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.