‘Improving the environment and growing the economy. Can we have it all?’ was the theme of Owen Paterson’s lecture at the influential think tank, Policy Exchange, last night. Given the context of relentless focus across the political spectrum on economic growth this would have been interesting anyway, but it was given added spice by this week’s Nature Check report criticising the Government’s record on the natural environment. Further interesting context was provided by Policy Exchange’s report on the urban environment this week on which the Woodland Trust has been quoted in the media.
The essential thrust of Paterson’s speech was of course to answer: yes. It was never going to be otherwise given the brief he has been given by the Prime Minister but it did also provide an interesting and lively tour around the underpinning of his thinking and how this linked into wider Tory thinking. Edmund Burke’s quote that we are ‘the temporary possessors and life renters’ of the earth who must not ‘leave to those who come after a ruin instead of a habitation’ was therefore used (pity Burke isn’t more widely read by those approving planning applications around ancient woodland, some might say).
There were a number of themes that recurred in the speech, some of which might be expected: that he believed we needed the proceeds of growth in order to invest in protecting and enhancing the environment and that such growth itself depends on a healthy natural environment; that the environment in Britain is overwhelmingly managed by man and that improving the environment has to be a partnership, his view that Government can’t and shouldn’t do it all; the need to ‘work with the grain of the countryside’ and harness ‘the enthusiasm that millions have for nature.’ ‘Practical environmentalism’ generally came across quite strongly as a theme.
Some who witnessed the speech have commented that it had a rural bias and that it did not refer to climate change. It also unsurprisingly demonstrated that Paterson’s enthusiasm for offsetting remains undimmed. The need for the planning system more generally to consider environmental value from the very start was also mentioned and is to be welcomed, though of course that needs to be understood in DCLG to have teeth.
Readers of this blog will wonder what it meant for trees, and they did not lack for mentions. The Grown in Britain initiative was singled out for praise as was the OBSERVAtree project where the Woodland Trust and National Trust were mentioned in what Paterson described as ‘a brilliant example of how we can harness the enthusiasm of the public to benefit the natural environment.’
Forestry, Paterson said, is ‘leading the way in demonstrating how a healthy environment and economic growth can go hand in hand’. The old statistic that we have the woodland cover of the time of Chaucer was also cited – prompting, as when the Government first came out with that line, plenty of thoughts about quality and location. The aspiration of 12% cover by 2060 was also re-stated, prompting a raised eyebrow given current issues around there being no new grants available under the Woodland Grant Scheme (WGS) in England – the subject of a current Woodland Trust campaign.
There were a number of questions at the end including from one from me on the current WGS situation. Paterson’s response was that the issue was not as black as we were painting it (we hope not!), it was being looked at and that he had a strong record on standing up on tree issues notably tree disease.
However what increasingly occurred to me during proceedings was that actually, for most people, the ‘having it all’ in the title isn’t simply about wealth and economic growth; its about health too. The Natural Environment White Paper is supposedly a cross-government strategy – something Paterson’s predecessor deserves credit for – and one of the most critical cross-Government connections is with health.
I asked about this and Paterson praised the work of the Woodland Trust in this area, talked about the need to work together on it and said that he had spoken with both Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove regarding the role of trees in delivering on their agendas.
I don’t know if the PM did say what he is alleged to have said about ‘green crap’ in relation to green levies; its unfortunate that this, rather than a debate about the issues arising from last night’s speech, is what is most exercising environment correspondents today. However, if he – or any other minister – heard the speeches and sampled the mood at our ‘Healthy woods, healthy lives’ Westminster reception the other week he would have been impressed by the ability of woods and trees to bring people together and improve lives.
We may or may not be able to ‘have it all’. But what we can confidently say is that woods and trees deliver on an impressively wide range of policies whilst improving our quality of life in a more meaningful way perhaps than can be easily measured by those whom Burke once called ‘sophists, economists and calculators’.
James Cooper, Head of Government Affairs