The real story behind Boris Johnson’s Green Industrial Revolution

Alcock and Brown’s Vickers Vimy bomber crashed in an Irish bog after crossing the Atlantic.

Imagine the scene.

Our fearless Prime Minister is holed up in his flat above Number 11 Downing Street, self-isolating. He’s fuming, having received a message from Dido’s fabulous test ‘n’ trace App, that he has been exposed to covid19, again.

The perpetrator of infection is none other than hard man of the Blue Wall, Lee “make nuisance council tenants live in a tent, pick spuds and have cold showers” Anderson MP. Photos show Johnson literally cosying up to Anderson, a member of the “Common Sense” group of culture warrior Tories, on Thursday (inside, no mask, no 2m rule).

Johnson has lost two of his closest advisers, Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings, in the space of two days – allegedly at the hand of his fiancee and mother of his xth child. Brexit talks are on the verge of collapse, with warnings of food shortages in January. Covid deaths are heading back towards the dizzying heights reached at the peak of the first wave.

What can he do to create a diversion? He rummages through the pockets of his suit jacket to find – where is it? cripes! ah yes! that 10 point climate plan he wrote on the back of an envelope, when Dom was out of the room for a minute. He takes a quick screenshot of the crumpled manila and sends it over to his new press chief  with the message

“get this in the papers pronto!”  A reply comes back by return “write me 500 words in the next half hour. I’ve had to pull in a few favours but the FT has said they’ll run it as an Op Ed. Allegra” This is what Johnson is good at. Seat of the Pants stuff. Biggles flies again! the creative juices start flowing. He makes a few calls to… to who? Lee? Dom? No, probably best not. They might deliberately feed him rubbish. He shouts down the stairs to Carrie, she knows about green stuff.

“Carrie! when did we say we’d get rid of cars??”

His mind drifts back to his early days as a motoring hack, ah happy days….. then takes a darker turn as he recalls the weeks when he was living in his car after Marina had kicked him out.

But he’s brought to the present with a jolt as he remembers Marcus Rashford. He’s still bristling with indignation at having been shown up by Marcus Rashford – a footballer and not even the proper kind of football – over the school meals thing. Couldn’t these poor kids do with losing some weight over the holidays anyway? kill two grouse with one shot and so on…

“Marcus Rashford… hmm yes he’s got a really expensive car hasn’t he.”

Can we ban them right now, this minute, Johnson wonders?

But that would also annoy all of his mates, including the ones that keep him in power and help with his expenses.  What else can he do?

“Carrie – can we rewild football pitches?”

” electric cars – check. hydrogen – check. carbon capture – check.” His mind is zinging

“Now we’re cooking on gas. Cooking on Hydrogen Gas!” hmm sounds a bit dangerous, but what the heck.

He recalls a discussion with some scientist, not one of Dom’s weirod mates, not one of the annoying covid ones, before that. Did he remember it right?

“coal came out of the ground and when burnt, made CO2 which caused polar bears to die.”

“YES  – pump polar bears back into coal mines! Brilliant!”

“zero gravity planes – check. No, wait a minute, that’s not right. Who was it who flew across the Atlantic first – Alcock and something. Now why would I remember that name, oh yes. Alcock and Brown, must get that in the article somewhere hee hee.”

“Zero emissions planes, that’s it.”

“Better mention trees, keep the hairys happy.”

“Why did Dom hate trees? Never understood that”. “Ah well….”

his mind wanders again.

It’s done. He sits back, laptop in one hand, glass of something nice in the other. Ha! another salvo fired from Brussels in the war against the Euro, or is it the EU? it’s all so damn confusing. Oh, no. that was a while ago. God, I’m still PM. Where did it all go wrong….

Allegra texts again. We need more than just the FT piece. Something’s got to go on the .gov website, otherwise it just looks like you’ve put out another ill thought-through piece of lazy journalism, as a tawdry attempt to create a distraction from the last piece of tawdry, ill thought through writing.

Johnson is tired. Maybe he has got Covid again. At least he wouldn’t have to hide in a fridge again. He zooms his new press chief. “Look Allegra can you just write something for .gov cribbing off what I’ve done for the FT? you’re a top hack, it won’t take you long… something like “Greenest Prime Minister ever launches new Industrial Revolution for the North and the other bits where there are new Tory MPs creating a million new jobs…. “. Stratton isn’t amused.”they’ll think you’re taking the piss. We’ll go with

PM outlines his Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution for 250,000 jobs.”

Johnson looks crestfallen. “only 250,000? ok… but only if we keep that bit about rewilding football pitches in.”

 

 

Posted in Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

All flesh is grass

Water meadows cut for hay © Miles King

Are we just slaves to a few members of the grass family – the gramineae? Is there something in these grasses that, like the common parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which elicits an increase in risky behaviour after infection, causes people to just want to grow more and more of it? It’s not like there isn’t other stuff to eat, and, as we know – from gluten intolerance to coeliac to diabetes caused by high sugar intake, eating grass is not necessarily good for us.

I looked at the figures for how much of England is covered in one grass or another. For a start, 69% of England is covered in farmland – 9 million hectares. Of this, 2.6M ha is one form of cereal (all grasses) or another – mostly Wheat, Barley and Oats. On top of that there are 226000ha of Maize. So the total area covered by annual grass crops this year is 2.826Mha or 31% of our farmland.

Then there is grass for grazing and fodder. Most of the grassland in England comprises just one species of grass, Perennial rye-grass. The Government keeps careful records of how much farmland falls into different categories – temporary grasslands (formerly known as leys), which are less than five years old, will be Perennial rye-grass. 713oooha of temporary grassland was recorded this year.  Grasslands older than five years old occupy 3.27 Mha of farmland.

This is where it gets a bit more complicated, because everything from a six year old rye-grass field and the millennia old chalk downland of Maiden Castle are all lumped together. Around a third of this 3.27Mha is considered to be “semi-improved” grassland, which means that it has more than once species of grass in it. Much of this land is still overwhelmingly grass though. But let’s work with 2/3 of 3.27Mha being just one species of grass (and the odd bit of white clover). That’s 2.18Mha.

So adding all of these together gives a grand total of 2,826,000 + 713,000 + 2,180,000 =

5,719,000 ha, which is 64% of all of England’s farmland.

All figures are from here, apart from the semi-improved grassland figure, which is an estimate derived from the National Ecosystem Assessment.

In addition, Perennial rye-grass is widely used outside of farmland. It’s the grass that you will see in every park in the country and on every playing field. It will also be a large part of golf course grassland, although other grasses are also used, notably varieties of Red fescue (Chewings fescue being the most commonly used one). According to the ONS there is 107,000ha of “functional greenspace” in England and this covers parks, public gardens, playing fields, golf courses etc. So we could assume that 75% of that will be grass and mainly PRG – say 75000ha. Even so, it’s a small addition compared to the farmed grass area.

