Walking into the ‘Ideas Space’ lecture area at Policy Exchange Think Tank to hear Liz Truss deliver her first set piece speech on the natural environment, it struck me that it really wasn’t that long since Owen Paterson had delivered his own speech, setting out his vision for the natural environment, in the same place. Something I blogged on around this time last year.
Tuesday’s speech showed, as you would expect, a good deal of continuity. Owen Paterson’s speech was themed around ‘having it all’ and Liz Truss began by talking about the need to move away from the environment being seen as about ‘having less’ but instead being about ‘having more.’ Her central thesis being the belief that environmental and economic progresses depend on one another.
Something that came through very strongly, as has been highlighted by various commentators – was the importance of science and evidence. Given the emphasis the Woodland Trust places upon this aspect of its work – not least through the ObservaTree and Nature’s Calendar projects, where we engage the public (another important theme of Ms Truss’ early remarks on where the environment agenda needs to go) – we hope that our work in this area will be a key resource in underpinning future government policy.
Readers of this blog will also be interested to know that trees featured as prominently as any theme. Indeed Ms Truss stated that ‘trees have a unique place in British history, landscape and culture’ and went on to refer to some of the finest examples – inspired hopefully by recent political interest in the Tree of the Year competition.
We’d like to see this lead to dialogue around our V.I.Trees campaign, which has seen the Woodland Trust and Country Living magazine come together to call for a register to classify, celebrate and protect the UK’s nationally important trees. Good dialogue is underway already in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but as yet there has been no response from Defra – despite it receiving by far the largest number of messages of support from the public.
The most coverage for the speech has focused upon the announcement of a new National Pollinator Strategy. This is certainly something to be welcomed, but the decline in bees and other pollinators is a sign of a much wider underlying problem. A whole range of habitats and species contribute to a healthy environment and these ongoing losses need to be addressed. A diverse and well-connected environment is needed to support the natural services we are losing as a society such as pollination.
But… as ever when you find yourself nodding in agreement at something Defra ministers say about the importance of the natural environment and the desire to improve it, your mind starts wandering to what other members of ‘the greenest government ever’ (this aspiration was re-stated yesterday) are up to. So it was that yesterday my mind turned to the Infrastructure Bill currently at Report Stage in the Lords.
In fact, if there is one word which has dominated political vocabulary in recent years, perhaps even more than ‘deficit’, it is ‘infrastructure’. The Oxford Dictionary describes it as ‘the basic physical and organisational structures and facilities (e.g. buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.’
Infrastructure was a major preoccupation of the Brown government and the amount of words from the present Treasury team – let alone Transport ministers – leaves no one in any doubt that this is one of the most central preoccupations of the present regime.
Plenty has been said about HS2, and as far as the Woodland Trust is concerned one of the hallmarks of world-class modern infrastructure should be the extent to which it respects natural heritage, such as ancient woodland. HS2 doesn’t pay sufficient respect at present and we look forward to sharing that view in person with the Hybrid Bill committee in due course.
In the meantime however, the journey of the Infrastructure Bill through Parliament (the title of the Bill alone is designed to send out a signal) continues to preoccupy minds and is proving a source of concern to environmentalists as it heads towards the Commons.
A good deal of focus recently has been upon its potential implications for the Public Forest Estate and the issue of the transfer of so called ‘surplus’ public land to the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA). We raised this concern directly with the Forestry Minister at the All Party Parliamentary Group for Biodiversity on 21 October and have been lobbying hard behind the scenes about this for some time. We were pleased to hear Dan Rogerson’s reassurance that the Government has absolutely no intention of transferring or selling any part of the Estate to the HCA, and he suggested that an amendment to the Bill was not necessary.
Since then further reassurance, in writing, has come in the form of a strong written ministerial statement issued on Tuesday seeking to make the intention to exempt the PFE ‘crystal clear’. This and any further spelling out Government is prepared to give is naturally welcome. Therefore we were pleased that last night Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon promised to bring forward an amendment to the Bill at Third Reading making this even more plain.
However this isn’t a substitute for the bringing forward of legislation for the Public Forest Estate. We do still believe that a specific Forestry Bill to settle the future of the PFE – something we have long campaigned for – is the way to truly clear up any confusion on this and other issues. This remains a promise Government made but has still not delivered.
Nor should it lead people to think that wider environmental concerns around the Infrastructure Bill are all addressed. It’s important to remember that the Infrastructure Bill raises a whole series of issues for the natural environment that go beyond this possible risk to the Public Forest Estate. Identifying hidden pitfalls where the Bill could have a wider impact on the natural environment is where we will now be concentrating our efforts.
As colleagues have previously blogged, we are anxious to ensure that any proposed changes to speed up the system do not take place at the expense of the environment. Current concerns for us centre around changes to the so called ‘deemed discharge’ of planning conditions – the situations where when planning permission is granted it is subject to a number of conditions (we think that conditions relating to the natural environment should be exempt from such changes).
We also want to see the Bill’s plans to make the Highways Agency a government-owned company tasked with managing and operating England’s motorway and road network, accompanied by very clear responsibilities around protection of the environment.
If, as Ms Truss concluded her speech yesterday, ‘a healthy economy and a healthy environment go hand in hand in securing Britain’s future’ then these changes to the Infrastructure Bill are perfectly reasonable. It also begs the question of whatever happened to ‘green infrastructure’? –something it would be good to hear ministers talking about far more. But that’s one of the themes we will return to as the Bill moves to the Commons.
Dr James Cooper, head of government affairs