Coronavirus diary: the Virus that did a no-deal Brexit on our food supply

It seems inconceivable that it was only a year ago (tomorrow) when the UK was due to crash out of the EU under a no deal Brexit. Thankfully that crisis was averted. Leading up to that momentous non-event, I wrote about what might happen to our food supply in the event that our smooth trading relationship with the EU broke down utterly. One year on, we find ourselves in a remarkably similar position – thanks to a Pangolin, or rather thanks to people wanting to eat Pangolins & turn them into medicine. Don’t blame the Pangolin.

Our food supply is part of a small number of “essential” things on which life depends. Food, water, housing (and the means to heat it when it’s cold). That’s it. Anything else we might like to think are essentials – well, we are just kidding ourselves. That includes mobile phone signal, the internet, even twitter. It wouldn’t be much of a life, but those are the things which ensure we remain alive.

While we have a plentiful supply of water (far too much in some places after the record breaking rainfall of the winter) and increasingly our electricity supply is provided by reneweable energy sources, we are still dependent on fossil fuel gas to heat our homes. Some of that comes from the North Sea still but much is pumped to the UK from Norway or, indirectly, Russia. The supply lines remain intact and there’s no reason to think that will change for the foreseeable future. There is no shortage of housing either – its just that like so many other resources, it’s allocated very unequally. The Govt, after long doing nothing to prevent a mushrooming in the numbers of homeless people on our streets, has now decided that the homeless must be housed, as a matter of urgency. It’s given the task to Local Authorities, who are supposed to have, by now, found emergency accommodation, in hotels emptied by the Pandemic. That the Government forced those same hotels to place their staff on furlough, before deciding that they were needed, after all, is just another example of the Government lurching from one reactive response to another. That is in the nature of crises though.

Which brings us to food. Previously, in the pre-coronavirus (PCV if you like) world, lots of people eat out, bought take-aways, bought ready-meals and cooked. Many relied on foodbanks. Not because of a  shortage of food, but because of poverty. Food was plentiful. Supermarket shelves groaned under the weight of it. Want to buy an apple? Here, look at 15 different varieties from all over the world.

UK farm produce went to supply factories producing ready meals, to supermarkets (though only a few apples were UK grown), but it also went into the foodservice sector. Foodservice is, or rather was, a massive sector using UK farm produce and imports. I’ve been trying to find figures for how much UK farm produce ended up in meals provided by everyone from MacDonalds to the Roux Brothers. It’s tricky. For dairy, AHDB estimated that foodservice took 8M litres of fresh milk a week, 8% of total UK production. conversely, of course, domestic demand for fresh milk has soared, placing additional pressures on suppliers and the supply chain. Large dairy business Mueller, which recently laid off staff, is now desperately trying to recruit 300.

The beef in beefburgers, the potatoes for chips in fish and chips, the Lamb going into Indian restaurants, all of these supply lines have stopped, practically overnight. Some of this will be redirected into the delivery trade (deliveroo etc), but PCV 80% of the foodservice  sector was eating out. You just can’t redirect that much food into hom e delivery.

 

 

 

For some food products then, there’s a big surplus being built up, because people are not eating out any more, but the supply chain is yet to be reconfigured to convert that produce into a form in which it can be transported and packaged for supermarkets. This is happening now, but under pressure from a number of sources. The main one being lack of workforce. We’re already hearing about shortfalls in the workforce because of sickness and self-isolation. This applies across the entire supply chain, from farm workers, pickers and packers, delivery drivers and shop workers. That our food industry was already so dependent on overseas workers (both EU and non-EU) (again remember Brexit?), who are now stuck unable to travel due to coronavirus lockdowns, has only further exacerbated an existing crisis.

So for some domestically produced food there’s a surplus and a blockage in the supply chain. As a result Lamb prices have collapsed, because people are not eating out, and exports being disrupted. Under a no deal Brexit, it was predicted lamb prices would drop 30%. Coronavirus has seen them drop 36%. For the lamb industry, Coronavirus is no-deal Brexit by another route. I’m going to make a prediction here. People are not going to start buying up the surplus of lamb to cook at home. It isn’t going to happen, even if there was a big campaign to get people to buy and eat lamb ( because there have been many over the years). Even if lamb was being given away free with every pint of milk, it probably wouldn’t make much difference. I think the nation has fallen out of love with lamb.

Anyway we aren’t going to run short of meat. We’re more than self-sufficient in beef, lamb, chicken, pork. We may have to change our habits and start eating chicken brown meat, instead of demanding that we must have white. Again, all of this was predicted in the context of a no deal Brexit. It’s almost uncanny, as though Coronavirus has come along and said

“you know all those predictions about a no deal Brexit screwing up your food supply chain? Well predict no more. I’m here to show you how it plays out.”

But, as well all know (or almost all of us anyway) meat is not an essential part of our diet. We do have to eat fruit and vegetables though. And this is where it gets really tricky, because we import around 75% of our fruit and veg. Much of that comes from Spain, the Netherlands and Italy. So while we will have potatoes for a while (they were lifted last Autumn), we rely on imports for things like tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, lettuce, courgettes and cucumbers. Tinned tomatoes from Italy.

And again, as if Coronavirus was some spectre of no-deal Brexit, the two countries hit hardest by the virus in the EU, are Spain and Italy. Exports of fruit and veg from Spain rely on workers being supplied to the vast acreages of horticulture in southern Spain. workers driven to farms in minibuses. Shared minibuses, full of Moroccan workers. Morocco is now also suffering a large CV outbreak. Morocco has closed its border with Spain.

This is happening across Europe. Seasonal workers, which are the backbone of the food supply system, are unable to travel, or unable to work through sickness and self-isolation.

Food policy experts Tim Lang and Erik Millstone have already called for food rationing to be introduced, not by the supermarkets, but by the Government. They are usually right, and they are right this time. Rationing needs to be combined with a voucher system that ensures those in greatest need (and the poorest) have access to the most nutritious food, regardless of income.

Rationing is needed for three reasons – firstly because the food bank system providing food to those who cannot afford it, has been overwhelmed and the Government must step in to stop people going hungry. This has been exacerbated by schools closing, preventing free school meals from relieving some of the hunger pressure.

Secondly because the supply chain problems I have described are rapidly coming down the line towards us and essential supplies of fruit and veg are going to dwindle.

Thirdly, perhaps most importantly, is because everyone has to have as healthy a diet as possible and we need to ensure that food is distributed fairly and equitably. A healthy diet means a healthy immune system, which helps people to cope with illness, like novel viruses. Fruit and veg provide our bodies with the vitamins, minerals and micro nutrients which keep our immune system functioning properly. Oily fish is also essential for the same reasons. At the moment, food is not flowing to where it’s needed; it’s still flowng according to who has most access to the system and that’s partly down to income. While the Government has gone some way towards guaranteeing people’s incomes after the income they previously derived from work has disappeared (almost overnight), there are still huge holes and delays in the system.

A rationing and voucher system would ensure that everyone was able to get the food they need, without having to worry about whether they could afford it.

What else can we do, as individuals? Those of us lucky enough to be in a position to do so, need to crack on and grow as much food as we can, as this will reduce pressure on the system. And, until rationing comes in, everyone else needs to make sure they don’t throw away any food that can be eaten, which means only buying food that’s definitely going to be eaten.

