At about 2.30pm today, the Prime Minister will address the Conservative party conference.
This marks the end to the conference season (no doubt to the relief of many, including the RSPB's hardworking but knackered parliamentary team who have been on the road for three weeks).
But it is also a moment for the Prime Minister to reflect on his government’s performance and renew his commitment to his own personal mission. In many ways, this is about as close as we get to a State of the Union address.
So what would you like him to say on the environment?
Do you want him to side with Francis Maude, who believes that opposition to planning reforms is “***” (apologies for quoting verbatim) or perhaps with George Osborne who this week bemoaned “the decades of environmental laws and regulations”.
Or, perhaps more likely, you’d like him to side with Caroline Spelman who argued that it was a moral imperative to go green, and with the much beleaguered, but ever resilient, Greg Clark who said yesterday that “we are stewards of a matchless countryside. We want our children – and their children – to be as proud of it as we are. And believe me, there is no charity, no campaign, no concerned citizen who feels more strongly about cherishing our countryside than we do.”
As for me, I’d like him to
- Acknowledge that we face an ecological crisis as well as an economic one
- Say that the UK does want to lead the world to a low Carbon economy
- That the UK Natural Ecosystem Assessment was right - if we continue with business as usual, we shall sell ourselves and our children short
- Celebrate the commitment his government made in the Natural Environment White Paper and restate the commitment outlined in the England Biodiversity Strategy to prevent extinctions of known threatened species
But I would also like him to admit that
- They need to redraft the National Planning Policy Framework so that environmental protection is strengthened rather than weakened
- Much more needs to be done to halt the loss of the millions of species on which we share this planet – from rapid roll out of Marine Protected Areas through to reform of the Common Agriculture Policy and contributing to the fight to halt tropical deforestation.
- And, perhaps most importantly, to say that the government needs to up its game considerably if it wants to be regarded as the greenest ever.
What about you? What would you like him to say in his speech? ,The clock is ticking…
On Sunday afternoon, the Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said that “going green was not just a moral imperative, it was an economic imperative.”
And this chimes with the National Ecosystems Assessment which concluded that if we ignore the environment we risk damaging the long term health of our economy.
And it is also consistent with findings in the latest RSPB report Natural Foundations: Conservation and Local Employment which concluded that conservation and nature tourism can make a significant contribution to local economies.
For example, the RSPB’s 200 reserves now attract two million visits a year. They help bring £66million into their local communities, supporting 1,872 local jobs – an 87 per cent increase since 2002.
This is small example of a wider picture - the environmental economy is growing. There are now something like 3.5 million jobs across Europe linked to low carbon infrastructure and that number is growing.
So, it is disappointing that there are mixed messages coming from Conservative ministers over the environment. In his speech to the Conservative Party Conference yesterday, the Chancellor, George Osborne seemed to shrug off the UK’s green responsibilities.
“Now we know that a decade of environmental laws and regulations are piling costs on the energy bills of households and companies.
Yes, climate change is a man made disaster.
Yes, we need international agreement to stop it.
Yes, we must have investment in greener energy. And that’s why I gave the go ahead to the world’s first Green Investment Bank.
But Britain makes up less than 2% of the world’s carbon emissions to China and America’s 40%.
We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business.
So let’s at the very least resolve that we’re going to cut our carbon emissions no slower but also no faster than our fellow countries in Europe.”
That’s what I’ve insisted on in the recent carbon budget”.
Mr Osborne and Mrs Spelman do not seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet.
There is a much quoted metaphor that sustainable development is a three-legged stool made up of environment, social and economic interests.
As the debate over the planning reforms demonstrates, more often than not, the economic leg is just a little bit longer.
More than ever we need a joined up government which recognises that the needs of people and the economy must be balanced by the needs of the environment.
So come on, Mr Osborne, go and have a chat with Mrs Spelman. She'll put you right.
There are two ways to debate the role of the EU.
First, you can ask whether the UK should be in or out. This was front page news for the Sunday Times and the Observer yesterday and no doubt will be a topic that draws in the crowds at Conservative Party conference this week in Manchester.
But there is another debate – one about how the EU should operate and, for example, spend one trillion euros of European taxpayers money in the next budget period of 2014-2020.
While this constitutes just 1% of the total GDP of all 27 Member States, it is still an awful lot of money and it is worthy of a public debate.
Fortunately, the EU Budget was the topic at a fringe meeting held last night. This was hosted by the RSPB in partnership with the Conservative Environment Network. That’s one of the benefits of hosting fringes – you get to decide the topic for yourself.I shared the panel with Richard Benyon, the Biodiversity Minister, Garvan Walshe from the CEN and Jorge Nunez from the Centre for European Policy Studies.
I tried to argue that it was important for the UK Government not to get side-tracked by the more fundamental debate and roll up their sleeves to negotiate a Budget deal which not only benefited the UK, but was also in the wider interests of the EU’s environment.