A much larger area of grass is to be found on private lawns. Gardens cover 452oooha of England, and obviously not all of that is grass. One estimate suggests around 2/3 of private gardens are vegetated. If 2/3 of that was lawn, that would be 200,000ha of grass.

So these urban forms of grassland, dominated by PRG, might add up to another 275000ha.

That would give a grand total of just under 6 million ha of grass in England. And remember this is just a handful of species – Wheat, Barley, Oats, Maize and Perennial rye-grass.

That’s 46% of England, under five types of grass. Adding in those very species-poor semi-improved grasslands (basically rye-grass grasslands that have been managed less intensively since they were seeded, allowing a handful of wild plants like dandelions, to colonise) covering perhaps another 500,000ha, would bring us up to half of England.

“So what!” I hear some of you cry – we need to eat. Those grasses feed us. Well yes, a bit of that wheat is used to make bread, and more to make biscuits. A lot goes to chickens and pigs, which we eat. Then there’s all that PRG, which feeds cattle and sheep, which we eat, or we eat their cheese and drink their milk. And I don’t have a problem with that, I’m not a veggie.

Do we need to be bothered that we’ve covered half our country in five species of grass.

Unfortunately the consequences of concentrating on these grasses to the exclusion of everything else, is that everything else has been pushed to one side, or indeed pushed off the edge.

There is just 100,000ha or so of the old species-rich semi-natural grassland left in England plus another say 500,000ha of poorer but still valuable semi-improved grassland. And another 730000ha of rough grassland in the uplands – most of which was badly damaged by overgrazing by sheep during the 20th century.

That’s why places like Berrier Farm are so special, because practically all of the other places like them have already been destroyed.

There’s also the small matter of all of the chemicals which are applied to the land to keep these grasses growing. Some of them are directly contributing to the climate crisis, notably Nitrogen fertiliser which creates the most powerful and long-lived climate pollutant, Nitrous Oxide. And then of course there are all the methane cow burps from the cows grazing the ryegrass, although the story here is far more complicated.

And climate chaos may well mean that the handful of grasses that cover half of England at the moment, find that the climate is no longer suitable for them. The poor wheat harvests of this year (38% lower than 2019) may be just the beginning.

What might replace all of this grass? There’s a big push to plant trees (see the previous blog for how this can go wrong) with a target of 30,000ha a year.  Defra also has a target to create 500,000ha of new semi-natural habitat, which presumably would be on some of this land currently under these grasses. That still leaves a lot of land for this handful of grasses.

No, it seems that these grasses have us firmly in their grip. We are just the flesh of these grasses.

 

 

Posted in grass, grasslands, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Berrier Farm under Trees: 100 acres of peat bog, heath and wildlife-rich grassland destroyed by tree planting

 

Peat bog ploughed for tree planting

 

 

 

 

 

 

England desperately needs more trees, we are constantly told. And it’s certainly true that tree cover here is lower than most other European countries. The data must he handled with care though, when tree cover can include anything from Eucalyptus plantations in Spain, to Sitka spruce in Scotland. Not all trees are of equal value.

Nevertheless the Government has set itself a target to increase the tree cover of England by 30,000ha a year from 2025. Considering that it only achieved 2,330ha of new planting in England, in the year to march 2020, it has a long way to go. Imagine what would be needed to increase current planting rates by a factor of 13 in five years time. Imagine what environmental damage could be done if that planting target was met, by ignoring the impact of tree planting on other – more valuable – wildlife sites.

Earlier this year I wrote about a couple of examples of tree planting where environmental damage had been done – one in Cumbria and one in Cheshire. In both of these examples, the wildlife value of the sites was known, but not necessarily known to the land owners. Insufficient checks were made by those responsible for organising the tree planting, and the trees ended up being planted in the wrong places. As far as I know, in both of these cases the damage has been reversed and the trees removed. Both cases involved trees being planted without any involvement from the official Government Forestry agency the Forestry Commission, either during the assessment phase, or via grant-aid to provide financial support for the planting.

This article highlights in many ways a much more disturbing case, where the Forestry Commission and other official bodies are very much involved.

the area in question is the area of heathland south-east of the road.

 

The Greystoke Estate is famous as giving its name to the fictional Viscount Greystoke, better known as Tarzan. The real estate occupies a large chunk of land west and north of Penrith in Cumbria, right on the edge of the Lake District National Park. Greystoke Park appears to have been laid out in the 18th century with plantations – and tree planting continued through to the 20th century. Parts of the Estate were turned over to conifer plantation in the 1960s and sold off – most recently to Rally star Malcolm Wilson; this area is now known as Greystoke Forest.

Immediately to the south of this mosaic of conifer blocks lies about a hundred acres of sloping land, partly grassland, partly heathland, with a very wet peaty, bog in the middle of it, with some areas where the influence of the underlying limestone on the groundwater appears.  Old maps (collated for a planning proposal immediately adjacent to the site) indicate that part of the land had also had trees planted on it (known as Moorslack wood) in the late 18th century, but these had disappeared by the mid-20th century, perhaps cut down during the First or Second World Wars. A few scattered trees to the north-east corner attest to that lost plantation, as this aerial image shows.

1960 OS 1:25000 shows trees of Moorslack wood have gone.

Aerial image of the land south of the Berrier Road © microsoft.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The owner, according to documents sent to the Forestry Commission, is the local dairy farm, Berrier End Farm. Defra records indicate it’s a small farm in receipt of  ca £25,000 a year in farm payments, so about 125ha. That owner decided that they wanted to turn over this land to tree planting. Giving over a quarter of your farm to tree planting is no small commitment and it would be interesting to understand why that happened, but it’s indicative of the fact that small upland farms like this are right on the edge of financial viability, and with the coming changes to farm subsidies, it’s not surprising that farmers may decide to take up generous payments for tree planting and maintenance instead.

And generous they are. You can start with a woodland creation planning grant. They will give you £1000 to get started, then £150 a hectare plus 70% of the cost of specialist surveys, up to £30k per project. This particular site is 30ha so that’s £4500 plus, just to design the planting scheme. You can then get another grant for preparation of a woodland management plan (another £1k). But the main grant is a capital grant to cover the costs of planting – at £6800/ha  – that’s up to £204k for a 30ha site like this one. This latter one is paid via the Countryside Stewardship Scheme. Once you’ve created your plantation you can get a £200/ha a year payment for maintaining it, for ten years – that’s £60k. Considering that farm payments are only guaranteed for one year (2021) after this one, it’s easy to see the attraction of going into forestry with grants this generous.

