blooming.’

  • RSPB: ‘The profile and media coverage of the environment has benefited greatly from the appointment of Michael Gove as Secretary of State to Defra earlier this year. He has proved himself to be an engaged minister, keen to listen but not afraid to challenge back. In recent weeks there have been some really positive announcements coming out from government. The decision to back the ban on neonicotinoid pesticides is not only good news for bees and other wild pollinators, but also for evidence-based policy. Along with decisions on microbeads and proposed policies on dealing with ocean plastics we are seeing leadership on some of the most pressing problems that nature faces. The coming months will be crucial for our wildlife as new bills on agriculture and fisheries come before parliament,  as well as the launch of the 25 year plan for the environment. It is essential that warm words are translated into effective action, only then will we be able to judge the impact of Michael Gove’s time at DEFRA. The challenge for Defra has always been holding out for the environment against competing interests within Government and beyond. That will undoubtedly be the case in the coming year over issues like trade policy and deregulation, and this will really test Mr Gove’s mettle.’

 

  • Wildlife Trusts: ‘Our favourite thing that Defra did in 2017?’ Endorsing the release of beavers in the Forest of Dean – following a number of similar Wildlife Trust projects. There are other contenders: a new fund for peatland restoration and some positive words about future support for environmental land management. As nature’s engineers though, beavers help improve the wildlife and diversity of wetland habitats, slow the flow of floodwater water and improve water quality, so they had to be our top pick.’.
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8 Comments

  1. Mike says:

    Interesting comments which seem to underline that nothing environmentally useful was coming out of Defra before Michael Gove came along.

    These assessments also give a fascinating insight into the NGO’s to inform our views on them so, whilst heartened by the go ahead for beavers, if that is the extent of the Wildlife Trusts horizon it epitomises for me where the trusts stand in current ranking.

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    • jbc says:

      Mike, when I first read this I had similar thoughts. However Beavers are politically keystone species as well as ecological ones. The symbolism about new thinking about more environmentally sustainable land and water management and of Gove not instinctively saying "no" and just kow-towing to the NFU like so many Defra ministers before him is huge. So on further reflection, I'll give them a break.

      I like the idea of asking the NGOs about their own greatest achievements though. I'm disappointed in RSPB and in the Wildlife Trusts, of whom I hoped for better, and in NT of whom I never expected much in the first place.

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  2. Alistair says:

    This says more about the NGOs than Defra. Perhaps you should put the question of NGO achievement in 2017 to your readers?

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  3. Lyn Ebbs says:

    WWF's remark about our environmental footprint in other countries is important. We currently export much of our recycling but China is not going to keep taking it. We must deal with it ourselves and not risk it causing a pollution problem for other people.

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  4. Roderick Leslie says:

    It's all about the political sums - my reading is that Gove is an environmental neutral but unlike recent previous Conservative SoS he realises he has two key tasks:
    1. Maintain his own profile in a dead end job
    2. Go for middle ground votes

    Rather than looking back its worth looking forward to how that streams out in 2018 and beyond. Domestically, the big one is land use. There are two opposing camps: the traditionalists which seems to include NFU and the NGOs who seem to assume that not only will they get the present money but are demanding more.

    In the other camp are the forward lookers - the National Capital Committee and the CLA and maybe others including a minority of conservationists. They're multi-purpose, outcome led approach actually offers savings in cash and gains in first order policy areas like flooding, health and carbon.

    Far from gaining money, the traditionalists risk losing their coats as everyone lines up demanding more post Brexit. Demanding an extra £2 billion against the current political and economic backdrop looks suicidal, especially as even the Conservatives will abandon their traditional countryside base in the political fight to the finish we are heading for.

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  5. nimby says:

    All very positive, so we're in for an easy year ahead then?

    Back in the real world, whilst the engaged minister has delivered some easy wins, thank you sir now push the boundaries and ban non-recyclable plastic perhaps, invest in innovative waste management initiatives and the use of natural materials in plastic alternatives? I await address of wildlife crime particularly the seeming increase in illegal raptor persecution, finding out the detail behind the science of the badger cull (how many of the badgers were tested for and had bTB etc.) how the minister proposes to address the hunting ban loop hole which allows trail hunting to accidentally hunt and kill foxes with hounds. The 2004 Act certainly needs review and revision, but given toxicity of the issue will it be?

    Like other commentators I like the idea of NGOs writing about what they see as their greatest achievements, particularly in respect of advocacy around 'politically sensitive topics' rather than the cuddly save the barn owl / water vole etc. (that's not to say either species is not worthy cause) funding appeals.

    Is it time to raise the profile of the smaller more recent players in conservation game? Has there been a move away from supporting the traditional NGOs to ones which are 'lean and mean and focused'?

    Collectively and collaboratively the conservation critical mass can make significant changes from a grassroots base and this is evident if you look at the impact this and other blogs have had. Thank you Mark for keeping the profile of the impact of upland moorland management for driven grouse shooting on various elements of public interest.

    In anticipation of lots of dislikes for expecting too much from those paid to deliver?

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    • Matt Shardlow says:

      I encourage everyone who want's to know what an NGO is doing to look at their website and join up!

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  6. Iain Gibson says:

    I'm obviously a glass-half-empty sort of person, because reading the various plaudits for Defra just sent a shiver down my spine. It's as if all the organisations are striving to be politically correct and being highly selective in their choices of examples. A lot of typical hypocrisy and sucking up to the Government body tasked with advising and enacting nature conservation, and failing quite miserably. Is this the best we can hope for? We need to get real and join the few individuals who are actively campaigning for worthwhile causes. Only more effective public support for such causes as ending harrier persecution will make the bureaucrats sit up and listen, and DO something to promote an understanding and appreciation for wildlife. We also need to reach the politicians who unduly influence priorities, and suppress real criticism of the main sector of society which advocates cruelty against animals as a "respectable" way to enjoy themselves.

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