 

 

Posted in Brexit, coronavirus, Food, food security | Tagged , , , | 12 Comments

Coronavirus diary: Libertarians, Pandemics and Populism

I had a bit of a cough yesterday. My wife and younger daughter had been ill the previous week with a typical winter bug. Was I fighting it off, or was it the beginnings of the dreaded coronavirus-19? Many thoughts flashed through my anxiety-ridden mind. Could I go and see my 89 year old mum, isolating to avoid catching it from anyone. In the end the cough didn’t become persistent, I felt better by the afternoon. Panic over. Perhaps the cough appeared as a result of Corona-anxiety, I don’t know. I feel fine this morning.

Many other people also felt fine – partly I suspect because the weather was so beautiful. How ironic, after the relentless rain of the eternal Autumn (Winter never appeared here in Dorset), that in the week we were implored not to go out, the weather should finally turn sunny and dry. And off they went, crowding the coastal resorts, crowding the Lake District, the Peak District, and every other National Park I expect. The National Trust, having bravely opened its parks and gardens to the public for free, to encourage them to go outdoors and enjoy the Spring, now found themselves having to shut up shop, because so many had taken up their kind offer. Scenes of crowded parks litter Social Media, generating a tidal wave of criticism, of these selfish people spreading the virus.

What is going on? I think it’s partly of the Government’s own doing.  The Government, now being run by the likes of Dominic Cummings and his mates from the Vote Leave campaign, who are in turn drawn from a small cabal of activists on the libertarian right – all of whom work for a small group of “think tanks” mostly based in Tufton Street, Westminster. These are the people who have spent the last twenty years quietly plugging away at a narrative, a narrative which finally came to fruition in the Brexit campaign.

The narrative is simple – Government is bad. The state is bad, it is by its very nature oppressive. It inevitably gets in the way of the Natural Order of things. The Natural Order is that everyone is an individual and that individual liberty is more important than anything else. And that the natural collective of individual liberty is enshrined in the Market. Public Spending is bad because it’s Taxpayers Money, being stolen from them by the state. Public services are therefore bad and need to be privatised. The private sector is part of the Natural Order of things and will always do a better job than the public sector. Rich people are rich because they worked harder or deserve to be rich. The poor are either lazy or stupid. Interestingly this point is one of the intersectional points between the Libertarian (or Hard) Right and the Authoritarian or Far Right. The Eugenic theories espoused by the likes of Toby Young and Dominic Cummings seek to provide a pseudo-scientific justification for the argument that “the poor are genetically inferior, which is why they will always be poor.”

Everything that gets in the way of the Natural Order must be swept away. This includes Regulation, the Civil Service, The BBC, and anyone who seeks to challenge the narrative of the Natural Order. Money should also have its own liberty, and be free to flow wherever it can. If that means it all ends up in the pockets of multi-billionaires, massive transglobal corporations and offshore tax havens, that is part of the Natural Order.

Naturally multi-billionaires, massive transglobal corporations and offshore tax havens are the places where money also flows from, into the coffers of those Think Tanks in Tufton Street – the Taxpayers Alliance, Policy Exchange, The Institute of Economic Affairs, The Adam Smith Institute, the Centre for Policy Studies, etc etc.

Think back over the past 20 years and there have been some very significant victories by the Libertarian Right –

they saw off plans for the UK to join the Euro.

They put a massive hole in the public’s perception of trust in (Westminster) politicians with the expenses scandal.

They cemented the idea that public spending was bad in the media. It’s a basic Libertarian tenet, but it was dressed up as Austerity in the wake of the 2008 financial crash.

They saw off electoral reform in the no 2 AV campaign.

They poisoned the mind of the public against the EU resulting in the Brexit win. In doing so they simultaneously exploited the rise of populism across Europe (and more widely) and the opportunities to be gained from weaponising social media as a propaganda tool.

Having created this narrative so successfully, Cummings and his Tufton Street mates seized power in 2019. Let’s face it, with Jeremy Corbyn and his own little cabal running the Labour Party into the ground, and with a pliant media to pump out their slogans, it was, in hindsight, an easy win. The ground was prepared to transform Britain – or perhaps Greater England, as Northern Ireland would need to be sacrificed to have any decent sort of trade deal with both the US and the EU, while Scotland would only become ever more restive – into their dream: the small state, everything privatised, dream. With the clown Johnson as their front man/patsy, the stage was set.

Then came the Coronavirus, like Banquo at Macbeth’s feast. Or Thanos, if you prefer a modern analogy. The natural response from the Natural Order boys (and they are almost all boys), was “it’s all part of the natural order, we must let the virus spread through the population so the healthy will survive and everyone will have herd immunity.” That’s straightforward Social Darwinism, the survival of the richest, who can disappear off to their second homes  in the Caribbean or sail out to safe places in their superyachts. Once it became clear that not only would half a million people die in very short order of CV-19, but many others would also die because the NHS had collapsed under the strain, panic set in. The awful truth dawned – The Government would have to Do Something.

Consider what the exquisite messaging that had been deployed by Cummings & His Mates:

Don’t Trust Politicians. They are all self-serving liars.

Take Back Control

Give the People The  Power to Decide for Themselves.

The People’s Parliament.

The People’s Budget.

you get the idea. The Libertarians aren’t interested in populism other than as a mean to their ends, which is dismantling state and public power.

Now, the Government was going to have to take control, to start telling people what to do. The messages are simple – wash your hands and keep 2m away from other people. But the messages coming from Johnson and the Government have been disastrous. Firstly they prefer to persuade, the Nudge Unit, another bit of fake science, was tasked with producing messages to persuade, and came up with the Herd Immunity line. Secondly they gave the job to inveterate liar Johnson.

Not surprisingly the messages have failed to get through. Instead we’ve lurched through a series of mishaps and delays, before finally closing pubs and other public gathering places, finally closing schools. Weeks have been wasted.

Instead of a wall to wall public information campaign we have dribs and drabs, a daily press conference with  Johnson at the helm, automatically negating any credibility it might have.

But the biggest problem is that, having told the public for years to mistrust politicians, take back control and decide things for themselves, that is exactly what a significant chunk of the public are doing. Can they really be blamed? This, coupled with a traditional “I’m alright Jack” British exceptionalism, will prove, is proving fatal.

Given that in order to be effective, a large section of the public need to act on the key messages (hand washing and social distancing), two paths now offer themselves.

The “Herd Immunity” path is still there. Without a massive behavioural change from the public, the virus will spread, exponentially. The NHS will fall over. Half a million and more will die in a very short time. Mass Graves. Essential workers not at their stations. The fabric of society will be threatened, as food and energy supplies come under pressure. The Army will be on the streets.

The other path is scarier for the Libertarians. It’s a strong state, verging on the authoritarian, as has already happened in France, Spain and Italy. Permission is needed to venture outside your home. Gatherings are banned. Perhaps even the state takes over the media to pump out the necessary messages. The state has already taken over paying people’s wages, or at least made several large steps in that direction. Next will be essential services being brought into state ownership, including the food supply. This is, after all, what happened in the last great national crisis, World War Two.

Which would you prefer?

 

 

 

 

Posted in coronavirus, Dominic Cummings, populism | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Coronavirus: an education paused.

My dad’s been on my mind. It’s coming up to ten years ago when he died, after a long and valiant fight against Leukaemia. His consultant was talking about a miracle, they’d never known someone of his age recover from AML (Acute Myeloid Leukaemia). It had been 9 months since the very aggressive chemotherapy which had saved his life the previous Summer. Then it returned. He got pneumonia and died.