Because of the size of the project, the rules on Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) mean that it would need to have some form of assessment. If it had been in the National Park (just a few hundred metres away) it would have gone for a full screening opinion. As it was, it was identified as a “low risk” area on the FC’s own mapping system, apart from the area of deep peat in the middle.

yellow indicates low risk area for tree planting

the dark green line is the Lake District National Park boundary

This map from the Forestry Commission’s own GIS shows that this whole area has been identified as a priority for tree planting, on the basis that it is low risk. This means that existing known and mapped information – on SSSIs, scheduled monuments, historic landscapes etc, has been interrogated and this is the “white space” in between. The assumption being that if it doesn’t have a designation it’s fine to plant trees on. The small area excluded in the middle of the site is deep peat.

 

 

 

 

 

The Forestry Commission asked the applicant to provide evidence about the environmental value of the site and was told it was “degraded agricultural land”. A bird survey was carried out which found 16 pairs of breeding Skylarks and Meadow pipits, plus a potential pair of Curlews. For some strange reason this, plus the description by the bird surveyor of the area as acid and marshy grassland, was omitted from the information circulated to consultees, including the RSPB. Had this information been circulated, it’s likely that the response would have been that it needed a full EIA.

The FC approved the application  – for a new plantation of 20ha of commercial conifers, 5ha of broadleaves (mostly around the edges) and 5ha of open ground, relating to the deep peat in the centre of the site and also adjacent to the Scheduled Ancient Monument at Stone Carr to the south.  Natural England didn’t object, only commenting on the need to avoid planting on peat greater than 40cm in depth and advised on planting a buffer of broad-leaved tree species along a watercourse. There is some irony here, given that just this week Natural England was praising the importance of protecting blanket bog on its own blog.

Shortly after the application had been approved, the site was drained and ploughed in preparation for tree planting – it’s unusual for this to be done in the Summer, especially during the bird nesting season when the owners knew that there were ground-nesting birds present. A concerned neighbour contacted local botanists, who realised that the plantation was going to destroy a botanically rich mosaic of unimproved (and semi-improved) grassland, heathland, blanket bog and basin mire, with calcareous influence.

The site was not on any map, and the owner had not been aware of its value. No-one with any botanical knowledge had looked at the site – some site visits had been cancelled as the whole public consultation had taken place during lockdown.

Unofficial visits by botanists after the ploughing had begun, recorded over 100 species of plants and lower plants, including several Red Data Book species and a number of rare and threatened grassland and other habitats. Despite being presented with this additional information the Forestry Commission refused to reconsider, let alone reverse, their decision.

ploughing of peat soils releases far more carbon than the planted trees will ever sequester.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s not too late to reverse this damage and reinstate the site, but the FC is digging its heels in. If this had been a case of a farmer proposing to convert semi-natural habitat into intensively managed grassland or arable, I think it’s fair to say that the EIA process would have identified the site as valuable and the farmer would not have been able to proceed. If they had proceeded without going through the EIA process, Natural England could and may well have insisted on the site being restored. The current situation is that the Forestry Commission refuse to accept they made a mistake and the tree planting is proceeding – with the loss of 30ha of valuable wildlife habitat. That’s a loss we just can’t afford to suffer.

Heath spotted orchids amid the tree pits

There’s a bigger point though. If the current system is failing to protect important sites, when there’s only a few thousand ha of plantation every year, how much will be lost when it’s thirteen times as much planting?

The biggest single thing that would address is would be the systematic completion of the priority habitat inventory. At the moment the PHI map is so incomplete that it’s actually dangerous, because it creates a false sense of security. Secondly the FC need to look again at their “low risk” areas map and the way they use it. At the moment everything that isn’t recognised as a valuable feature is lumped together into “low risk”, when in fact it’s a mix of “low risk’ and “unknown risk”.

Thirdly is it really acceptable in this day and age, that FC staff responsible for implementing the Government’s massive tree planting target, are incapable of recognising a piece of priority habitat when it’s staring them in the face? This case certainly indicates the urgent need for training.

Finally, this also illustrates that if you cut regulatory organisations’ funding to the bone, don’t be too surprised if they mess up.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Cumbria, Forestry Commission, peat bog, tree planting, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

Covid19 makes the case for Universal Basic Income unarguable

Theresa May famously claimed there was no magic money tree in 2018. But Rishi Sunak found it in 2020

Well it’s no surprise that we are once again teetering on the brink of a national lockdown in England, after yet another unnecessary delay which will lead to the death of thousands of people, either directly from Covid or as a result of the pressure on the health system caused by Covid. I do feel increasingly this comes down to the fact that Boris Johnson just wants people to like him (or love him) and that makes it impossible for him to make difficult and unpopular decisions. In that respect he couldn’t be more different from his hero Winston Churchill.

It seems to me that the main reasons we are back here again are because the Test Trace and Isolate system has never properly worked (thanks at least in part to the chummocracy appointment of Dido Harding to lead it) so people who came into contact with those who were infected didn’t find out about it. The other reason I suspect is that those who either were contacted, or knew by other means that they were a contact and therefore could well be either an asymptomatic carrier or indeed had some symptoms, just carried on with their lives and didn’t isolate themselves. I’m not seeking to blame these people.

If you’re the main breadwinner for a household and risk losing your job, or are on a zero hours contract so wouldn’t get paid for the 2 weeks of isolation, would you voluntarily leave your work, especially if you had no or mild symptoms? While some (including myself) have benefited from the furlough, self-employed or other support schemes, many have not. And now that the furlough scheme has ended (ignoring the woefully inadequate proposals currently on the table) millions of people are now at risk of losing their jobs and income. Universal Credit is a very weak and unreliable safety net.

If anything what the current situation means is that more people are likely to be forced to take up multiple different kinds of employment, rushing from one part-time job to the next, with all that implies for spreading the virus around the community.

I must admit to be in two minds about the decision to leave schools, colleges and universities open. As a parent with two children in full-time education of course I want them to be able to continue with their studies, as well as benefiting from all the other aspects of being in school/college. It does seem though that the reason behind this decision is the wrong one. The Government has stuck by its insistence that next year’s GCSEs and A-Level exams must be taken – presumably this is in large part influenced by the fiasco of last Summer and the “Mutant Algorithm”. It’s also driven by the ideology of Michael Gove and Dom Cummings, that exams are the only way to properly assess children’s educational progress. Which is of course nonsense and ideological nonsense at that. If the DfE decided that they could change the way GCSEs and A-Levels were assessed, to incorporate course-work assessment by teachers, that would reduce the pressure on schools to have children there five days a week, with all the attendant risks of new outbreaks occurring in schools, and then being passed back out into the wider community. But that would run counter to their ideological position so we can exclude that possibility.

