It’s always the environment. Maybe they aren’t serious about efficiency after all?

It always seems to be Defra that gets hardest hit. A ten per cent cut means that it has suffered one of the worst cuts in Whitehall from Spending Review 2013, announced yesterday (June 26th). No-one doubts that these are tough times but increasingly it feels that the arguments so well put in the Natural Environment White Paper two years ago that ‘a healthy, properly functioning natural environment is the foundation of sustained economic growth, prospering communities and personal wellbeing’ are merely being paid lip service.

Of course the environment has long suffered from an inconvenient lack of fit with the electoral cycle. Trees, sadly, do not respect political timelines and whilst readers of this blog are familiar with the immense returns they offer, these tend not to fall within one Government’s term. It is essential however that a longer-term view is taken both for the well-being of the natural environment and for the economy. 

As we say in our reaction to this news, it is now vital that within Defra’s settlement, the value for money offered by woods and trees with their ability to deliver on many agendas across Government is secured; not least in relation to flood alleviation – which, ironically, was highlighted in the Chancellor’s statement as a priority. 

Plant health was identified as a priority in Defra’s latest business plan, also published yesterday. If Defra is serious about this then tackling the unprecedented threat to our woodland heritage from pests and diseases must be a top priority for public investment. Our own conference on tree health, held in Westminster today, will host 40 experts and aims to devise key next steps on how individuals and organisations can contribute to wider plans in the most effective way. 

Next week will see Defra present at the National Forestry Forum on steps towards achieving the promises made as part of England’s new Forestry Policy since it was published in January. Getting moving on those priorities will go a long way towards delivering on Defra’s business plan priorities around growing the rural economy, improving the environment and securing plant health.

The news that Forest Services – that part of the Forestry Commission which offers, support, advice, grants and regulation – will not be merged with the Environment Agency or Natural England is welcome. However the outcome of the review of forestry functions will tell us more about how serious government  is about establishing a new woodland culture.

Work done by the Forestry Commission shows that the forestry industries along with recreational visits to woods contribute £4.7billion to the economy. It has also been estimated that every household in Britain had access to quality green space it could save £2.1billion in health care costs whilst work also shows that  tree canopies can reduce surface water run off by up to 80% compared with asphalt. We’ve written many times before about the ability of woods and trees to deliver across a wide range of agendas but if that isn’t efficiency its hard to know what is. 

This talk of cuts however comes against a backdrop of the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin announcing that the costs of HS2 have spiralled upwards by £8 billion while  the rest of Whitehall has been hit by £11.5 billion of spending cuts. Some things it seems are exempt from the efficiency agenda.

Yesterday also saw further announcements of significant investment in infrastructure. All the evidence suggests that in its enthusiasm for ‘grey’ infrastructure, government has lost sight of the role of green infrastructure alongside it in creating healthy, functioning places where people will want to live work and spend leisure time. Woods and trees are central to the creation of such places and we will return to this theme over the coming weeks. 

Meanwhile, you can hear more about the environmental cost of the HS2 project next Wednesday when Michael Fabricant MP leads a debate in Parliament on its impact on ancient woodland.  It will be an important moment for all who care about our woodland heritage.

James Cooper, Head of Government Affairs


About Kaye Brennan

Trying vegan, staying warm. Occasional bursts of words.
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10 Responses to It’s always the environment. Maybe they aren’t serious about efficiency after all?

  1. Yet again, the government fails to put an real value on the environment and even, as Tony Judt points out in his last book, ‘Ill Fares the Land’, a real value on people (or E P Tompson’s idea of a ‘moral economy’). As other posters have mentioned, money (usually for a privileged few) seems to be the guiding principle of this and most previous governments. More than ever, today, we need to follow John Maynard Keynes’ advice when he said, many years ago, “Once we allow ourselves to be diobedient to the test of an accountant’s profit, we have begun to change our civilisation”.

    • edithkl says:

      Thanks so much for that quote “Ill Fares the Land” – it sounded familiar, and of course it is taken from that very long poem by Oliver Goldsmith called “The Deserted Village”.

      “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
      Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
      Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
      A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
      But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
      When once destroyed can never be supplied.”

