We now know which ministers will work with Andrea Leadsom at Defra. Rory Stewart, who was apparently punished by David Cameron for disagreeing with him over Afghanistan, has now been rehabilitated. Having served his time at Defra, he is now where he should be, over at the Department for International Development.
George Eustice, one of the key Brexiters among the junior ministers, wins the job of explaining to his farming constituency (not his Parliamentary constituency of Camborne, Redruth and Hayle) how Brexit is going to benefit them. If that sounds like a difficult job, that’s because it is. Almost all voices are calling for a reduction in farm subsidies – indeed as I have anticipated, plenty on the (libertarian) right are calling for the abolition of farm subsidies – and Eustice himself has already indicated where he would like to see this debate going. There has already been blood on the carpet, in a spat between right-leaning journalist Emma Duncan and the National Farmers Union. This argument is only get dirtier.
While the Countryside Alliance still have their man, Lord Gardiner, representing Defra in the Lords, Rory Stewart’s replacement is Therese Coffey. As far as we know, Coffey will take on Stewart’s roles, which covered wildlife, flooding, rural affairs, natural resources, natural capital, and being the Minister responsible for Defra’s big three Agencies – The Environment Agency, Natural England and the Forestry Commission.
What do we know about Coffey? She represents Suffolk Coastal constituency, quite a large chunk of which falls within the Suffolk Coasts and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. As this map shows, it is also rich in wildlife, especially well-supplied with European sites such as Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas. Inland lies much productive arable land.
The economically important Felixstowe docks (“Britain’s biggest container port”) lies at the southernmost tip of the constituency.
Nature Sites include The Stour, Deben and Alde-Ore estuaries, THe Suffolk Sandlings heaths, Minsmere-Walberswick, The extraordinary Staverton Park with it’s Holly-Oak wilderness of the Thicks; and the shingle communities of Orfordness and Shingle Street.
Just looking at the map, it does look like the vast majority of protected nature sites in Coffey’s constituency are European sites, with just a tiny number of sites only protected under national legislation as SSSIs. It would be interesting to see the percentage of SSSI’s in Coffey’s constituency which are European sites.
Why am I labouring this point? Because Coffey is now responsible for sorting out the huge mess left in the wake of the Brexit vote – does the UK hang on to the additional protections afforded European sites through European legislation (The Birds and Habitats Directives) or does it follow her senior colleague George Eustice’s view that these Directives are “spirit crushing” and should be abandoned.
What additional protection do these “spirit crushing” directives provide for nature in Coffey’s constituency? Well, development of the Felixstowe Docks despite it being very close to Special Protection Areas has proceeded, with compensation for loss of intertidal habitat being provided at Wallasea on the Essex Coast. There don’t appear to have been any restrictions on housing development close to European Sites, as has been the case elsewhere, eg in the Brecklands. This may be due to the fact that Coffey’s constituency is predominantly rural or coastal, with few large urban areas.
What else do we know about Coffey? She has an accountancy and food industry background (having reached the lofty role of Finance Director at Mars Drinks) and is a dog-lover. She is very supportive of her local Pig Farmers, having met them several times over the last year, including one with former Defra SoS and fellow pork lover Liz Truss. She believes that farmers are “the key conservators of the Great British Countryside”.
What about any references to nature in Coffey’s copious writing? Well, there’s nothing apparent, apart from a reference to the Forest sell-off debacle. Despite all those highly protected nature sites in her constituency, Coffey does not appear to have met Natural England once. Coffey may feel a distrust of Natural England, due to the part they played in the battle of Easton Bavents in her constituency – you can read an excellent account by Patrick Barkham here. As a prospective MP she stated her support for more sea defences.
But a closer look reveals that Coffey is the UK Champion for the Bittern. The RSPB have given her this title, of which she is appears to be proud.
She said: “It was great to be at the beautiful RSPB Minsmere at the beginning of the bank holiday weekend to try and catch a glimpse of the rare and elusive bittern. As the RSPB’s Bittern Champion I want to raise the profile of this once near-extinct bird which was the star of BBC Springwatch in 2014. The Suffolk coast is a special place and it is our duty to protect the fantastic wildlife who share it with us (my bold). I encourage locals and tourists alike to pay a visit to this inspiring part of the world.”
She also clearly does liaise with the Environment Agency regularly, as her constituency suffers probably the most serious coastal erosion in the whole of the UK, and also has lots of farmland needing to be kept dry.
Coffey contacted former Defra Secretary of State Owen Paterson asking that her local Internal Drainage Boards be given more freedom to dredge and drain, without tiresome red tape getting in the way. This from 2014:
“After a recent visit to Snape, which was hit particularly hard by the recent flooding along with flooding in Aldeburgh and Iken, I raised the issue of internal drainage boards with the Environment Secretary, Owen Patterson MP, in Parliament. Drainage boards have powers to secure water level management in specific locations up and down the country. The Secretary of State gave me assurances that their role will continued to be enhanced to ensure waterways are freed up and don’t become blocked. By continuing to allow drainage boards to make local decisions work will continue apace. In previous years a scarcity of water not an excess has been an issue which has led to the water abstraction consultation as part of the Water Bill. Our local farmers are regular abstractors and it is important that we don’t allow water to become an expensive tradable quota by over regulation. I asked the Minister, Dan Rogerson MP, to assure me that there will be consultation events in areas like Suffolk Coastal where there is water stress. He offered to meet with me about this so I hope we can get something organised locally.”
One wonders if she is not keen on tradeable water abstraction quotas, whether she will be keen on tradable biodiversity obligations. Perhaps Eustice can persuade her.
She likes IDB’s – and recently stated
“I do not know the reason why the presence of IDBs is quite so limited in other parts of the country, but as we learn the lessons of how to cope with such unusual weather, I hope that IDBs being set up right across our country might form part of the answer.”
Given the IDB’s historic role in environmental damage and contributing to urban flooding, I can imagine quite a few people who might want to question whether more are needed, or indeed what sort of a question would be formulated, where more IDBs were the answer.
With another impending review of the future of Natural England and the Environment Agency on the way, it’s worth noting what Coffey said when the agencies were under review in 2012:
“This review gives the Government a chance to take a fresh look at what these bodies do and how they do it. I would encourage residents and groups to respond to the review and suggest any changes that would lead to better results for the environment, economic growth and for people here in Suffolk.”
Miles. Some charming anecdotal titbits providing background to a new minister. Unfortunately or fortunately depending on your view, their public role now within Defra ‘outranks’ their views in the past.
Pity they have so short a period in office to work on matters that take years to gain traction in areas, incl distant uplands, well away from fast moving, low level concentration social media.
Yours, flitting between the two.
Thanks Rob. Yes indeed.
In that context it seems damaging to keep shuffling the pack. Rory Stewart at least struck me as an open, thoughtful MP, though given the subject of his two well-regarded books (on my ever-growing to-read pile!) perhaps you’re right Miles that DFID is a better fit.
Billinge born and Liverpool bred; maybe less geographical explanation to do in these parts – though, in terms of the uplands, at a mightly 179 metres, Billinge is the highest point in Merseyside!
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