On balance, I think it probably is the right thing to do to keep the schools colleges and universities open, and accept that some contagion is going to leak out into the community. But if there was an effective test trace and isolate system operating, each time there was an outbreak, isolation would prevent it from turning into a disaster, spreading through hospitals and eventually care homes. Aside from abandoning the disastrous outsourced TTI system in favour of using local health expertise, which seems so obvious and yet hasn’t happened to any great degree, one other radical option presents itself – Universal Basic Income.

The idea of Universal Basic Income isn’t new – it isn’t even particularly radical, but it smells so strongly of socialism that this Government would rather chew its own foot off than consider it. But think about it. Do away with the furlough scheme, the self-employed scheme and all the other schemes which have failed to stem the virus. Forget Universal Credit with all of its hopelessly complicated rules and traps for the unwary. Just pay each individual adult a payment every month into their bank account. Let’s say every adult gets £1000 a month, taxable income (but with no NI liability below the income tax threshold).

This would mean that everyone who needed to isolate could afford to. It would mean that children who go hungry during the holidays when their free school meals aren’t available, could have enough to eat. It would mean that people living on the street in tents would be able to find somewhere to live.

There would be a knock on effect of doing away with the impact of grinding poverty on people’s health, physical and mental. Healthier people fight off viral infections more successfully than unhealthy ones – and covid19 has shown this very clearly, killing those with illnesses of poverty, like diabetes & heart disease. And of course healthier people use fewer health services, saving the NHS and other public health costs.

But this far too expensive, I hear you say and will just encourage people to lounge around at home. Well yes it would cost a lot of money, but then money is disappearing out of the Government’s coffers faster than Nigel Farage’s political party scams come and go.

The Institute for Government estimated that Covid19 would cost £320Bn in the tax year 2020/21 – and that was before the latest lockdown. This money has effectively been created out of this air, or plucked from the Magic Money Tree, if you like.

Let’s say for arguments sake that there are 50M adults in the UK. £1000 a month to each of them would cost £600Bn a year.

State pension payments cost £99Bn a year.

Universal Credit is costing £110Bn this year.

The NHS costs £125Bn a year.

the personal income tax allowance costs £107Bn a year.

Tax breaks on contributions to private pension schemes total about £44Bn a year.

HS2 costs are currently £100Bn and rising.

The Test and Trace fiasco cost £12Bn.

and the entirely unnecessary Sizewell C nuclear power station is projected to cost £20Bn, though you can guarantee it will be far more than that when or if it’s ever completed.

Introducing a UBI would mean that other costs would reduce, such as state pension, universal credit and the personal tax allowance, which would all be replaced.

Taking off the cost of the state pension, UC and the personal tax allowance would leave the additional cost as around £300Bn a year, which is probably about what Covid is going to cost us this year. Reforming things like inheritance tax and capital gains tax, which favour the already wealthy, especially those with unearned wealth, would generate another £50Bn or so savings. And stopping wealth disappearing offshore could generate further savings, perhaps not quite as big but still significant.

The point is it’s not beyond the realms possibility at £1000 a month for every adult.

Would a UBI encourage people to sit around watching daytime TV eating chocolate all day? That’s obviously a Daily Mail style caricature but it’s also a real view among some of the public. I honestly don’t think it would, or rather only a tiny minority would do this.

I do think it would however encourage people to think more about and act to improve their work-life balance, and it would lead to a much higher level of voluntary work.  Volunteers are the lifeblood of communities and volunteering also creates wellbeing both for the volunteers and those being supported by them – and I would include mostly unpaid carers of the elderly, the ill and the less able in this.

A UBI would do more to create stronger communities than any Government-led scheme like Cameron’s failed Big Society ideas or the National Citizen Service, for one very simple reason. It would create time in people’s lives that wasn’t being spent on work, or looking for work, or worrying about not having enough work, or worrying about not being paid enough for the work that is done. It would also free up time for people to spend getting more healthy, whether through exercise or playing sport or doing physical volunteering such as on nature conservation projects.

I also think it would help with young adults looking to move beyond school or college and out into the wider world. Why not give university students a universal basic income, to help fund them through university, instead of saddling them with debt? And for those who don’t want to go to university, a UBI would help support them while they trained via apprenticeships or other training schemes.

Some might argue that the state shouldn’t be just handing money out to everyone, especially the already wealthy and that a UBI should be means tested. But we don’t means test the state pension and we don’t means test child benefit. So why apply a means test to state support between the ages of 18 and 66? If the wealthy don’t want the £1000 a month they can always donate it to charity. Most people in this country are not wealthy. Equally, an easy way to pay for a UBI would be to close down some of the many tax loopholes that the wealthy take advantage of, either to minimise the tax they pay on earnings, or, more usually, to minimise the tax they pay on unearned income.

Reducing tax breaks for the hyper wealthy – on pension payments, on land and other asset ownership, on inheritance, and doing away with offshore tax breaks, could easily raise enough to offset the costs of paying £1000 a month to the very wealthy.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has shown that he is prepared to abandon the failed ideology of austerity in the name of supporting society. He’s also been brave enough to create quite radical mechanisms to support the economy during 2020. Will he brave enough to push through Universal Basic Income though, or will it fall beyond his grasp.

Posted in coronavirus, covid19, Uncategorized, Universal Basic Income | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Jenrick’s Planning Reforms have nothing to say about tax dodges

North Dorchester urban extension

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s the last day for responses to the Government’s latest proposals to reform the planning system, to “level up” and solve the housing crisis, if you believe the spin. The proposals include zoning land (at a large scale) for development and could create a cash bonanza for landowners, as illustrated by this local story.

A couple of years ago now I was doing a regular walk near Dorchester where I live. Tied to a gate in a plastic wallet was a wodge of official looking paperwork. The rain had got to it and it was a bit smudged but I could see a map of the area around the public footpath I was walking along. In fact the map showed quite a large area of farmland near to the town. I looked a bit more closely a saw what it was – a Section 31/(6) notification. This is Section 31 of the Highways Act 1986, which creates a right for landowners to place a deposit (no pun intended) with their Local Authority, stating that they own areas of land and that they recognise that public rights of way exist but have no intention of creating any new ones, nor would they accept any proposals for new rights of way to be created based on historic use. It’s not foolproof but does help prevent any claims for new rights of way to be made. Since a change in the procedure in 2013 landowners have had to deposit maps with their local council and these are often now available online – it’s one of the way Guy Shrubsole was able to piece together Who Owns England, for his eponymous book.