For me, he’s always there, in music. He loved music. He used to come home from a stressful day at work (in the City) with a new LP (or CD once they had come in) and sit and listen to it on his very expensive hi-fi. He knew so much about music. He knew a great deal about a lot of things. He was eternally curious, hungry for knowledge. An insatiable hunger. At least until after the Chemo. It slowed him down, slowed down his hunger. He spent much more time watching the telly.

I was talking to a very old friend yesterday. We were talking about our dads. He said he always remembered my dad and his knowing, his gentle way of introducing some snippet of knowledge into a conversation – it was never bragging. On any subject, he knew stuff – but he really knew his stuff, I mean academic level knowledge, on Music (classical, jazz), History but especially military history, Art, West Ham, Cricket, Politics. He read voraciously and absorbed knowledge.

And the amazing thing is he had a fractured and short formal education. Born in 1933, when the war, the Blitz, really hit East London in 1940 he was 7. The schools closed and didn’t re-open until 1945. Critical years of his education were lost. Or rather he learnt in a very small group, sitting with someone’s mum in a house away from the wreckage. He learnt about unexploded bombs, and what to do when the engine on a doodle bug cut out, he learnt what a 500kg bomb did when it landed on an Anderson shelter. He learnt how to cope with a father who was away working for months at a time. He learnt how to look after his mum.

He passed the eleven plus which must have been in Spring ’45 and went to the local Grammar School. Four years of (very good) education there and that was it. No A levels. No university. He went straight to work at 16. Years later he did a couple of A levels in evening classes and moved to a good job with a merchant bank. But he never stopped learning.

Coronavirus means most schools and sixth form/FE colleges will close today or have closed already – aside from providing a place for the children of key workers to be looked after, and also to keep their minds active. The curriculum will not be relevant. That curriculum that Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings spent so much time shaping, designing, down to the last detail. Which books are to be studied, in what way. Which periods of history are to be investigated, which sources are to be used. The phrase social engineering comes to mind. And don’t get me started on abandoning assessed coursework for end of syllabus exams. The teachers generally do their best with what they are required to teach, despite the straitjacket of the curriculum, the endless testing, the terror of Ofsted, the oppression of league tables.

Will the schools open again in September? That is just one of the many unknowns that swirl around us now. I wouldn’t assume that they will. We are in uncharted waters.

What can we do, as parents, to encourage our children to continue to expand their minds, and develop useful skills that they will need in the future, in their lives. Leaving aside the apocalyptic visions (“this is how you set a snare to catch a rabbit), there are lots of things we can do.

1. Get outside. Nature is out there. It’s depleted, it’s damaged, it’s suffering, but it is there, doing its own thing, and also as a resource for us. Firstly being out in the fresh air, listening to bird song, smelling the smell of new growth, enjoying the flowers. These are all good for our mental health and wellbeing, they reduce anxiety levels (which are sky high).

2. Learning the names of the animals and plants is not necessary to enjoy their existence. But it is a good thing to do, as it stimulates our brains. Learning new things keeps our minds active, in childhood and adulthood.

3. Take up a musical instrument. The simplest cheapest one is your own voice. Everyone can sing. Playing music, singing, especially together, is one of the most fulfilling experiences we can have. It’s no wonder those images and sounds of spontaneous collective singing from Italy captured the world’s imagination. If you learnt to play something but dropped it years ago, have another go. There are more and more groups forming online where you can join in via facetime or skype or whatever.

4. Be creative in other ways. Write, paint, carve a piece of wood – do these things with your children. All of these things bring joy but also distract us from the awful reality and the anxiety, which can be worse than the illness.

5. If you have a garden, make the most of it. Grow food of course, but also flowers. Or just sit and notice all the wildlife that is also living there. If you don’t have a garden, find someone who does. Or join local community farms, gardens, allotments.

After all this is over, we need to rethink education. What is it for? Who is it supposed to benefit? It feels like we have gone a long way down the wrong path. Our education system is failing too many children, leaving them with very serious mental health problems. There’s been far too much emphasis on testing, on performance, encouraging ridiculous notions of a market place for schools.

For a Government so obsessed with testing in the education system, this lot seem remarkably unenthusiastic about coronavirus testing. Why is that?

Get rid of stupid school league tables. They do nothing for children’s education, other than place additional burdens on them.

Get rid of Ofsted – it’s a toxic presence in the country’s educational bloodstream.

Get children out of the classroom more.

Encourage creativity – as an end in itself.

Rant over.

Posted in covid-19, education | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Coronavirus Spring

I’ve held off writing anything about the Coronavirus crisis until now. This is partly down to having other stuff to do, and partly because things are moving so fast at the moment, it’s hard to see beyond the latest headline. But as we’re all going to have more time to read stuff in the coming weeks and months, it’s irresistible for someone who has an urge to write, as I do, not to do so. I’ll try and avoid writing anything hysterical or just adding to the existing maelstrom of anxiety.

Where did it all start? Coronaviruses such as SARS and SARS 2 aka Covid-19, appear to live, under normal circumstances, in Horseshoe Bats and Pangolins (a kind of scaly Anteater) in South-East Asia. The closely related MERS is a virus which lives in Dromedaries in the Arabian peninsula. It looks like a precursor to Covid-19 passed from Pangolins in the Chinese medicine/wild meat trade, to humans some time last year. The precursor then mutated into Covid-19, such that it could very effectively infect humans  – and the pandemic was born. Researchers were already studying a very diverse set of Coronaviruses in Pangolins last year, before the pandemic began in China. But there’s no evidence that the virus is genetically engineered or escaped from a lab.

There’s a massive illegal trade in Pangolins to provide meat and scales to the mainly Chinese market, particularly for Chinese medicine. So it’s a fairly straightforward fact that the wildlife trade in general and the trade supplying Chinese herbal medicine specifically, caused this virus to infect humans. Some have sought to exploit this fact to blame China and even seek reparations for the economic impact.

 

 

This would open up a very large can of infected worms. Would the surviving indigenous peoples of the Americas claim reparations against unspecified European nations for unwittingly bringing smallpox to them, which wiped out millions? There’s even some evidence that it was deliberately used as a genocidal weapon against indigenous peoples in North America. Let’s set aside such ill conceived and inflammatory suggestions and  ignore their writers. Remember these are the same people who wanted Brexit, to break free from the chains of oppression created by the EU; who wanted to shrink the size of the state, remove all but the flimsiest of safety nets and place all our faith in the markets.

Talking of markets….no, let’s leave that till later.

Covid-19 has spread like wildfire, as other pandemics have before it. the 1918 Influenza pandemic was spread around the world by soldiers, initially from the US to France during the final year of the First World War; then as those soldiers returned home. My Australian granny caught it when she was 18 and obviously survived otherwise I wouldn’t be here to write this. It spread more slowly in the age before air travel.

The 2009 swine flu epidemic spread much more rapidly, as a result of air travel. I can remember our eldest daughter being sick in a Heathrow baggage collection hall, after picking up swine flu on a trip to Vienna, poor thing. The virus was widespread by then, I hasten to add. This is different. This isn’t flu. The reason the swine flu pandemic fizzled out was because a significant chunk of the global population already had some immunity to it. No-one has any immunity to covid-19 – and we don’t even know if anyone, who’s already had it, has gained immunity to it for the future yet. It might, like seasonal flu, mutate again and again.

