Welcome to autumn 2022. A new parliamentary term, a new government championing growth and environmental protections are suddenly at risk, as ministerial pledges, only recently thought secure, now appear precariously balanced.
The past ten days have sent a shockwave through the government’s environmental political ambitions. There are concerns that the promises of a green Brexit and a manifesto commitment to have the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth are at risk of fading into oblivion. So how did we get here? To answer that question, we must interrogate the reasons being given for ministerial actions.
Links between food security and a healthy environment must be maintained
In response to widespread concerns that the government’s flagship farm support scheme (environmental land management or ELM) was to be shelved, ministers reached for the comfort blanket of a Defra blog. This was amplified by a video message and tweets from new secretary of state Ranil Jayawardena. These gave the impression that the new focus on growth and food production would have no downsides. Without greater specificity, it is not plausible to suggest that this will not adversely affect the direction and delivery of government support for farmers to produce environmental goods.
The Growth Plan 2022 commits the government to “rapidly review” frameworks for the regulation, innovation and investment that impact farmers and land managers in England. There is no detail on how and when this review will be conducted, what advice or evidence will be gathered to inform it, or how it will be ensured that the indelible links between food security and nature are not detached, as the Natural England chair Tony Juniper has warned against.
The plan to review retained EU law is not deliverable
The government has published the long awaited bill which would allow ministers to strip the UK’s statute book of laws that have emanated from the EU. This is driven by an aversion to anything that connects us with our former membership of the EU bloc, rather than a desire to enhance policy outcomes or make good law. It is no coincidence that the bill emerged alongside the growth plan, and has been pitched as part of a package to remove “needless bureaucracy”, with environmental protections dismissed as “burdens”. Outside BEIS, cheerleaders for this are hard to come by. It has provoked concerns from environmental groups, devolved governments, trade unions, academics and legal experts.
The government wants to ‘sunset’ all retained EU laws on 31 December 2023. But where is the plan to deliver this? Behind the scenes, civil servants are faced with balancing an impossible equation: meeting the government’s cut off date vs delivering existing priorities vs the new drive for civil service ‘efficiencies’ (cuts). The enormous scale of the task of reviewing and deciding the fate of thousands of intricate laws, many of which have been part of our statute book for several years, does not appear to have been factored in, including the significant amount of parliamentary time that would be required. These are sums that even the most numerate policy makers cannot make work.
The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill will have a particularly egregious impact on our environment. Defra has the greatest amount of law that would be affected by this bill: 570 pieces, of which 470 are yet to be tackled. This rich body of law contains vitally important protections for our environment and human health. In many cases these laws are complex and technical, created in the first place with much careful thought and the deep consultation of the UK. They provide certainty throughout business supply chains and for the public who want to be assured that food is free from harmful pesticides, water is safe to drink and swim in, air is fit to breathe and treasured wildlife is protected from destruction.
The environment can’t play second fiddle to food and farming
The new government brought a clean sweep to many departments. Defra did not escape this reset, with only Lord Benyon remaining in post. The new team immediately ushered in changes, with the secretary of state reordering his responsibilities and placing trade mandates at the top of the pile. Parliamentary under secretary of state Scott Mann is the department’s nominated growth minister, which every department now has. Farmer and minister of state Mark Spencer is focused on farming, while environment minister Trudy Harrison has an enormous brief including Environment Act implementation, chemicals, pesticides and biodiversity.
The new ministers have brought with them a new narrative and priorities, which appear to be driven from the centre of government. While the new government is yet to complete its first month in office, there are worries that the ‘E’ of Defra’s remit (environment) is being sidelined. It would be impossible for the government to meet its environmental goals on nature and climate without the environment being at the heart of Defra’s brief.
Secretaries of state inevitably vary in their approach but there has been a consistent recognition from the line of recent incumbents – Michael Gove, Theresa Villiers and George Eustice – that ambitious environmental action is a necessity. It provides some comfort that Ranil Jayawardena chose the Environment Act as his bulwark in response to the unprecedented concerns that tens of thousands of people have raised about the government’s direction of travel. But his warm words must be converted into concrete endeavours and missions if they are to inspire the confidence needed.
The secretary of state has an early opportunity to act, with the legal deadline of 31 October to publish Environment Act improvement targets looming and an investigation of his office’s compliance with water quality laws underway. He has inherited many other polices that he needs to expedite and champion, some of which are seriously overdue, including the long lost bottle deposit return scheme, the removal of forest risk commodities from supply chains and the commitment to embed environmental principles in policy making. Given the recent challenges, engendering a farming system that works in fullest harmony with the natural environment will depend on his steely resolve.
A disinclination to engage is not sustainable
With all this in mind, early signs are worrying. The new ministers have been slow to seize the Defra tradition of engaging with a broad range of stakeholders from the off. The death of the Queen broke many of life’s rhythms for a while as parliament was suspended. But with ministers back in Westminster, developing relationships with sector leaders must now start in earnest. A disinclination to engage with environmental NGOs risks the alienation of important delivery partners and critical friends. New environment minister, Trudy Harrison, visited Swindale in Cumbria this week, meeting some groups. But all Defra ministers should expand their engagement schedules, to get off on the right foot, so they can harness the expertise, goodwill and policy might of the NGO community to greatest effect in addressing some of the biggest challenges we face.