New Defra Secretary of State – A Little Too Quick Off the Blocks?

The Government’s latest statement on all things rural was released today; within days of new ministers sweeping into Defra HQ and hours of the Monday morning staff dutifully setting out chairs in the Nobel House atrium for departmental teams to hear about ‘the way ahead’ from the new Secretary of State. At the time of writing, (Thursday morning), we in the world outside are still not fully in the picture as to which responsibilities have fallen to which of his team members. 

The Rt. Hon. Owen Paterson MP is the new Secretary of State for the environment

The ministerial team is certainly in place, but as we approach the mid-point of Defra’s period of ‘conversations’ with the public and stakeholders about shaping the Government’s response to the report of the Independent Panel on Forestry, we are still unsure of who is picking up the reins, or who will front up the much promised (but not as yet scheduled) National Forestry Stakeholder Forum event(s). 

But, back to yesterday’s Rural Statement. It addresses some important issues and opportunities but makes no real mention of the natural environment, other than in the penultimate paragraph; something along the lines of ‘yes, we know we left it out, but today we are focusing on the economy and communities’. This is an unfortunate and probably unhelpful distinction. It is the massive and diverse asset base that makes up the natural environment that underpins much of the economic and social structure of rural areas – and making the most of those assets is of interest across many parts of Whitehall, well beyond the defining lines drawn by Defra. 

Conspicuous by its absence is any reference to the widely welcomed and well received recommendations of the Independent Panel on Forestry’s final report to Government – or at least the Government’s commitment to respond. The Panel’s report seemed to chime so well with the Government’s desire to see growth in green, sustainable, rural businesses and investment in our natural capital – safeguarding the vital soil, water and natural processes that underpin all of our rural fabric. 

Welcome though it is that the Statement recognises rural affairs as the responsibility of all Government departments not just Defra, it’s not what the Statement says that is the problem; it’s what it fails to say. At this stage it’s difficult to know if this emphasis represents the considered view of the ‘new team’ or something that was simply waiting in the out tray and has been hurried out the door a little too promptly. 

Austin Brady, Head of Conservation

About Kaye Brennan

Senior Campaigner (Policy & Advocacy) for the Woodland Trust and Administrator, 'Woodland Matters' blog
This entry was posted in Austin's blog, Climate Change, Government Affairs and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to New Defra Secretary of State – A Little Too Quick Off the Blocks?

  1. Jacquie Cox says:

    I had a look at the SoS’s (bit of a misnomer if you ask me) voting record over the last few years, and he come across as a bit of a fence sitter – voting first one way on an issue, then the other. A man who hardly ever rebels, and who, ” Voted [only] moderately for laws to stop climate change.”
    I am not sure how much can be achieved by a personal meeting with him, but some contact is probably better than none.

    One would be forgiven for thinking that when it comes to Government, woodland ‘IS only for Christmas’ (to pilfer a term from another admirable charity), especially with an election only a few years off now, and the need to improve the economy taking priority above all else. And that is fair enough – who worries about woodland when they can’t pay their bills?

    There was some comment in the Rural Statement about sustainable agriculture, and a commitment of sorts to making sure the next round of the Common Agricultural Policy values ‘improved environmental performance’. The Rural Economy Growth Review referred to in the Rural Statement, also makes some funding available for grants as part of the Environmental Stewardship schemes. Admittedly, no mention was made of the Independent Panel on Forestry’s report. It is all rather vague and disappointing, but the government knows that if they say anything more specific on the matter, then they will surely be held to every word, by the many supporters of the Woodland Trust for one.

    The thing to remind people of, including the Ministers and the SoS, is the contribution that woodland makes to the economy. For those with a passion for green things the emphasis may be on the historic importance or intrinsic aesthetic value, or in terms of biodiversity, or they may associate it with a personal interest in bees and butterflies, or as a habitat for endangered species and so on. But right now the government cares about jobs, and the economy, and U-turns on green issues are easily justified by the need to grow the economy – the resurgence of the argument for a third runway at Heathrow springs to mind.

    Just about every political news topic can be linked in some way to the importance of woodland. Take the NHS for example … access to woodland and to green spaces makes for physically, emotionally and spiritually healthier citizens, which in turn saves the NHS money. In terms of jobs, woodland and green spaces directly and indirectly supports jobs in sectors as diverse as education, tourism, and forestry. After the Olympics the government is big on tourism again – well we won’t have too many tourists if this is no longer a ‘green and pleasant land’. Ancient forests are a selling point, and Ministers need to be sold on it.

    As the Rural Statement made clear, the next few years is all about jobs, and saving and making money. The promise that this Conservative government is going to be the greenest ever is quickly forgotten. The Trust needs to hitch it’s wagon to that particular donkey, no matter how distasteful, and make woodland all about jobs and money.

    Apologies for the rant!

  2. Julie Taylor says:

    Perhaps we need a quick reminder to Owen Paterson just how many people are watching his every move regarding the Forestry Panel Report – a bit like 38degrees have just done to Jeremy Hunt when he took over at Health.
    https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/page/s/jeremy-hunt-open-letter#petition

    “Every move you make, every step you take I’ll be watching you” … as the Sting sang in that old Police song.

    • Kaye Brennan says:

      Hi Julie – a reminder’s not a bad idea🙂 We’re trying a more personal approach at this early stage, seeking to secure a meeting with the new SoS to discuss in particular the Government’s response to the Forestry Panel Report. If we need to ramp things up though we will be sure to let you all know!

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