Not long after that walk, word got out locally of plans to create a new “urban extension” north of Dorchester, a bit like Poundbury had done to the west. This new extension called “North Dorchester” by the developers is for another 3500 homes, on top of the 2700 being built at Poundbury. It’s a massive increase in the size of the town, with all the attendant pressures on the local infrastructure – hospitals, schools, the road network, water usage, sewage, additional recreational pressure on the surrounding greenspace. Still, there is a housing crisis in Dorset – it’s one of the most unaffordable places in England, comparing average wage vs house price. Surely building lots more houses will solve this?

It reminded me of that sodden map tied to the gate. Who owned this land? I looked it up on the Dorset Council landowner deposits website and bingo – there is was. Ilchester Estates. Here’s the map. As you can see, it’s not a particularly helpful map as it doesn’t show the ordnance survey base map.

 

 

 

 

 

So I looked on MAGIC and its very basic GIS tools enabled me to create this map and calculate the areas involved. The main block to the east (which was the bit where I encountered the soggy map) is 130ha. The western block is 53ha but 17.5ha of this is public open space (open access land associated with the old River Frome water meadows.) Still, that’s 165.5ha of land to be developed as part of the urban extension. Except of course it’s not really an urban extension, because there’s a floodplain in between the old town and the new one. Still, details.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When land is converted from farmland (as this is now) to housing, its value increases dramatically. Land worth perhaps £20,000/ha  as mediocre arable land, instantly becomes worth say £2 million/ha. The maths is easy – 165 x £2M = £330M.

That’s £330 million pounds for doing nothing, aside from owning the land.  Were that land to have been bought recently, one might decide to take the cost of purchase off to see what the profit is  – so assuming it had all been bought recently at £20,000/ha, the purchase would have been £3.3M. This would make the profit on development a tad smaller at £326.5M.

Except we’re talking about Ilchester Estates, the largest landowner in Dorset owned by one of the wealthiest people in the Country, the Hon. Charlotte Townshend. Guy Shrubsole estimates her land ownership extends to 11,300 acres, but it may well be more like 15000, just in Dorset. Townshend inherited the estate, indeed the Ilchester Estate has an interesting and unusual history of inheritance through the female line, which you can read about here. While her ownership of Abbotsbury tropical gardens and the famous swannery may be public knowledge, perhaps less well known is her property empire in Holland Park, London.

Ok, so owner of landed estate looks to massively increase her wealth by new housing development. That’s ok we need the houses and her unearned profits will be taxed, to benefit the empty coffers of the treasury…

Leaving aside the vexed question of what kind of houses will be built and will they resolve the housing crisis (spoiler: they won’t), I’m just going to focus on the tax element. I’ve become increasingly interested in tax and the tax system. Some readers will have spotted my investigation into farmland and tax breaks last year. I’ve done some more work on forestry and taxation this year, which isn’t in the public domain yet. It was only after I had published “where there’s muck” that I came across an obscure but highly relevant corner of the tax system, which just happens to apply to cases like The Ilchester Estate and North Dorchester.

Capital Gains Tax applies when an asset is sold at a higher value than when it was purchased. It’s one of the great inequities of the tax system that the top rate of CGT is 28% compared with 45% for income tax. If you earn an income you can have nearly half taken in tax, but if you have inherited wealth you are taxed at a little over a quarter if you want to flog something off. But there is more.

There are many varied and frankly bizarre reliefs available for CGT. One of them is called Rollover Relief. Rollover Relief applies when an asset is sold. Effectively the seller has 36 months after (or 12 months before) the sale to reinvest the profits in an eligible asset, to make the transaction exempt from tax. Yes you can get out of paying your 28% tax if you spend the money buying some other asset. What could these eligible assets be I hear you ask. The list is here, including fish and milk quota, plant and machinery, and – especially relevant forf this story, farmland and commercial forestry land. Yes, you can sell your farmland for housing, multiply its value by 100 and then walk away with the profits tax-free, if you reinvest in more farmland! The only proviso is that you don’t then sell that land on in a way which means you would have to pay the CGT eg by buying more farmland. That’s why it’s called Rollover relief. You can roll it over time and again until you die and the tax liability disappears, in a puff of will dust.

So there you have it. Sell your farmland for housing, walk away with a few hundred million quid, and not pay a single penny in tax.

Jenrick’s planning reforms do make proposals for changing the way developers pay for infrastructure, doing away with the complex Section 106 agreements and Community Infrastructure Levy approaches, though there isn’t really enough detail to say whether this will help or not. But it’s a cosmetic exercise compared to the amount of money that is draining away from developments in perfectly legal tax dodges. Planning for the future does even mention CGT on land value uplift  – in passing.

 

 

But they know they have no power over the Treasury to make such changes, even if they wanted to.

 

 

Posted in planning, tax havens, tax reform, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Lambs to the slaughter: What future for the UK’s sheep flock, post-Brexit?

Sheep near Wind Tor, Dartmoor. Photo by Anthea Simmons

As we wait for what feels like the final slow-motion spin of the car as it hurtles inexorably towards the cliff edge, wondering if our heroes are going to escape from this seemingly impossible situation … again … no, stop there. Enough with the Hollywood imagery, the tired old metaphors. They just aren’t funny anymore. Or even appropriate.

Enough of clocks running down, of tunnels being entered, with or without light appearing at their ends.

We are indeed in the end game now, 72 days until the transition period – or stay of execution if you prefer. In reality there are just a couple of weeks left before any draft wording would need to start its journey around European capitals, for ratification. I won’t dwell on permits to enter Kent, or giant lorry parks that may or may not be forever more known as Farage’s Garages.

No, today I want to talk about sheep and lambs. For while Ukraine is the bread-basket of Europe, it’s equally true that, for the last 50 years at least, the UK has been the sheep flock of Europe.

 

With 14 million breeding ewes producing 17 million lambs last year, the UK was by far the largest sheep and lamb producer in the EU, with over a quarter of the total herd. Spain was second largest (17 per cent), followed by Romania and Greece. In terms of total sheep meat production, the UK produced 40 per cent of the total, followed by Spain with 16 per cent.

At the same time, the UK has been turning away from eating sheep meat for decades – mutton is now a rarity and lamb consumption is declining. Our lamb consumption is currently around  3.9kg per person per year, down from 6.3kg in 1990. Lockdown hasn’t helped, pushing lamb sales down a further 7.5 per cent, presumably because people like eating lamb when they go out for a meal, but not at home. Lamb is actually very easy to cook at home, but its decline illustrates our changing food culture. We have developed a vicarious and neglectful relationship with food – Bake Off is now a national institution, but Deliveroo and Uber Eats deliver food to eat while watching it.