How many will catch it and how many will die? Nobody knows the answer to that. But what is clear is that countries with good health services are better able to support people who become gravely ill as a result of catching the virus. But even some of those are struggling – Italy and Spain for example. Others seem to be doing much better – South Korea and Germany. And also it appears that countries doing a lot of testing and contact tracing (China, South Korea, Hong Kong), are getting on top of the infection much more effectively than others. Whether they will be able to keep on top of outbreaks in the long run is another unknown.

This brings me to the UK. It’s difficult to be certain what’s going on here. This is partly because the information coming out of Government has been patchy and confusing. But it’s also partly because we’re in the middle of a major crisis and lots of things will not become public until long afterwards. We’re used to having information instantly available to everyone all the time thanks to the internet, 24/7 rolling news and social media.

As we have learnt over the past five years, this is both a blessing and a curse. Information can be manipulated, and the more there is out there, the more difficult it is to see what’s fake, what’s conspiracy theory, what’s well intended but wrong, and what’s accurate. I hope I’m not adding to this with this piece. I’m certainly trying not to.

What we do know if that the virus is spreading and it’s spreading rapidly. I’m in rural Dorset and so far we only have two known cases. But of course as there has been nowhere near enough testing, it’s inevitable that there will be more people out there who are infected, often showing no symptoms. It’s best to assume that wherever you go, you’re at risk of picking up the virus.

At the moment we can still go outside – for a walk, to enjoy the Spring. I fully intend to continue doing this and report back on what I have seen.

A couple of days ago I went to Kingcombe Meadows nature reserve, the jewel in the crown of Dorset Wildlife Trust’s reserve network. I try and go every year at this time to see the Moschatel, or Town Hall Clock. This diminutive green-flowered plant grows along an ancient green lane at Kingcombe – it’s often found growing on old wood banks in ancient woodland. It’s a difficult plant to photograph on a phone so apologies as these don’t really capture its loveliness. I suppose the thing I find particularly endearing about it is that it appears very early in the Spring and does its thing before almost any other plant has started; and its persistence and longevity. It’s a plant of old places, growing slowly and spreading along undisturbed places – albeit places created by humans in the long past. It to me suggests quiet continuity, resilience. Perhaps that’s a useful message in these days of panic buying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not going to offer any sage pieces of advice on what needs to happen next, what the Government has got right or wrong, the pros and cons of helicopter money, or even whether we should celebrate the fact  that industrial pollution levels have plummeted alongside the collapse in economic activity.

Suffice to say we are living in a very different society than we were even a month ago and that things will continue to change. Perhaps some things will never be the same again? who knows.

All I will say is that it’s more important than ever that we all look after each other, support each other and do what we can to help – to help our families and friends, to help our local communities and wider society. I think it’s inevitable that a few unscrupulous people will take advantage of this crisis – whether it’s Hedge Fund owners “shorting” businesses to make a quick killing, fly tippers seeing an opportunity to save a few quid; or toilet roll hoarders looking to turn a profit on ebay. This is not something any of us can do anything about other than to avoid them, refuse to take part, and where necessary report miscreants to the relevant authority.

Bear in mind though that all public services are under incredible strain – that’s the NHS, the forces, the emergency services, local authorities, public bodies, the civil service, the lot. We all need to do everything we can to avoid adding to their already huge burden; and we need to support them where we can. They were already reeling from 10 years of savage cuts in funding and loss of key staff and expertise.

I’ll continue to post here and on the People Need Nature website, exploring Spring and encouraging you all to get outside and enjoy it as much as we can. It is, after all, free and universally available. And it can be enjoyed while applying the 2m social isolation zone!

 

 

 

 

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Another wildlife-rich grassland planted with trees

Following last week’s post about tree planting on a very species-rich grassland in Cumbria, organised by the Woodland Trust, I’ve been contacted with another story of a similar nature, in Cheshire.

This time it’s a piece of lowland acid grassland – about 0.8ha of what may well be a very unusual species-rich form of acid grassland, as it supports a large population of Lathyrus linifolius (montanus previously) commonly known as Bitter vetch.

According to the source “Around 2 years ago the local community helped to plant it up with trees sourced through a Woodland Trust fund.” When the WT were approached and asked why they had planted up a species-rich grassland and whether they would do anything about it, they did nothing about it.

 

 

 

The grassland is not a County Wildlife Site but is being considered as one, in the hope that if it meets the criteria the owners can be persuaded to remove the trees and start grazing it again.

Nearby sites on similar geology support an interesting range of neutral and acid-loving plants, which would easily qualify them as SSSI. This type of grassland also supports internationally important communities of fungi, particularly waxcaps.

Once again we see the Woodland Trust supporting tree planting efforts on wildlife-rich grasslands. In this case it’s the local community who has been persuaded to carry out this piece of environmental vandalism, in the name of err environmental enhancement and climate action. The landowner is also an innocent party, as was the case in Cumbria.

For those of you thinking – “it’s just 0.8ha of grassland  – why all the fuss?”. Cheshire has lost 99% of its species-rich grassland – and lowland acid grassland, especially of the species-rich form which this site may support, is found across a few hundred hectares of very small sites.

If we are ever to restore wildlife across the UK, at a large scale, these small sites will be vital in providing the wildlife to colonise back into the surrounding landscapes.

But quite apart from that, they are little jewels, created by millennia of interplay between people and nature.

They hold our history, they provide meaning, they hold memories and they are places which we must cherish.

 

 

Posted in grasslands, semi-natural, tree planting, Woodland Trust | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Chronicle of a Grassland Saved

For those of us of a certain age, The Milky Bar Kid was part of our childhood. A boy, dressed as a cowboy, implored us to eat white chocolate  – which was not particularly popular back then. By coincidence one of the boys who played The Milky Bar Kid (there were several) was at the same primary school as I was (there was a famous acting school nearby). I remember him being a bit smug, but then who could blame him? He was The Milky Bar Kid! There was a catchy jingle which I can still recall 50 odd years later. The funny thing is now I realise that white chocolate doesn’t have any more milk in it than milk chocolate (perhaps it has less)  – it’s white because of the cocoa butter that’s used, not the milk. Amazingly, Milky Bars are still selling well nearly 85 years after they first appeared.

Nestles as they were known, or Nestlé as they should be called, were in the news this week for a less wholesome (yes that is irony) reason. When a Cumbrian ecologist Rob Dixon (@wildlakeland) posted pictures of a cracking piece of wildflower-rich grassland – which had been planted with trees, funded by the very same multinational food products company. The small steep slope in a valley in north Cumbria was part of a Dairy Farm which, via First Milk, provided  Nestlé with milk for their not so milky milky bars, and other confectionery.

The steep slope covering 0.65ha of plan area (but is actually an area of around 1ha of grassland, when the slope is taken into account) supports a diverse range of wild plants, including “Butterfly Orchids, Betony, Scabious, Restharrow, Harebell.”  These together suggest to me that this is a piece of species-rich limestone grassland.

Gateshaw Mill farm limestone grassland ©Rob Dixon

tree planting on limestone grassland ©wild lakeland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Contrary to some media reports, it’s unlikely to have been hay meadow for a very long time, if ever – but the very strong terracing created by animals (presumably cows as it’s a dairy farm), which shows up nicely in the Google Earth image below, indicates it has been grazed for a long time.

Gateshaw mill limestone grassland. Image: google earth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It appears that Nestlé provide some funding for environmental projects on Cumbrian dairy farms, as part of their partnership with First Milk. This they describe as

a long running sustainability programme to empower & support Cumbrian dairy farmers to play a vital role in the sustainable stewardship of agricultural land. The programme of landscape management, of which tree planting is just one element, also looks to improve watercourse management, enhance biodiversity, improve soil quality, increase climate change resilience and reduce carbon emissions.”

