Thanks to Phil Brewin (@waterlevels) for the photo of flooding on the Somerset Levels.
It was only a couple of months ago, that Owen Paterson gave his most significant speech since he became Environment Secretary, to the Tory’s favourite Think Tank the Policy Exchange. You will remember the new chair of Natural England, Andrew Sells, was Policy Exchange’s Treasurer.
Paterson spoke passionately and enthusiastically about Biodiversity Offsetting, privatisation and the joys of killing furry animals, I mean necessary wildlife management. But amongst these familiar tropes, Paterson railed against Rousseauism. Rousseaism, at least according to Opatz, is the practice of abandoning the land and losing its vital utilitarian values.
Paterson criticised the previous Labour Government for “a blind adherence to Rousseausim”, for not managing rivers properly, which led to flooded farmland and lost crops. Paterson announced he was already slashing up red tape which has prevented farmers from dredging their ditches and streams, to speed water off the land.
How long a few months are in politics.
Gone is the golden glow around Paterson’s pate. Now he is mired in the charnel of the badger cull, he has alienated countryside lovers with his crass remarks about replacing ancient woodland with tree-planting; and he is the arrogant face of the Government in the midst of the floods which have affected so many across the UK.
Meanwhile George Monbiot published his seminal piece in the Guardian where he brought together his own visions of rewilding the uplands, and the relationship between land-use practices, rain-water retention and flooding. Monbiot’s article was published verbatim in the Mail on Sunday, and even gained plaudits on the right of the Tory Party’s organ Conservative Home.
Now former Environment Minister Lord Rooker has publicly supported the notion of reforesting the uplands as a flood prevention strategy. Rooker summed it up thus “We pay the farmers to grub up the trees and hedges; we pay them to plant the hills with pretty grass and sheep to maintain the chocolate box image, and then wonder why we’ve got floods,” he said.
And in the same article Roger Harrabin reports that Owen Paterson “would seriously consider” re-wilding as an innovative solution to the problem of widespread urban flooding.Harrabin is still trying to get Paterson to give an interview to the Today programme on the floods.
I don’t know whether it’s a coincidence, but the Government did announce just two days ago that they have funding to plant 2000ha of trees this year. It doesn’t sound a lot, but they could be coming to an upland near you. The Woodland Trust were unimpressed. Of course it’s possible Paterson thought he heard reforesting, rather than re-wilding.
Have we seen a Damascene conversion of Paterson, from the New Enlightenment Man, to a follower of Rousseau and the Noble Savage? Or has he had a phone call from number 10 telling him he has one last chance to save his political career? You decide.