      The whole poem is an accurate, moving description of the advantages of rural poverty over city wealth. The problems described by Goldsmith in the 18th century were “solved” by mass emigration from Britain and Ireland to emptier countries – but it was only a temporary solution. The exact same problems have recurred in Europe, and also have appeared for the first time right round all the newly industrialising countries in the world, in a ghastly domino effect.

      When young Spanish people can’t get jobs, they do not return to the land and the empty villages and rural “squalor”. They emigrate, to countries like Brazil or Germany that have exactly the same problems looming on the horizon as Spain does now.

      When the Europeans arrived in the USA, the Cree Indians did warn everyone that “Only when the last tree has died, the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught, will we realize that we cannot eat money.”

      The last lines of Goldsmith’s poem are:

      “Teach erring man to spurn the rage of gain;
      Teach him that states of native strength possessed,
      Though very poor, may still be very blessed;
      That trade’s proud empire hastes to swift decay,
      As ocean sweeps the laboured mole away;
      While self-dependent power can time defy,
      As rocks resist the billows and the sky.”

      So, not too gloomy, then! But that was in the 18th century, we are a lot further down the wrong road now.

      • How very true, Edith. Judt’s choice of title for his book was very apt – it’s a worrying reflection by a man about to die on how our values have changed for the worse from the post-war sense of altruism that gave birth to the Welfare State (and, indeed, created and promoted our National Parks) to the Thatcherite and post-Thatcher ideal of selfishness and the rule of wealth over every aspect of our lives.

        I love Goldsmith’s poem and, like you say, it ends in a sense of optimism about the predominant power of nature. I think we still have to retain a degree of optimism ourselves and also a belief that we CAN change things for the better, given the time, effort and an evangelical spirit about our precious countryside.

        It’s this sense of the power of nature to rejuvenate herself that I tried to portray in this poem:

        • edithkl says:

          Thanks, what a lovely poem. Photos and entire website a breath of fresh air wafting out of my laptop!

          I am further down the East Coast, it certainly has some wild places left all the way down to Dungeness. Plenty of trees too – our neighbour has a massive horse chestnut growing happily almost on the banks of the Great Ouse, next stop northwards Iceland and some strong icy winds from there, but the tree is fine. A little further to the East are Sandringham, Peter Melchett’s Courtyard Farm, Holkham, and Houghton – all full of truly magnificent old trees. Trees certainly are tough, that is why it is weird that they are succumbing to viruses and fungi in such large numbers..

          • Thanks Edith. I know East Anglia quite well, especially Suffolk, where my old friend the late RogerDeakin, author of Waterlog and Wildwood, lived. It’s a wonderful area – especially the coast. Orford is a particular favourite place.

  2. Pip Pountney says:

    I’m disappointed that Forest Services – that part of Forestry Commission which deals with giving advice, grants and regulation – will now NOT be merged with the Environment Agency or Natural England. No mention here that Forestry Commission also doles out felling licenses and is actively encouraging communities and organisations such as Wildlife Trusts to fell veteran trees (including oaks) in ancient woodland to sell as firewood as a money making exercise to fund other activities. Becoming answerable to other organisations may have modified the monopoly that Forestry Commission presently enjoys.
    We city dwellers have objected vigorously about the damage HS2 will cause to our local green environments and to the disruption of communities. How depressing then, to see local well loved woodlands being viewed as a resource and vandalised by those who should be protecting them. Of course, advice from Forestry Commission will be that this felling is a ‘good thing’. As with the debate over HS2 – money talks I’m afraid.

  3. Finn Holding says:

    This goverment proves time and again that the only concept it can understand or care about is money. That’s why the work of organisations like the Woodland trust is so vital, to ensure neither government nor electorate are allowed to forget about the fundamental importance of our green space.

    The economic case for HS2 seems to have been systematically dismantled but the coalition will proceed with it because the additional billions spent on it will go into the coffers of the contractor companies whose boards are filled with minister’s friends. It’s an awful lot of cash to gift to your mates!

  4. Valerie Smith says:

    When will.governments wake up and realise there is a positive link between open spaces, good environments and a healthy population,
    trees playing a vital part in the mix. Breaks my heart to think about the legacy we are leaving our children and grandchildren.

  5. Peter Kyte says:

    The environment, especially trees are probably not favoured because politicians may not have any financial interests in them, unlike HS2.

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