And from the other information they provide,  contract out delivery of this sustainability programme to the Woodland Trust and the Game Conservation and Wildlife Trust, specifically its Allerton Project. It doesn’t look like First Milk play any role in the sustainability programme, but it’s not entirely clear.

When asked how this could have happened, the Woodland Trust published this statement

 

 

 

So far the Game Conservation Wildlife Trust and its Allerton Project have not responded to questions about their involvement. Given that the sustainability project at Gateshaw Mill farm was tree-planting, it’s reasonable to conclude that it was The Woodland Trust which organised it.

How could a conservation organisation such as WT have missed the fact that this was a nationally important area of grassland for its wildlife, before planting trees on it? Apparently the only check WT staff made before deciding to plant trees was a desk study  – I assume they looked on  MAGIC – the Government website which purports to show where valuable wildlife can be found in England.

 

 

 

 

 

MAGIC does not show the limestone grassland as “priority habitat”, although interestingly it does show adjacent areas of woodland (dark green) and “assumed woodland (hatched green)  – some of which was planted as part of an earlier FC – granted tree planting scheme.

 

 

 

 

you can see the rows of planted trees on this google earth image.

Had the WT looked on the Forestry Commission’s own GIS portal it would have found that the area of limestone grassland did fall into the buffer zone of the “priority habitat network”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This isn’t anything to do with the presence of the limestone grassland though, merely a buffer around the area of recent broadleaved woodland. It might possibly have triggered some further thinking and checking.

Perhaps WT might have checked with the Local Wildlife Sites project for Cumbria? As I have written recently, Local Wildlife Sites cover a much larger area than SSSIs but don’t appear on MAGIC. Sadly Cumbria Wildlife Trust had to close its Local Wildlife Sites project because of cuts in funding. I don’t know whether this particular piece of grassland was a Local Wildlife Site, but it seems very unlikely as the farmer was unaware of its value.

Where else might the WT have looked for information if they were just relying on a desk study to assess the value of a grassland before planting trees on it? The Local Records Centre would be an obvious place to go – in this case the Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre.  These local record centres have also been deeply affected by funding cuts over the past 10 years and rely on charging for access to their data as a way of surviving. So perhaps WT decided not to check with them because they didn’t want to pay, or perhaps it just didn’t occur to them.

The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland also holds data on the wild plants of Britain. Some of their data is held with local record centres, and they also have their own database of sites supporting threatened, declining and rare plants. Some of these records are now held at very high resolution (to 10m) thanks to hand held GPS.  If WT had checked with either the BSBI or the Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre, I am confident that the value of this grassland would have become apparent to them.

Thankfully Nestlé acted quickly once they became aware that the tree planting was going to damage a nationally important piece of grassland and the trees are going to be removed. Hopefully no long term damage will result in this misguided, if good intentioned, piece of activity.

Because the planting area was so small, and the area of grassland had not been identified as priority habitat (and therefore appear on MAGIC), the planting project did not have to go through an Environmental Impact Assessment – EIA. The threshold for this process being triggered is either 2ha or 5ha depending on where the planting is due to take place (though in special circumstances it can reduce to zero – eg for protected sites and even Local Wildlife Sites, if the FC know about them). The Forestry Commission were not involved at any point.

This incident highlights something which I was writing about in  the General Election campaign – you remember, the one with the tree planting auction.  There is very real risk now that with such a large tree planting target now being cemented in to Government policy and possibly legislation, organisations, such as WT, will be heading out with generous incentives for landowners to plant up every conceivable piece of land. And naturally, the landowners will be looking at their land which is the least productive in agricultural terms – you know, those awkward bits where you can’t get machinery on, the steep slopes, the wet corners. The steep slopes, supporting perhaps the last vestiges of wildlife-rich grassland. I can take you to any number of places where steep slopes of chalk downland have been lost to tree planting in Dorset, over a number of decades. And that has been replicated across the country. But we haven’t seen anything like the scale of tree planting being planned now, for a very long time.

It’s now more urgent than ever that a Valuable Grassland Inventory is created to identify all of the remaining areas of grassland, such as the one this story revolves around. By identifying them, mapping them and recording their value, this means that the landowners will know what they have, why it’s valuable and how best to manage it. These are the places that landowners should be rewarded for maintaining, through the new Agriculture Bill “public money for public goods” scheme. These are the places which form vital nodes in the much vaunted Nature Recovery Network at the heart of the 25 year environment plan. And these are the places which provide the species to spread out and colonise newly created areas for wildlife, whether via rewilding or not.

In the meantime though, it’s incumbent on organisations like The Woodland Trust, to check, check and double check before planting on any grassland which might remotely not be just Rye Grass and White Clover. If in doubt, get a competent botanist to check the site before making any decisions. Even semi-improved grasslands might have sufficient value to avoid having trees planted on them, and instead go into a restoration programme back to species-rich grassland. In some parts of the country all that’s left is semi-improved grassland.

 

Posted in 2019 general election, grasslands, tree planting, Valuable Grasslands Inventory, Woodland Trust | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Is it racist to say Prince Albert was German?

Amid the fallout arising from the BBC’s decision to show some humorous clips from Horrible Histories on Brexit Day, I was called a racist. The clips included a song “British Things” about things the British thought (and still think) are British, that actually aren’t. Like a cup of tea, with a spoonful of sugar, and Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband.

It’s typical HH – funny, irreverent, and mostly historically accurate.

The Brexit brigade hate this sort of thing, mainly because they don’t have a collective sense of humour. A largeish section also hate the idea of people criticising Britain, and by extension, the British Empire.

This makes sense when you put Brexit in the context of that lost Empire, those Glory Days, when Great Britain was truly great (ignore the Irish question – too complicated), our Navy ruled the seas, before we were cowed into servitude by those nasty Europeans. The fact that the Empire was collapsing into chaos at the time the majority of Brexit voters (age group 55 to 75) were children or teenagers, is also germane – something Otto English has written about. Fed on a never ending diet of war films placing Britain at the centre of the glorious victory against the Nazis, only further boosted this image of Glorious Britain, even as reality descended into post-colonial warfare across much of that pink on the world map (and Ireland).

Following on from Andrew Neil’s attack on Horrible Histories for being “anti-British drivel”. Sorry. Stop there. Andrew Neil, who I have written about previously, lives in France and worked for decades for an Australian with US citizenship… who now works for the billionaire Barclay brothers who live in a tax haven literally off the coast of Britain. Neil,  who consistently uses social & traditional media to give publicity to right wing even far-right politics such as the Hungarian Századvég Foundation.

Andrew Neil purports to know what is British and what is anti-British. As if that was an easy thing to do. For me, there isn’t anything more British than Horrible Histories. It imbues some of the best qualities in that nebulous thing, Britishness. It’s funny, irreverent,  satirical, doesn’t take itself seriously, indeed it’s often plain silly. Wonderfully silly. And underneath all that there’s a self awareness that Britishness is complicated, and there’s some very dark stuff under there once you lift the bonnet.

