The general election is done and dusted, and against all the predictions and polls we have a majority government. Not only that, we have the bulk of the government we had before.
There’s a lot of hand-wringing over this, but I’ve never been a great believer in the idea there are ‘good’ political parties and ‘bad’ political parties. Whatever colour the rosette, individuals are there with their own points of view, beliefs, and prejudices.For better or worse.
So, in that spirit, my first post-election entry is an open letter to two ministers; Amber Rudd and Elizabeth Truss.
Firstly, congratulations to you both on winning, and to you both on your places in the cabinet. As someone who believes in greater representation in politics, I’m pleased to see two of the jobs that I’m most interested in going to women.
I’m writing this as I believe we are facing a five year period where the future of the British environment has never been more threatened. Between you, you have more power to do good in this matter than any of our conservation bodies, and it’s a challenge I’m sure you wish to take up.
I’m delighted that your party, or at least it’s leadership, seems to believe we need to remain in the European Union. We need reform, but we are better off inside where we can play a role. I agree entirely. This can start with the upcoming review of the Birds Directive, and the Habitats Directive*. You can lead the charge here, not for the proposed weakening, but for stability, or even a strengthening of the law.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that weakening protections for nature is utterly contrary at a time when another EU report shows us that 33% of bird species are endangered, 77% of habitats are in poor condition, and 30% of habitats have declined over the last six year. Birds like the Turtle Dove have declined by up to 90%. The Skylark, a bird immortalised in song and in verse, a bird inextricably linked with our cultural memory of the Great War, has declined by at least 50%. Much of that due to illegal hunting. If the law we have isn’t strong enough to arrest or reverse such declines, what logical argument could ever be made for weaker rules?
I’m fortunate to have water voles living just near my house. But more broadly this is a species that has seen numbers and range contract hugely, threatening its future. And yet again, like the Skylark, this is a species that exists firmly in British culture, something your party has an admirable stated desire to protect and solidify.
Hunting, legal and illegal, fragmentation of habitat, over-development, ever more industrialised farming practices, and ecologically unsound home building are all contributing to this. Weakening regulation will, beyond any doubt, send certain species into irreversible and critical decline.
These arguments are not purely ‘moral’ either, nor are they only rooted in some sort of hair-shirt leftist environmentalism. Nature is good for us economically. The services we get from a strong natural environment are worth at least £325bn a year across the EU. To say nothing of the positive benefits to mental and physical health, reducing the financial and logistical burden on the NHS.
Your own government last year concluded that the alleged ‘burden’ of environmental regulation was having no discernible negative effect on growth or development (a review conducted by Caroline Spelman at the instigation of George Osborne).
There are obvious issues domestically too. An issue that will take up both your time is that of fracking. Again, on this I’m not an alarmist. I don’t believe there is a threat of earthquakes, nor do I believe we would be talking about gas coming out of household taps. However, as a geologist and someone who has paid attention here, I don’t see it making any real contribution to our energy supply. The issues of accessibility, regulation of drill sites, and the complex and relatively small scale of our landscape mean getting the gas out will be incredibly difficult in any meaningful level. Worst of all, it will have no beneficial effect on energy costs. Even the chair of Cuadrilla has made this clear. The only way it would bring bills down is if the government massively subsidise the companies extracting the gas, and then we are just paying through a different route. Hard to argue to reduce subsidies for wind and solar whole handing them to gas and oil.
So where to start? A great idea waiting to happen is the Nature and Wellbeing Act proposed by The Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB, and numerous partners. This would be a way of showing that you are, as your leader has tried and failed to justify previously, the ‘greenest government’. Perhaps your coalition partners were holding you back here? No more, you can make this happen now with a parliamentary majority. Not only that, drafted and argued correctly, it would be hard for any serious party to oppose.
The key principles would be:
- A commitment to reviving species and restoring habitats
- Mapping and connecting local networks of green space
- Universal access to natural spaces
- Researching and, if valid implementing, ecotherapy principles
- Making caring for nature part of the principle of British Values in schools
- Ensuring all school curricula have elements of nature and outdoor learning within them
- Establishing an Office for Environmental Responsibility in government
- Strengthening National and European laws around nature
I don’t believe these would be onerous, and the savings that would be made by reducing the demands on the NHS through a healthier population would more than compensate for costs.
I don’t know if you’ll read this, or an assistant will read it, or maybe it’ll just be ignored. I’m know you are busy, and I know I ignore a chunk of the mail that comes across my desk too. But even if you don’t read it, I hope it’s in your mind anyway. I hope that you can lead across the next five years and help restore part of what defines our country.
Thanks you, and best wishes for the next five years.
* If readers wish to have their say on the proposed change in EU law, there is a public consultation.