With the prospect of the UK leaving the EU without a trade deal in place, or a very poor one, lamb exports are under direct and imminent threat: 2 million lambs born earlier this year may have nowhere to go. Ninety per cent of all lamb and mutton exports from the UK go to the EU, roughly a third of our total production. If tariffs, quotas and other restrictions (such as the arcane sanitary and phytosanitary rules) come into force, as looks increasingly likely, our lamb export markets will collapse. That ‘Oven Ready Deal’ is transformed into a pyre of unwanted animal carcasses and the collapse of a very old industry and, in some places, ancient farming cultures. The ramifications could be very significant, much greater than farms going bust and farmers bankrupt.

The National Sheep Association would have us believe that the sky will fall in if the number of sheep plummets, but this is not entirely true, or even remotely true. But it will change some important historic landscapes. It’s difficult to put an exact figure on how much land is used for sheep grazing, as some land grazed by sheep will also have cattle on it. Much less than in previous times though, as mixed farming has also been disappearing over the same timescale as the nation has fallen out of love with lamb. Nevertheless something like 47 per cent of the UK is used for sheep, beef and dairy production. It probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest one third of the UK is sheep-grazed.

Sheep on Dartmoor. Photo by Anthea Simmons

One of those historic, sheep-grazed landscapes is Dartmoor ­– and there’s a bit of a sheep-related stink going on at the moment. Government wildlife agency Natural England (NE) has been in a long running tussle with the Dartmoor commoners over how many and what kind of animals should be on the unenclosed moor and when. An agreement was reached in 2012 after years of negotiation, but this agreement was based on an improvement in the condition of the wildlife, for which the moor is famous, in return for payments to the commoners. Fast forward to 2020 and NE has concluded that for one particular area of the Moor, Okehampton Common on its northern fringe, the presence of sheep over the winter is causing continuing damage to the wildlife habitats – upland heath and blanket bog. NE has told commoners they must remove their sheep during the winter time or lose their payments.

“Natural England threatens to sacrifice Dartmoor’s farmers” screamed the headline on a local Dartmoor news website, while Farmers Weekly adopted a more temperate tone, going with “Natural England wants sheep removed from Okehampton Common.” As local wildlife expert Tony Whitehead has pointed out, the Dartmoor Commoners are getting £1.43m over ten years, as part of their agreement with NE. NE has concluded that the arrangements that were made at the beginning of the agreement have not delivered the wildlife benefits that were agreed for the money, so they are now requiring the sheep grazing pressure to be reduced, especially in the winter months when sheep grazing can be particularly damaging to wildlife habitats like upland heathland and blanket bog. These habitats and other environmental aspects make Dartmoor an internationally important place for wildlife, recognised in protections derived from European law. Commoners will claim that sheep have always been part of the Dartmoor landscape and thousands of years of sheep grazing have shaped that landscape. This is true up to a point, but fails to recognise that the main sheep now on the moor, the Scottish blackface, was a late 19th century introduction and replaced the older Whiteface Dartmoor. The tougher Blackface could winter out on the moor. Before that, both cattle and sheep had been grazed on the moor during the summer, before being returned to nearby farms (or elsewhere) for the winter. As environmental historian Matthew Kelly wrote in his Dartmoor history ‘Quartz and Feldspar’*:

“It is hard to exaggerate the significance this change in stocking brought to Dartmoor’s future as a Common”

and that change continues to play out in the decline in the wildlife value of Okehampton Common, as sheep left on all year round gradually nibble away at the heather, the bilberry and the bog plants. Dartmoor is in itself a microcosm for the changing fortunes of sheep across the UK and the ecological impact that such large numbers have had, and continue to have.

Historic sheep numbers: from House of Commons Library Briefing paper 3339 (2019) Agriculture: Historical statistics.

 

The total sheep population remained relatively stable from 1875 through to 1940 when it dropped as, during the Second World War, food production focussed on growing cereal crops and vegetables. The 1946 Hill Farming Act introduced payments which led to substantial increases in flock size; but the real boost came when the UK joined the Common Market and in particular its Common Agricultural Policy. Sheep farmers were paid per head of animal (headage), so the more sheep on the hills the bigger the payment. The sheep population shot up to 45m, but the consequences for the upland environment were severe causing the destruction and degradation of large areas of upland heathland, blanket bog and other habitats, to be replaced by upland sheep-grazed pasture with little wildlife value. Once it became apparent that so much damage was being done, the headage payment system was abandoned and numbers started to reduce but they are still at historically high levels as the above graph shows.

Naturally all manner of promises were made to the sheep farming industry before the referendum. At the launch of Farmers for Britain, the current Environment Secretary George Eustice promised farmers that they would have as much if not more of a subsidy than they had received from the EU.

“And let’s get one thing straight. ‘The UK government will continue to give farmers and the environment as much support – or perhaps even more – as they get now.”

Then again in the same sentence he uttered these words, which may come back to haunt him:

“We will also maintain a free trade agreement. Last year, we exported £7.5bn worth of food to the EU but we imported food worth £18bn. We have an annual trade deficit with the EU in food alone of £10bn so they need a free trade deal as much, or perhaps even more, than we do.”

It’s plausible, and has been rumoured, that the Government will step in with some compensation payments for exporters, who suddenly find their export markets have vanished in a puff of smoke on January 1st, including sheep farmers. It’s possible that after January 1st passes frantic negotiations will begin, to reach an agreement that will allow food to continue to pass freely between the UK and the EU once again. But given that the only way that can be guaranteed is for us to be part of the single market, it seems unlikely, to say the least. If, in a worst case scenario, all exports of lamb to the EU stopped, it seems inevitable that the UK sheep flock will dramatically reduce in size – perhaps by a third or more. But this would still only bring the herd back to the level it was at in the earlier decades of the 20th century. One could argue that the only reason the flock increased so dramatically was because we were producing lamb to sell to the EU.

Should we be so surprised that that opportunity would disappear once we left?

*Quartz and Feldspar: Dartmoor – A British Landscape in Modern Times by Matthew Kelly (2015). Vintage (London).

This article first appeared on West Country Bylines.

Posted in Brexit, Dartmoor, George Eustice, lamb consumption, overgrazing, Sheep | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Ten Years of Blogging

Ten years feels a bit like a significant anniversary – and a long time. Perhaps the last ten years feels longer than many decades have, given what has happened (and is about to happen) over that period.