Unfortunately, debates at the European level have been dominated by the short-term interests of Member States each defending their own red lines: the French wanting to keep the Common Agriculture Policy, the Spanish fighting for the Common Fisheries Policy, the new Member States defending the Cohesion and Structural Funds and yes, the UK still arguing over the content of Baroness Thatcher’s handbag – the UK rebate.
The result at the moment appears to be stalemate – political leaders failing EU taxpayers who have a right to expect better value for money.
From an environmental perspective, the EU Budget is currently a disaster. While Member States struggle to meet their environmental commitments (many set at an EU level) for climate change or halting the loss of wildlife, a tiny proportion of the EU budget is allocated to supporting these objectives.
Let me give you an example, since the 1960s farmland birds in the UK have almost halved, while their declines across Europe are something like 44%. Species such as the skylark and yellowhammer provide the soundtrack to our summer but struggled to cope as farmers implemented EU policies which fundamentally changed with the may farms were managed.
This and the previous government have committed to reverse the declines of species such as farmland birds. And in recent years, more farmers have been rewarded for managing their land with wildlife in mind. They have received incentives – in the form of agri-environment schemes – to help provide the things that wildlife needs. In the case of farmland birds that means – a place to nest, spring and summer food for chicks and food to help birds survive the winter. We know that these schemes, when designed well, do work. For example, at our commercial farm in Cambridgshire we have managed to triple the number of farmland birds over the last decade whilst increasing our wheat yield.
These agri-environment schemes form part of what is known as Pillar II of the Common Agriculture Policy. Pillar I makes up the bulk of the CAP spend (2.5billion annually in the UK) and is principally a support payment for farmers linked to no particular public policy objective.
It is fair to say that agri-environment schemes are core to the UK Government’s business model for nature conservation – a point reinforced in its Natural Environment White Paper where it has signalled that it wants to make these schemes work harder for wildlife. The Minister was strong on this point and it is clear that he wants to reform these schemes so they have more of an impact.
Now CAP constitutes something like 40% of the EU Budget (c400 billion euros over a six year period) and new draft regulations outlining how this money will be spent will be announced on 12 October.
Latest rumours are that Pillar II – that provides the support for wildlife-friendly farming – remains vulnerable (particularly because this bit of the Budget requires match funding from Member States).
In any rationale world, a cut to Pillar II would be ludicrous as this is the bit of the Budget that provides demonstrable public benefit and provides credibility to the CAP. But, in the political horse-trading that will go on over the coming months and given the extremely tough economic climate, we think that it is right to be cautious and act to shore up Pillar II quickly.
As Jorge Nunez said last night – it is those bits of the Budget which provide the most benefits that are under threat.
There are similar concerns over reforms to the Common Fisheries Policy, Transport and other funding schemes. This is why it is simple insufficient to argue about the size of the budget, it is the quality of the spend that counts.
I am not naive enough to expect a particularly informed public debate about the EU Budget. But I do expect this Government to support its Biodiversity Minister in fighting for a EU Budget deal that delivers for wildlife in the UK.
We have a year to fix this.
The RSPB does many things, but we don’t do work much on waste.
Yet, this week we’ve two rather eye catching initiatives. The first is yesterday’s announcement by the Coalition Government that they’ve found £250 million to encourage local authorities to return to weekly household bin collections.
Well done Mister Pickles for finding the money – I wish I had that stashed behind my sofa.
But it is worth noting that research by the government’s own Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) found no difference, in terms of hygiene, between fortnightly and weekly collections and there’s certainly no economic or environmental justification for such largesse.
If Mr Pickles wanted to do something for the environment, wouldn’t the money have been far better spent plugging the UKs conservation financing gap, which stands at around £275 million?
Just a thought.
The second initiative is rather more heartening with the introduction of the Welsh Government’s levy on plastic bag use.
Single use plastic bags are bad news on the whole as they add to landfill, litter the countryside or, probably most damagingly, end up in waterways and the sea, where they are a hazard to marine life.
Shoppers in Wales will now need to pay 5p for every new single-use bag which should reduce usage and encourage people to think more about reducing waste.
The Irish led the way on this, introducing a levy in 2002. In England, we tried a voluntary approach which did reduce usage but did not achieve its target reductions. We still use around 6.5 billion single use bags a year.
Now we would expect a levy to significantly reduce use but at current usage rates. Indeed, the levy in Ireland cut plastic bag use by 90%. Still a 5p levy across the UK on current usage would raise £300 million – again just the job to properly fund our biodiversity objectives!
Earlier this year the UK Treasury showed enthusiasm for making greater use of green taxes. Let’s hope they have an eye on Wales, recall the failure of England’s voluntary approach and remember just what good value investing in nature can be.
Oh, and when you go shopping this weekend, remember to dig out an old bag from the pile you are storing in your cupboard...