Those of us who believe that nature is important and that in order for nature to be better protected from the activities of people the best approach is to gather evidence, scientific evidence, analyse it, and present it to those in power, should heed this story.
Yesterday the Prime Minister attended the Liaison Committee, where he was questioned on a wide range of issues. The Liaison Committee comprises all the chairs of the Parliamentary Select Committees. So Neil Parish, new chair of the EFRA committee, and Devon farmer, was there, as was Labour’s Huw Irranca-Davies, new chair of the Environmental Audit Committee. You can watch the piece here from 17:22.
It was good to see Huw I-D give Cameron a hard time over the cuts in subsidies for renewable energy, though Cameron is an accomplished PR man and had the figures to hand, which he deployed. It’s a pity in these sorts of situations that the chair isn’t able to intervene and ask an independent arbiter to look at the facts on both sides and determine who is right. In normal circumstances this would be someone like the National Audit Office; but I can see it would be difficult for the NAO to have all the necessary information to hand instantly.
Davies then congratulated the PM on reappointing Natural Capital-finder General Dieter Helm to chair the Natural Capital Committee, and quoted Helm’s recent paper (which I have written about earlier this week) on flooding saying the “current approach to flooding is never going to be adequate”.
Cameron agreed “we need to do more of everything – more defences, better at river management, whole drainage and area systems work”.
As an example of more of everything he explained how the “Military came in more quickly the money was disbursed more rapidly.” He also celebrated an “attitudinal change in the Environment Agency – were trying to balance up the effect on nature and protection of property. The time for that is over. This is about protecting human life, about protecting our homes”. I want to see that continued shift
In Somerset the PM said “this is a man made environment, it was ridiculous those rivers weren’t being dredged. I threatened to go and drive the dredger myself and now we have seen those rivers dredged.”
The PM explained that there would be more spending on investment, building capital schemes, bringing in partnership money, and looking again at agricultural policy, planning policy and pushing this attitudinal change he mentioned earlier. He rejected the idea that it was a bad idea to build on floodplains claiming that London was a floodplain. Only a tiny proportion of London sits in the floodplain of the Thames, perhaps he was confusing Westminster with London.
Parish pushed on arguing for more dredging, but also suggested upstream management to slow the flow including planting trees and rewetting land, but he wanted farmers to be paid extra to do such things – “more of a carrot” as he put it. Cameron agreed that a catchment approach was needed, with dredging downstream and upstream attenuation ponds and changed farming practices. So far so vaguely promising.
But then Parish returned to the fold “are you convinced attitude of the Environment Agency towards dredging has changed? Many places in Britain need dredging”.
At this point our PM recounted a story, “an epiphany” as he put it. (here’s the verbatim), It was probably a well-versed one judging by the way he recounted it. At Kelmscott in his constituency, the Environment Agency were threatening to take legal action against a landowner who had cleared out ditches with water voles present, without EA consent. The PM had a site visit, and in front of all concerned, two water voles appeared on the bank. This, as the PM said, settled the matter. The moral of the story is that EA red tape stopped sensible landowners doing what was needed, and the red tape didnt even do what it was supposed to do ie protect nature, because the voles were still there.
Parish leapt on the opportunity – arguing that the EA needs to pass powers for dredging and maintenance down to local drainage boards (IDBs), Local Authorities and local landowners/farmers (and this is what Truss announced last week). As he said “if there’s a tree in the river, lets have someone local come out and do the work.” Leaving aside whether the tree is helping to slow the flow or not, Parish was pushing the argument that landowners should do this work – and presumably be paid for it. Who would pay though?
Andrew Tyrie, the chair of the Liaison Committee, also leapt on the vole story, taking the opportunity for some more nature bashing. “While looking at voles” he said sardonically, “perhaps the PM could look bats, aphids, newts and snails, all of which seem to have slowed up work at one time or another.”
The evidence, scientific evidence, that nature benefits people in a hundred different ways continues to build. The evidence that clearing out ditches insensitively or at the wrong time of year, damage water vole populations is total and absolute – there is no ambiguity. While sensitive ditch management is good for water voles, Insensitive or inappropriate ditch maintenance is one of the reasons why the Water Vole population in England has crashed. But because the PM saw two voles (who may have been running around on the bank, starving, precisely because their habitat had been destroyed by the dredging) on the bank, the case was dismissed.
And it’s easy to see how such an experience, and such a good story, could influence the PM’s views on nature more generally, as well as reinforce his own prejudices against “ridiculous” regulation. Not only his – as the same language was used by the Chancellor, when in2011 he said he was going to “make sure that gold–plating of EU rules on things like habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses”.
While we may recoil at the abject naturephobia of our political leaders, we must also recognise that they understand that a good story (even if it’s wrong) will usually trump facts or statistics.
Read about other epiphanies at Kelmscott here