Feeling that somehow their glorious Brexit Day was being spoilt by the repeat of a song written for children ten years ago, one particular individual reacted angrily to me tweeting the link to the song, calling it

woke propaganda targeting innocent children with lies and hate” following up with

it’s like sending children to an AQ [Al Qaeda] run Madrassa

No, seriously. This is verbatim.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But my cardinal sin was to suggest that Prinz Albert was German, as the HH song had stated. This elicited the claim that I was racist (the offending tweets have now been removed after I protested). Well, technically HH was wrong because Germany didn’t exist until 1871, ten years after Prinz Albert died. He was born in the Saxon Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, part of the Holy Roman Empire. He became a British subject on his marriage to Queen Victoria, a unique way of becoming British. So it’s fair to say that Prinz Albert was both British and not British, depending on which part of his life you’re looking at. The racism claim was based on the idea that somehow in repeating the claim about Prince Albert, this meant I believe that you can only be British if are born in Britain.

Let’s just explore briefly what being British means and has meant through the ages. Since 1707 British subject status (which defined how was British and who wasn’t) was conferred on anyone who was born in any part of the British Empire which essentially meant The British Isles, plus anywhere within the Crown’s “Dominions and allegiance.” The legal status of different colonies, protectorates and Dominions is complicated and I won’t go into it here, but you can read in more detail here.  But the key word is allegiance – allegiance to the Crown. This is at the heart of what it meant to be a subject of the British Empire. This means that my mum, who was born in Australia before it became fully independent (in 1942), was born a British subject. As was almost everybody who lived across the Empire at that time.

It was the Attlee Labour Government which introduced the status of citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies in the 1948 British Nationality Act. This allowed British subjects living elsewhere in the Empire to come and live in Britain. But they didn’t become British when they settled here – they were already British. As the Windrush generation would learn, over and over again (even now), their Britishness was not regarded as the same Britishness as those Brits who were born in these islands.

Clearly being British is not quite as simple as it might be thought.

Looking back over the long a varied history of immigration acts particularly from the 19th century to today, one thing stands out. Britishness is a fluid thing – and whether you were allowed to be British or not, was primarily defined by what was best for the Empire at the time. At times when there was a need for, or an opportunity to gain from immigration, the laws were relaxed. When people complained about all these forriners coming here, the laws were tightened up. I remember coming back from a family holiday in France as a teenager, just after the 1981 Immigration Act was introduced. The immigration officer looked at my mum’s Australian passport and asked her how long she was intending to stay. Mum, being ever polite, replied that she’d been here 20 years and wasn’t planning on living anywhere else. But further restrictions forced her, reluctantly, to get a UK passport and citizenship. Even though she was born a British subject.

The thing that particularly struck me about this whole sorry episode is the attack on freedom of speech. Parts of the Brexit lobby wanted to shut down this relatively innocent humorous skit, their actions revealed as a twisted shadow of the political correctness they love to despise.

It’s perhaps no surprise that a recent survey found 41% of leave voters object to people speaking a foreign language in public. Perhaps they think that you can only be British if you speak the Queen’s English all the time. Bludy forriners.

 

Posted in Andrew Neil, Brexit, Britishness | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Brexit, The Environment Bill and Local Wildlife Sites – a perfect storm?

Many important places for wildlife are not protected as SSSIs. Weatherby Castle, Dorset ©Miles King

On this supposed “Brexit Day” I’m not going to dwell on the Bongs, or the Flags, or the Farage’s. But one of the consequences of Brexit is that we have a new Environment Bill in Parliament. This is as a direct result of the UK leaving the EU and having to disentangle itself from all the very substantial EU law which has developed to protect the environment over the past 40 years or more.

The Government would have us believe that the environment will be better protected once we have left the EU. I’d like to spend today just focussing in on one particular aspect – Local Sites.

“Local Sites” is a bland piece of Defra-ese, which fails to capture the magic and the incredible value of over 40,000 places across England, which have been recognised for the astonishing variety of wildlife, as well as history, and other kinds of value, to communities – as well as to the wildlife itself. These have identified, at county or other Local Authority level, over the past 4 decades. Much of the original work was done by volunteers or lowly paid Wildlife Trust and local authority staff, often going out on weekends to search countryside and towns for places with valuable wildlife habitats, uncommon or rare species  – at a time – in the 70s and 80s – when these things were rapidly disappearing as a result of agricultural intensification & abandonment; housing development, new roads, and so on. Each county came up with their own system for identifying these sites and this diversity continues today – but they are all broadly the same. They have different names reflecting their diverse origins – in Dorset they are Sites of Nature Conservation Interest SNCIs) which is clearly a riff on Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). Many are of the same quality as SSSIs, and all have significant value for wildlife.

According to recent Wildlife Trusts data there are 44,000 Local Wildlife Sites scattered across England, covering “at least 5% of England.” That’s at least 652,000ha.

Legally protected Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) cover about 7% of England (not including marine), though the SSSI series is skewed towards the uplands, where very large sites cover many thousands of hectares.

So for lowland England, the Local Wildlife Sites network covers a larger area than SSSI protection does.

A great deal of effort was put into campaigning to better protect (and monitor) SSSIs through the 1980s and 90s, and current Natural England chair Tony Juniper played a huge role in this campaign when he was at Friends of the Earth. This culminated in the landmark Countryside and Rights of Way Act (2000) with further protections in the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act (2006). Meanwhile a smaller group continued to plug away at trying to get the Government to even recognise that Local Willdife Sites were important and needed their own protection, beyond occasional lip service given to their status in local plan documents (which of course only applied to planned development not anything else, like agriculture.)

Still, in those heady early days of the Blair/Brown Government when the environment was something they thought sufficiently important to do something about, some headway was made. By 2005 the Office for the Deputy Prime Minister, which led on these things at the time, had produced guidance on what Local Sites were and how planning authorities should recognise their existence and perhaps even do something about preventing them from being destroyed by eg new housing developments. I think it’s fair to say that the Labour Government’s interest in terrestrial conservation was waning by 2006 as its focus shifted towards the Marine environment. The hope amongst the conservation and environmental planning world, to establish a statutory Local Sites system, was fading.

By 2008 the Government reluctantly agreed to take action   – and introduce a requirement on all Local Authorities to err report on whether Local Wildlife Sites in their area were being managed  – or “in positive management” in the civil service parlance. I remember at the time there was a general sense of disappointment that no further protection was being considered, and the Government were really only interested in a new metric. Plus ca change.

There were 149 Local Authorities in England in 2008 and all of them duly reported back on the management status of their Local Wildlife Sites. Many Local Wildlife Sites systems are maintained by Local Record Centres, working in partnership with Local Wildlife Trusts, Local Authorities and other partners.

Then came the financial crash. And the Coalition Government. And what’s euphemistically called Austerity. Austerity meant savage cuts to Local Authority staff and Local Record Centres. Many LA’s lost all of their ecological expertise during the years that followed.

Fast forward 10 years.

Last week the Government released the latest data on Local Sites in Conservation Management, and a little 2 page report summarising the data. Or obscuring it depending on your point of view.

An indication of how “austerity” has affected Local Authorities environmental work, including this a statutory obligation to report on the state of their local wildlife, is in the number of LA’s who even provided a response. 66 LAs failed to respond or only provided a partial response which didn’t include the crucial information – which means only 56% of all England’s LA’s provided information on the management status of their Local Wildlife Sites.

In 2008/09 Local Authorities provided appropriate data on 42098 Local Wildlife Sites. By 2018/19 this had dropped to 20606. So last year data was provided on the management status of only 49% of all the wildlife sites that existed in 2008. But actually it will be lower than 49% because new Local Wildlife Sites are being found and confirmed  all the time.