Ten years ago I was working at The Grasslands Trust, a charity that was created in 2002 to champion UK wildlife-rich grasslands – and was folded in 2012. So it lasted ten years as well. I enjoyed working at TGT and had been there in various guises for nearly four years before I started the blog. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I had been vaguely aware of the blogosphere but was more interested in it as an outlet where I could write relatively freely about topics that were relevant to grassland conservation.

Looking back at what I was writing about – unbelievably – the first topic was all about food, politics and the environment. Friends of the Earth had a Private Members Bill going through Parliament – or rather not going through Parliament. So my first topic ever on a blog was writing about where your food comes from, the impact it has on the environment and allied things like animal welfare; and why it’s important. Funnily enough Vicki Hird, who has been so influential on the current Agriculture Bill, was working for FoE on that Bill back in 2010.

Exactly ten years later, to the day, what is the hot topic of the day in Parliament? Where your food comes from, and who decides what standards it is produced to. Only instead of a Private Members’ Bill, it’s a Government Bill, the Agriculture Bill. The Agriculture Bill is the first significant reform in UK agriculture since before we joined the Common Market, and arguably the most significant since 1947. It holds great promise, in the form of “public money for public goods”: changing the way society makes direct payments to farmers – so that they are no longer paid just for owning the land, or paid to produce more food whether it’s wanted or not & regardless of any consequences. Public money for public goods means paying farmers to farm in ways which support the environment and support other social needs.

However today’s uproar, which has led to the likes of Jamie Oliver and Prue Leith (despite supporting Brexit) calling for UK farmers to be protected, does not relate to public money for public goods, but rather it’s about amendments introduced into the Bill in the Lords, which would require the Government to give Parliament a say in future trade deals. Deals with for example the USA, which could mean allowing food into the UK that is produced to lower standards; standards that UK farmers are not allowed to apply.

The Government has decided that the House of Commons cannot have a debate on that amendment, applying some arcane Parliamentary rules. Whereas 10 years ago the Sustainable Livestock Bill, as a Private Members Bill, was just talked out (yes, you guessed it, by Christopher ‘upskirting’ Chope) – as is so often the case. Of course back then UK agriculture policy was dictated by what was agreed in the EU. The big reforms of 2003 meant farmers were being paid according to how much land they owned or managed – and environmental payments were mostly heading to a very simple environmental scheme (ELS), which mostly paid farmers to continue what they had been doing anyway.

So obviously the big difference between now and then is that the route to effecting change in something fundamental like how our food is produced and its impact on the environment, was via the EU. Back then …. there were various routes of influence eg via MEPs, via Defra or direct to Brussels. I tried all of these with the scant resources available at the time. But the Common Agricultural Policy is a juggernaut with its own momentum and inertia. Back then they couldn’t even cope with the fact that a great deal of land used for agriculture had a lot of trees on it – this was codified in the 50 trees rule. But actually perhaps our lobbying in 2010 did have some effect, as five years later the rule was amended – to 100 trees/ha.

And now…. it’s via Parliament. Except of course that with the current Government, they are actively working to take away any role for Parliament, when it comes to food and trade deals, for ideological reasons.

Ideology. I’d already had a taste of that earlier in 2010. I’d been writing a report on grasslands conservation, with funding from the Government nature agency Natural England. We’d agreed the report would include some advocacy – what policy changes are needed to give wildlife-rich grasslands a chance of a future. When the Coalition Government took power one of the first things they did was to tell, in no uncertain terms, every Government-funded Agency, that they could no longer fund any advocacy or policy development work. This obviously caused a big headache for us, but we went ahead anyway (I think there was some editing to tone down some of the recommendations). The result was Nature’s Tapestry.

Austerity was also ideological. My third TGT blog was about “Spending Cuts Week” with Defra having its budget cut savagely and threats of a sell-off of National Nature Reserves – and of course the infamous plans to sell off the Forestry Commission.

Little did we know back then just how far the ideological revolution would reach, although the Cameron Government already had regulation in its sights from the outset. They were even trying to crowdsource deregulation ideas in early 2011 – and by May that year it was starting to become clear just how radical that Government wanted to be. This was the time when the plans started to be put in place for the EU referendum. Some of the key players in Vote Leave cut their teeth on the “No 2 AV” campaign against proportional representation in 2011. How things might have changed if that campaign had swung the other way. The rest, as they say, is history.

Looking back, my time blogging for TGT was relatively brief, but I picked up the baton again with this no longer new, nor even particularly about nature, blog in May 2013; and also occasional ones on the People Need Nature website, a charity I set up in 2015. And I would certainly credit this blog with having led to my writing so much for Lush Times between 2016 and 2019 (also now ceased publication). I’m now also writing for West Country Bylines and perhaps the occasional article in British Wildlife.

Regular readers will have noticed I’m not writing anywhere near as much as I used to. This year of all years has been difficult, not for lack of topics to consider – quite the opposite in fact. Some days/weeks/months, there is just too much to write about and I get stuck, dithering between different subjects. And the relentlessly bad news can also be very demotivating. Perhaps I’ve written enough – or even too much!

Anyway, as I always I am grateful to everyone who has taken the time to read and comment on my ramblings over these past ten years.

 

Posted in blogging, grasslands | Tagged , , | 15 Comments

Six visitors for you, Thirty grouse shooters for me. Counting the iniquity of the new covid laws

The figures for positive covid-19 tests have been climbing inexorably since a lull in the summer. Figures of 3000 new cases a day, despite the shambolic breakdown in testing carried out by the private sector (Pillar 2), look very much like the beginning of the second wave and have coincided with the return of schools and universities with all the attendant risks that entails.

In yet another knee jerk reaction, the Government has decided to restrict gatherings in England, indoors and outdoors, to six people (albeit these could be from six different households) as of 14 September. There is apparently no scientific justification for the ‘rule of six’, and it doesn’t apply in the same way elsewhere in the UK.

I play cello in our local community orchestra and was very much looking forward to returning to rehearsals this coming Sunday after we had to shut down last March. The committee had put in a massive amount of work organising us into two groups and working out how we could play while meeting the legal requirements of the old system. Now they are having to reassess everything for five days’ time. We may not be able to play.

We’ve become inured to Government announcements being sneaked out on a Friday evening, but in this case the new regulations came out late on the Sunday night, just hours before they came into law. They have not been seen by Parliament and therefore have bypassed any measure of democratic scrutiny.

Now we know why – there was a last minute change to allow hunting and shooting to be exempt from the rule of six.  Paul Waugh at Huffpost reported that the Government had arranged a Cabinet Office covid-19 committee meeting for Saturday, 12 September, only for it be cancelled. Changes allowing the euphemistically described ‘field sports’ were added in the following day, without any cabinet discussion.

