How long ago it seems when I was writing my last blog considering what impact a Liz Truss prime ministerial reign might look like.
Now, just a few weeks later we have a clearer idea – and the vision is an apocalyptic one for the environment.
The Truss plan is radical, and, as a number of commentators have noted, it’s come straight out of the “Tufton Street” Neoliberal libertarian think tanks, about which I have written many times over the last ten years of blogging (12 if you include my Grasslands Trust blogs). I don’t particularly want to go over that ground again, suffice to say the Institute of Economic Affairs, Policy Exchange, the Adam Smith Institute and the Taxpayer’s Alliance, to name but a few from that stable, are now very much embedded in Number 10 and ruling the roost.
We had already seen inklings of what was to come with the proposals for Freeports which had been trailed for some time. Now we can add Investment Zones, to Freeports – and these will essentially be regulation free zones, where planning rules are ignored – as well as low tax regimes. It’s not at all clear how big or small these Investment Zones will be. Our local MP the ignorant and arrogant Chris Loder, has suggested that one may cover parts of Weymouth and Portland. Note these are not Charter Cities, which are not being created in the UK, whatever conspiracy theorists believe. There is no need to creat Charter Cities, when Freeports and Investment Zones will do the job.
As long predicted, Truss’ plan includes sweeping away all EU laws. And many of these are about environmental protection and enhancement. The Bill now known as REULS – Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) will excise all UK laws which are derived from EU law – these are the ones that were rolled over more or less unchanged during the chaos of the May Government. Now Jacob Rees-Mogg plans to get rid of them all, by December 2023. This is the Sunset Clause. Ministers will have to come up with a really really good argument as to why an EU law is retained after that date. Even then they will most likely disappear in time for Brexit’s 10th Birthday – June 2026.
Aside from the sheer vandalism of wrenching 40+ years of established law from our statute book, without any consideration that these things might be doing good, it’s also just infantile behaviour. Firstly that all EU law has to be slashed, simply because it came from the EU. And secondly this obsession with symbols – who cares if it’s the 10th anniversary since the Referendum – what has that got to do with the law?
There’s a further point about REULS – it drives a cart and horses through the devolution settlement. The Environment has been a devolved matter since the devolved Parliaments were created and each country has gone their own way since then. But REULS will sweep away those devolved laws too. The Welsh Parliament response has so far been measured, but in Scotland ministers are incandescent. I honestly have never seen such a letter as this one, from the Scottish Government to Westminster.
This was in part a response to the plans set out in the “fiscal event” aka the mini budget: Kwasi Kwarteng’s blitzkrieg attack on some of the foundations of society. The mini budget report known as “The Growth Plan”, included the REULS proposals already published, plus some other pointers towards a broader deregulation agenda, including for Agriculture. The Growth Plan includes proposals for infrastructure projects: to “reduce the burden of environmental assessments; reduce the bureaucracy in the consultation process; reform the habitats regulations.”
What exactly is happening with Agriculture policy is still pretty unclear, but the Growth Plan included pointers towards less regulation, and more productivity – and included the announcement of a “rapid review” of the new post-Brexit agricultural reform process (called ELMS), which is supposed to be replacing the old CAP-based area payments with “public money for public goods. This is a concept I am sure everyone reading this will already be familiar with. Accusations that the NFU has persuaded Defra to return to area subsidies – or even worse, production subsidies, have been flying around this week. I think this is partly the fog of war. Defra has since been desperately trying to reassure everyone that ELMS is not being abandoned. Many are not reassured, not least because new farm minister Mark Spencer is so close to the NFU; and new Defra secretary of State Ranil Jayawardena seems to have no clue what is going on.
One good thing that has come from all this frenzy is a united front being presented by the environment NGOs, with RSPB and the National Trust pushing back very hard. The Attack on Nature campaign is already making a lot of waves – and the fact that the Scottish Government has effectively joined it, by using the slogan in their letter, speaks volumes. While RSPB’s million members (and highly effective Parliamentary lobbying team) will have created some worry in Defra and more broadly, The National Trust, with its Five Million members is another dimension of pain for the Government. If the NT can mobilise its members to cajole and pressure their MPs, or even start attending actions, this spells disaster for the Govt. I don’t know whether the NT has this level of detail on its membership, but I would expect a majority of them normally vote Conservative. So it’s not so surprising that the Govt and its outriders are actively attacking the NT and RSPB in its MP’s responses to campaign letters. This is going to get pretty nasty pretty quickly.
Of course all of this has been overshadowed by the other consequences of KamiKwasi’s mini budget. The pound has taken a pounding, Stock markets have crashed, Government borrowing costs have ballooned, and now Mortgage interest rates are skyrocketing. Just a perfect storm for Truss and Kwarteng to head off to the Tory party conference. I predict blood on the floor, possibly actual blood.
Now we have to wait for more detail on exactly what is being planned for the Freeports and Investment Zones.
[ Things move so quickly at the moment that a blog written at lunchtime can be out of date by teatime on the same day. My good friend Guy Shrubsole has just posted this on twitter, from today’s published Government guidance for Local Authorities submitting Expressions of Interest for Investments Zones]
We are also told that there will be a new Planning Reform plan coming out soon (remember the radical Jenrick Plan was thrown out by Michael Gove).
Plus there’s the ELMS Rapid Review.
Towering over all of these are planned spending cuts – perhaps as much as £40Bn worth. This sort of money means whole sections of the public sector will be axed. It will make the deregulatory turmoil and “bonfire of the quangos” of 2010 and 2011 look like a picnic.