Hidden in these figures are some very worrying trends. Whole counties like Bucks, Beds, Cheshire (684) Cornwall (615),  Cumbria (728), Devon (1987), Essex (1440), Hampshire (3757), Somerset (2312), Wiltshire (>1500 sites), Suffolk (921) and Lancashire (1180) failed to report on the status of their Local Wildlife Sites last year.

this is bollocks

 

 

 

 

 

Defra tried to fudge the figures by extrapolating current management status from previous year’s data, to create the appearance that things aren’t quite as good as they were but there’s no cause for alarm.

But this doesn’t work. Local Wildlife Sites were previously benefiting from being in positive management (at least in the eyes of Defra) as a result of the previous Agri-Environment Programme of Entry Level and Higher Level Schemes – ELS and HLS. This had its own significant drawbacks – the Entry Level EK2 option, which many grassland local wildlife sites were entered into (and therefore met the criteria for positive management) allowed farmers to spread artificial nitrogen fertiliser at levels which damage grassland wildlife. Nevertheless these old AE schemes were providing some level of protection for Local Wildlife Sites in agricultural management (which, let’s face it, is most of them.)

As these old schemes expire, many local wildlife sites are not being entered into the new Countryside Stewardship scheme, for various reasons, not least the complexity of the scheme and the high bar set for entry into the higher tier of CS. So as these sites drop out of the old scheme and are not being entered into the new scheme, they will also lose their “positive conservation management” status. But as the local authorities are no longer reporting on them, we don’t know which ones are dropping out and which ones are staying in (though Natural England does.) Anecdotal reports suggest lots of important Local Wildlife Sites are dropping out of the old AE schemes and not entering the new ones, which leaves them very vulnerable to damage or destruction.

Where are we now? We have the makings of decent Local Wildlife System, but resources for monitoring them have been starved to the point where we don’t actually know what state they are in, and access to the main resource for helping landowners look after them (agri-environment schemes) has been made much more difficult.

Combine this with the once in a generation upheavals about to arrive for agriculture and you can see a perfect storm brewing.

The Environment Bill

Against all this context, Defra has included in its new Environment Bill (s.95) something called Local Nature Recovery Strategies. These Strategies will be prepared by Local Authorities – yes the same LAs that don’t have any resources to report on their Local Wildife Sites. The Strategies will identify what’s important in each LA area and how to protect it and put all these things on a Local Habitat Map.  The Local Habitat Map will show all the SSSIs and international sites, plus

other areas in the strategy area which in the opinion of the responsible authority—

(i) are, or could become, of particular importance for biodiversity,or

(ii) are areas where the recovery or enhancement of biodiversity could make a particular contribution to other environmental benefits

One might have assumed that, given Defra recognises Local Wildlife Sites as a thing which LAs need to report on, they might have specifically mentioned them in this clause. It’s very odd that they didn’t. You could almost read it that they don’t want to continue down the Local Wildlife Sites route any more.

One possible reason for this relates to the way the Local Wildlife Sites were identified. There is no statutory basis for their protection, so they rely on landowner goodwill, especially for private landowners. They are not obliged to let Local Wildlife Sites surveyors on their land and may well not want their land to be recognised as an LWS. They may have other plans which could be stymied by an LWS designation. Those who have allowed their land to be designated LWS may not wish this information to be placed in the public domain, for whatever reason. So are they likely to be enthusiastic about their LWS’s appearing on a Local Habitat Map? Or are they more likely to decide to plough up that bit of old grassland, or cut down that patch of scrub?

Or even perhaps, take government grants to plant a new plantation woodland on their grassland LWS. The Government, after all, has set itself a huge challenge to plant all these millions of trees – and the landowners are not going to be planting up their best agricultural land.

Now the Government may be pinning its hopes on the Agriculture Bill providing funds to support “public money for public goods” which could in theory direct public support to landowners managing their Local Wildlife Sites sympathetically. But that’s still a long way away, after a long seven year transition period. How many of these sites will still be around by then?

The Government appears to be serious about these Local Nature Recovery Strategies and Local Habitat Maps; and on the surface they seem like a really good idea. But the same Government has neglected the existing resource of places rich in nature for years, and could actually severely threaten them with these proposals.

Some joined up thinking would be welcome at this point.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Brexit, Environment Bill, Local Wildlife Sites | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Landed Gentry or Brexite – the choice to replace Mary Creagh at the Environmental Audit Committee

the shining light of Brexit ©miles king

It’s Brexit week – well it’s not really but the symbolic moment has arrived when we move into the next phase of what will be a very long process – on Friday the transition period will begin – and nothing will change, aside from the introduction of a new 50p commemorative coin.

But enough of such fripperies, there’s important political work to report on – namely the election of new Commons Select Committee chairmen. I say chairmen rather than chairs because they are almost all men. While Neil Parish stands unopposed as the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee chairman, there’s a contest over at Environmental Audit (EAC). EAC tends to look more broadly beyond the farm gate, but it also covers the farmed environment (which is 75% of the UK remember) and in particular the effect of farming on things like wildlife, flooding, climate change and pollution. So it’s an important job. Mary Creagh, who lost her Wakefield seat during the December election when the “red wall” was breached, did an excellent job of trying to hold the Government to account via the EAC. Now she’s gone, and reflecting the large majority the Tories now enjoy, the EAC chair has now shifted across to the Tories, as have most Select Committee chairs.

There are two candidates for this post – Philip Dunne and Matthew Offord, both previous members of EAC. Philip Dunne only joined the Committee in 2018 (after being sacked as a junior health minister)  – but, in his “manifesto”, makes a play of his high attendance figures – as if turning up to something was the main reason for being there. You could call it presenteeism. Why does Dunne feel he would be the best chair?

“Aside from our former Chair Mary Creagh, who steered the Committee impressively in the last Parliament, I had the highest attendance record of any member of the Committee and initiated the committee’s enquiry into one of the largest – yet largely hidden – sectors where modern slavery is prevalent today in Britain. I have pushed for more transparency to encourage Green Finance and greening of UK export finance, in improving biodiversity, air, water and soil quality.”

So his main arguments are that he turned up, initiated an inquiry on modern slavery at hand car washes and wants to encourage the greening of UK export finance. Both of these are undoubtedly worthy causes, but they don’t indicate a very broad range of interests. In a piece for Politics Home Dunne goes further – he tells us he is species champion for the Wood White – a lovely butterfly which is threatened by the lack of appropriate ride management in our ancient woodlands and his constituency supports 3 small populations. As at least one of the sites is in the Forestry Commission’s hands, Dunne could actually do something positive for the little butterfly by focussing the EAC’s attention on FC’s management of open habitats within its vast estate.

Dunne goes on to explain his enthusiasm for all things climate change (he should be, as a partner in a Lloyds insurance syndicate) including how EAC can influence the Government to use COP26 to “showcase our international leadership”. He also   “would work collaboratively with colleagues to encourage individual interests of members”. This is a curious phrase which suggests that his chairing would not bring the committee together, but encourage them to do their own thing.

Talking of the individual interests of committee members, I was struck by his own coyness in revealing his own. While extolling the beauty of his Ludlow constituency’s farmland, he neglected to mention that he and his family owned a large chunk of it. Dunne has a stake in Gatley Farms Ltd. Public information about land ownership in England is notoriously opaque, but we can at least see the extent of the farm subsidies it receives. In 2018 this was £215,732. That’s for one year. In 2016 it was only £155,298. This may in part reflect the fact that as the Euro strengthened against the pound after Brexit, farm payments (in Euros) became substantially more valuable. Either that or Gatley farms bought or leased some more farmland, on which they could claim subsidies.

