What will the reshuffle mean for environmental politics?

“Away with the cant of ‘Measures, not men!’ – the idle supposition that it is the harness and not the horses that draw the chariot along.” Measures matter, or course, but it is ministers, women and men, who champion them and drive them through. This reshuffle matters, and it looks good for those who care about action on climate and the wider environment.

Housing and local government
All institutions develop silos. Government is particularly prone: Defra looks after nature; BEIS tackles climate change; MHCLG builds houses. But MHCLG also has a big part to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and a key role in the success or failure of Defra initiatives, such as environmental net gain from new developments and local nature networks.

The outgoing secretary of state, Robert Jenrick, cares about beauty and the countryside, but he failed to champion net zero and gave too little support to local authorities wanting to tackle the climate crisis. On planning reform, he could not persuade critics that the aim was better development, not just more development.

His successor, Michael Gove, is a reformer. As environment secretary, he seized the post-Brexit agenda, energised Defra and set in train reforms that are now coming to fruition, provided they get support from his new department.

He will shake up MHCLG. I am confident that he will also ‘green’ it. In his last speech as environment secretary, to Green Alliance’s 2019 summer reception, he confessed to feeling uncomfortable hearing Greta Thunberg “speak more sense…  than many of the people who I sit alongside in the House of Commons. The single greatest challenge we face,” he said, “is making sure that the climate and environment emergency… is addressed with the force, passion and determination that it deserves”.

As for planning, he has a copy of my book, How to build houses and save the countryside. He should re-read it if, shockingly, he has not done so already. It sets out how, with energy and some muscularity towards house builders and landowners, we can get more and better homes, while also protecting and enhancing the countryside. Sorted.   

International trade
Liz Truss was an energetic and high profile international trade secretary, but sustainability was way down her list of priorities. The aim was to sign lots of trade deals: never mind the quality, look at the numbers.

The proposed free trade agreement with Australia is a warning of what could be on its way if the new secretary of state, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, does not reset the department’s priorities. It is a great deal for Australia, but lousy for the UK. Farmers, the countryside and consumers will be worse off; and it is a blow to the UK’s climate leadership.

Liz Truss accused her critics of wanting “the status quo rather than a dynamic future”. But, as Angela Francis of WWF has argued, to reject high standards, particularly in agriculture, is to cling to twentieth century methods of production at a time when both markets and necessity favour more sustainable farming. It is not the critics of the Australia deal who are living in the past.   

More positively, the DIT under Liz Truss stepped up engagement with civil society. But there is a long way to go: five years after the Brexit referendum we still do not have a clear UK trade strategy and there is too little engagement on negotiation priorities. We need a new framework for UK trade, as advocated by a broad range of organisations, including Greener UK.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan was previously minister for energy, clean growth and climate change at BEIS, as well as the COP26 champion for adaptation and resilience. She has visited communities across the world who are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, so she will understand the need to green the UK’s trade agenda

Foreign affairs
In 30 working days the UK will host the biggest diplomatic event in our history, a showcase for ‘global Britain’. Yet Dominic Raab never seemed too concerned about COP26 and by acquiescing in the shortsighted cut to overseas aid, he seriously undermined the UK’s climate diplomacy.

Liz Truss is now foreign secretary. She understands that climate change is a big international issue on which the UK has something to offer, and she may yet surprise and delight us. Her first tweet in the new job, highlighting it as a priority, was encouraging.  

The Treasury
To tackle the climate and nature crisis, we need the Treasury onside. The new chief secretary, Simon Clarke, comes with impeccable climate, if not nature, credentials. He also understands the strong connection between net zero and levelling up. His appointment is a cause for celebration.

Other developments
It is good that George Eustice remains environment secretary. We have had some disagreements, for instance over the independence of the Office for Environmental Protection, but he is in full command of a complex brief and has quietly pushed forward some radical ideas, such as a 2030 target for restoring nature. The fact that he has kept his team, with the addition of Jo Churchill, is also very welcome.   

On transport, it is a shame to lose Rachel Maclean, who did good work in pushing forward the electric vehicle revolution and launching the transport decarbonisation plan.

Finally, one of the most dispiriting characteristics of this government which is, in many ways, so good on the environment, is its intolerance of dissent and enthusiasm for a culture war. Democracy needs a vibrant, independent civil society, but the government sometimes seems to want only conformity: fewer judicial reviews, only decorous protests, silence on the UK’s colonial past and a cheerleading, flag waving media. The appointment of Nadine Dorries as culture secretary suggests that things on that front are about to get worse.  

But I do not want to end on a negative note. This looks like a good reshuffle for a government that has high ambitions to improve the environment. We look forward to working with the new ministers.

[Image of the cabinet room table courtesy of the UK government under the  Open Government Licence v3.0]


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