You said something in your speech to the Conservative Party conference earlier this week that intrigued me, and I wondered if you would mind explaining exactly what you meant? Of course, I may be reading too much into your words, which I only heard your talk because I was up stupidly early, and listened to Farming Today over breakfast.
My ears pricked up when I heard you say: “I’m truly excited that our departure from the EU means we can develop policies that are tailored to our most precious habitats and wildlife not a one-size-fits-approach for 28 Member States.” Those are fine words but, I’m afraid I need to push you for some details. I’ve done a lot of work on the implementation of EU environment policies over the past quarter of a century and I’m not absolutely sure where your idea that EU environment policy adopts a “one-size-fits-all approach” comes from. The Water Framework Directive, for example, sets out general principles to ensure sustainable water supplies for Europe in the main text, but the extensive annexes give considerable scope for each Member State to tailor these principles to their own circumstances. Even to drop the phrase “one-size-fits-all” into your talk suggests to me that you have not mastered your brief and that fills me – and other environmental professionals – with a sense of foreboding about the future of the UK environment.
However, you have not been doing the job for very long so we should give you the benefit of the doubt. Your talk was strong on fine-sounding words but rather short on specifics. So an easy solution to the problem may be for you to give us just one example from each of the Habitats and Water Framework Directives explaining the type of changes that your department will be looking to enact to strengthen environmental protection over and above the provisions of existing legislation. Of course, I note that you said “… we can develop policies…” rather than “… we are developing policies …” but I am sure that you would not have said this if there were not civil servants within DEFRA currently considering just this type of option. It is hardly an issue that is going to affect Brexit negotiations so you don’t need to resort to Theresa May’s argument of the need for discretion, and it will surely enhance your credibility among those voters who are genuinely concerned about wildlife and the environment.
One problem that I have is that you, and fellow Brexiteers, put a lot of emphasis on the red tape that Brussels generates. Environmental and wildlife legislation often needs a “carrot” and a “stick” and that “stick” can very easily be interpreted by those on the receiving end as “red tape”. A legitimate reading of your suggestion is that farmers and water companies may be subject to more, not less, regulation as a result of our exit from the EU. That is counter-intuitive, given all that you, Farage, Gove and others claimed during the referendum campaign and is going to take some explaining, if it really is the case. Once again, a couple of examples of what these new policies will look like will reassure us all.
And this brings me onto my final point: enactment of both EU policy and of your vision will only work if there are properly resourced regulators and, in my experience, the Environment Agency and Natural England have been struggling over the last few years. Better environmental management will, of course, need more high calibre and well-resourced staff in both agencies. Please don’t roll out that tired old mantra of greater efficiency: there is only a finite number of times this can be used before it loses credibility and, I am afraid, your predecessors have squeezed this particular argument dry.
Credibility is, unfortunately, the key word here. Environmental professionals were very strongly in favour of “remain”, recognising the high quality of the legislation that comes out of Brussels in this field. You came into this job without any strong track record in environment or agriculture and, I suggest, maybe you need to temper your enthusiasm for changing the status quo at least until you have mastered your brief. An assurance that current EU legislation will not be revoked or watered down would be a good first step. Despite claims by some of your colleagues that there was a decisive vote in favour of leaving, 48 per cent of voters want to remain. That’s a lot of people who will be looking hard at your government’s performance come the next General Election. Remember, too, that wildlife and conservation charities can run very effective campaigns when they think politicians are making a hash of things and that you only have a slim majority at the moment. In other words, get this wrong and things can only end badly for you …