The Dunne farmland covers 900ha or 2240 acres, not a small farm. Gatley Farms is part of the Gatley Park Estate, acquired by Philip Dunne’s ancestor, also Philip Dunne, in 1679. In addition to the farm and park, Dunne also owns substantial areas of woodland, including Gatley Long Coppice (an ancient woodland planted with conifers by the Forestry Commission, who lease it from Dunne – the FC are clear felling the conifers to restore to broadleaved woodland during 2020).

Dunne’s estate has recently entered Countryside Stewardship on about 240ha of that land, 155ha of which is in the Higher Tier scheme, which suggests that it is of significant wildlife value, though there don’t appear to be any SSSIs on the land, much of which is wooded.

Why the coyness? Could it be that Mr Dunne feels that his background as a member of the Landed Gentry would work against him? Or perhaps he thinks that being in receipt of large wads of public cash via the farm subsidy system might just be perceived as a conflict of interest.

It’s also worth noting that Dunne tabled an amendment to the Agriculture Bill which would have scuppered Gove’s plans to focus public funds on the very public goods Dunne is now receiving support for.

His opponent is Matthew Offord, MP for Hendon. Offord is a keen scuba diver and identifies as that rarest of species – a Green Conservative. In his manifesto, Offord praises Mary for her “fantastic work” and pledges to continue where she left off, rather than encouraging members to explore their own interests, as Dunne wants. Offord believes Brexit will provide an opportunity to improve environmental standards, but then again as a member of the”party within the party”, the shadowy European Research Group, he probably believes that Brexit will usher in a new Golden Era. Offord could be regarded as a career politician having joined the Tories as a student and become a councillor at the tender age of 32, having stood as a Parliamentary candidate a year earlier. But he does have a PhD in geography and trekked across the Libyan desert.

Offord owns no farmland, but did complete a doctorate in geography, examining Rural Governance and Economic Development: The Changing Landscape of Rural Local Government. Perhaps it was this exploration of the impact of changes to Local Government in his adopted county of Cornwall (which received billions in EU funding) which led him to decide that we needed to leave the EU.

MPs will vote this Wednesday, to decide who they want to lead the Environmental Audit Committee, potentially for the next five years. This is a critical period for the UK environment – and the UK’s role as leader (or brake) for action on the international environment, for both the climate and ecological emergency.

Do they go for Dunne – for patrician, tradition, keeping things as they are… or Offord, the radical ERG member, who sees Brexit as the light, shining on the path to a bright future.

 

 

 

 

Posted in 2019 general election, Brexit, Environmental Audit Select Committee | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A Green Future: 25 year plan launched (archived)

Note: for some reason I hadn’t saved this piece from Lush Times to this blog. It’s an old piece from 2 years ago.

Michael Gove – the most energetic and intellectual Environment Secretary we have had for many years – has been busy. Fresh from his performances at the two big annual farming conferences of the year (which I will write about next week), Gove  (perhaps with a push from the Prime Minister) has today published the long-awaited 25 Year Plan for the Environment.

Having seen a draft of the truly dreadful version created under his predecessor Andrea Leadsom, I’ve been looking forward to seeing what he has produced (from all accounts he’s  had a very personal involvement in its creation) and the result is… 151 pages of verbiage.

Verbiage – an overabundance or superfluity of words, as in writing or speech

Why did it need to be so long and why did it take such a long time to produce?

It’s heartening, of course, to see the “intrinsic value” of nature repeatedly mentioned.  Intrinsic in this sense means the value of nature for its own sake, not because it provides people with benefits – crucial though these benefits are.

The idea of Natural Capital is central to the plan – and it’s a controversial idea.

Some Natural Capitalists believe that everything in nature has a financial value – the danger with this view is that if something can be priced, it can be sold. Others recognise that some aspects of nature – beauty, or as a source of inspiration, cannot be valued economically, but are still of immeasurable value. The plan recognises this, without explaining how these “intangible” values will be protected.

There is a suggestion that if we all do our part, then the Environment will be protected – deciding whether to use a single-use coffee cup (with its non biodegradable plastic liner) or not, for example. But when two thirds of the UK is owned by 0.36% of the population, it’s clear that some individuals have a far bigger role to play than others.

One of the weakest elements of the plan  – and it should really be the strongest – refers to “connecting people with the environment”. Apart from this being an uninspiring description of something so critical, there is no ambition or political drive here. And all the aspirations that are outlined fly in the face of reality.

Schools, for example, are being encouraged to create nature-friendly grounds, whilst clearly at cross-purposes, the Department for Education is telling them to build new school buildings on that same ground. And in the case of Toby Young’s Free Schools, these are being established in buildings with no grounds to green.

Can we expect nature-friendly window boxes provided by Defra? And while Defra may aspire to creating more urban green spaces for us to enjoy nature, the reality is that Local Authorities are being forced to sell off parks and greenspaces for housing, to offset cuts from central Government funding.

The Public Forest Estate (that is land owned or leased by the Forestry Commission in England) continues to receive special protection within the Plan. This probably emanates from the 2011 forestry sell-off debacle – which ultimately led to Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman being publicly humiliated by former PM David Cameron (remember him?) in the House of Commons. Other public land continues to be sold off though – Ministry of Defence land (such as the Nightingale and Meadow haven at Lodge Hill Kent) is being sold off for housing, as are Prisons, Public Parks and even NHS land. While Forests are safe, the public estate is being quietly disposed of – with big implications for the environment.

We know how keen Michael Gove is on Beavers, but it looks like he did not get this all his own way – the section on Natural Flood Management mentions “building small-scale woody dams” but doesn’t suggest that the reintroduction of beavers is the best way of building them. Why, I wonder, pay people to build woody dams, when Beavers will do it for free?

A commitment to produce a Strategy for Nature – to replace the now aging (and mostly undelivered) Biodiversity 2020 strategy, does feel a bit like the can has been kicked down the road, yet again.

And although it’s welcome to see a target of 500,000ha of new wildlife habitat being created, why is there no commitment to protect the existing and still threatened areas of high quality wildlife habitat?

We really need the series of Sites of Special Scientific Interest, (started in 1949), to be completed – before what’s left has gone.

Another challenge will be how to prevent new wildlife habitat, created under a 10-year- scheme such as countryside stewardship, being converted back into farmland again when that scheme ends.

The plan is full of good intentions and these need to be recognised and encouraged. But what we also need to remember, is that under this and the previous Government, funding for the Environment Department Defra, and its agencies, including Natural England and the Environment Agency, have been cut, cut and cut again. Defra budgets have been cut by nearly half since 2010 and expert staff have been lost, both within the department and across its agencies.

Environmentalists often bemoan the short-termism of five year Governments. The environment operates on a range of time-scales – many are far longer than five years. Equally, the danger of a 25 year plan is that aspirations can be made that are risk-free – because this Government will not be around in 25 years time to be held to account for their failures, or feted for their successes. After all, if the Government had announced the publication of a 200 million year environment plan, they could commit to the complete eradication of marine plastic, because by then it will have been converted, by geological processes, into a thin layer of oil.

I’ve seen a lot of these documents over the past 30 years, and this is definitely not the worst. But as with all the others, it will be judged by how much of it is actually delivered.

What we need is more herbage, and less verbiage!

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