Grouse moors cover over half a million acres of the UK’s uplands and are managed to provide a wild bird, red grouse, in sufficient numbers to enable them to be shot by the very wealthy as a hobby. A very expensive hobby, too. One that is only available to an exclusive set of individuals.

Why, you might wonder, would the Government stop four new mums in Red Wall seats from meeting in the park, with their babies, but allow thirty extremely wealthy middle-aged men to blast the bejeesus out of small wild birds and then have a slap up meal in the pub (or hunting lodge) afterwards? Why, indeed. Could it have anything to do with the fact that, for example, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, has  fifteen grouse moors in his constituency, according to countryside campaigner Guy Shrubsole?

 

 

 

 

 

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak meets the grouse-shooting lobby.

Perhaps it might have something to do with the fact that major Conservative party donors, like Duncan Davidson, founder of Persimmon Homes, own grouse moors. Or perhaps the Herrmanns might have had a word in Spaffer-Johnson’s ear. The Herrmanns – Jeremy and Edwina. What? You haven’t heard of them? Jeremy is a hedge fund manager, while Edwina worked with David Cameron at Carlton TV. And yes, the Herrmanns own a 26,000 acre grouse moor charmingly named East Allenheads and Muggleswick. And, according to this Evening Standard diary entry from 2014, Mayor of London Johnson took time out from his arduous ‘technology lessons’ (I mean important job!), to go grouse-shooting on the Herrmann’s estate. The Herrmanns are also generous donors to the Conservative Party, also making a £25,000  coontribution to Johnson’s own Mayoral campaign in 2008.

Finally, although he is no longer quite so powerful as he was, former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, owns a grouse moor. His grouse moor interests are amongst the few we know about. Strangely, for many grouse moors, it is not possible to determine who owns them, because the ownership is held in offshore tax havens.

The Daily Mail, along with other newspapers whose printing was disrupted for one day by Extinction Rebellion protestors seeking to bring to the public attention the climate crisis which is very much now with us, screamed that these protestors be stopped, thrown in jail.  Home Secretary Priti Patel mollified Mail, Telegraph and Murdoch papers (all owned via a complex web of companies based in offshore tax-havens)  with dark mutterings about listing XR as an organised crime outfit, alongside the lines of the Sicilian Mafia or the Sinalunga cartel.

Yet, it is these very grouse moors where real organized crime proliferates. Organized wildlife crime. There is insurmountable evidence that grouse moors are killing zones, not just for red grouse, but for the birds of prey which are naturally drawn to these upland landscapes (to eat the grouse). hen harriers, buzzards, even golden eagles fall prey to the keepers’ use of illegal poisons and traps. Yet the government sits on its hands and does nothing. In a recent debate on grouse moors and crime, Chancellor Sunak stood up and gave an impassioned defence of the ‘sport.’

Grouse moors are upland landscapes of heath and bog. Bogs are peatlands that are far and away our largest carbon stores, storing 300M tonnes in England alone. They are also all protected under European wildlife law. Yet grouse management involves burning this peat on a regular basis. Burning peat releases carbon, as well as damaging the peat and its ability to continue growing and storing carbon. Damaged peat releases the very powerful greenhouse gas Methane. The Government had signalled its intention a year ago to ban peat-burning on grouse moors. But, as a consequence of remarkably effective lobbying according to an article in the Times on Monday(£), that intention appears to have been quietly abandoned.

When it comes to taking action on the urgent crisis of covid-19, and the existential threat of climate change and mass extinction, the Government is at least consistent: consistent in favouring their friends and donors, while ignoring the needs of everyone else.

This article first appeared on West Country Bylines.

Posted in Boris Johnson, climate change, coronavirus, covid-19, grouse shooting, tax havens | Tagged , , , , | 26 Comments

It’s just not cricket: reactionary forces gather to challenge beavers’ right to stay where they belong.

In a rare piece of good news for the south-west’s environment, the government recently confirmed that beavers would be allowed to stay on the River Otter in Devon.

Beavers were hunted to extinction in Britain about 400 years ago. Hunters sought their pelts and their anal glands, which produce castoreum – a unique natural product which has been used in the perfume industry (and medicine) for millennia. Many species of wildlife become extinct because their habitat disappears but, in the beaver’s case, the habitat (rivers and wetlands) is still there, albeit badly damaged.

The government trumpeted the return of the beaver to the River Otter as its own success, but the truth is very different.

The beavers had found their way into the river by a release which remains a mystery to this day, and they had been quietly living there for several years before anyone noticed. Then, about six years ago, someone spotted a beaver and reported it to Natural England – I wrote about it at the time. The Angling Trust then weighed in, calling for the beavers to be shot, despite the fact that they are vegetarian and actually create very good-quality habitat, in which fish populations can thrive. After all, beavers and fish (including salmon and trout) have co-existed in these islands for millions of years before the beavers were hunted out. Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) also joined the debate with this comment:

Beavers have not been an established part of our wildlife for the last 500 years. Our landscape and habitats have changed since then and we need to assess the impact they could have.

This sounded remarkably similar to the commentary emanating from another august body -the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) who expressed opposition to species re-introduction programmes.

In 2013 the NFU commented on another proposed Beaver project thus:

There’s a certain amount of evidence that in Europe, in particular, that quite considerable damage has been done but in truth we don’t really know what problems there will be… and I don’t think anyone else does either,” he said.

“I haven’t seen any evidence that they’ll contribute anything to the eco-system.

“The history as far as introducing mammals in particular is not a particularly good one.

“We’ve seen the grey squirrel, rabbits and even mink so in reality there isn’t much evidence to suggest they do any good at all.”

Furthermore, Natural England (NE), whose remit is to advise the government on natural environment was, by 2014, completely under the thumb of its Whitehall department, having lost all its independence in the years following 2010, when the coalition government formed and swept away as many of New Labour’s institutions as possible.

From conversations I have had, it’s pretty clear there were people within Natural England who did not want Beavers to be released into the wild.

Whatever advice NE may have given to Defra about beavers, the Defra minister of state at the time, one George Eustice, said:

“We intend to recapture and rehome the wild beavers in Devon and are currently working out plans for the best way to do so. All decisions will be made with the welfare of the beavers in mind. There are no plans to cull beavers.”

So began the long struggle to save the River Otter’s beavers.

That struggle was led by the Devon Wildlife Trust, with stalwart support from Friends of the Earth. Eventually, Defra and NE relented, and agreed to a five-year stay of execution. Evidence was gathered, led by researchers at the University of Exeter, on the benefits of having beavers back in English wetlands and rivers. This confirmed what everyone already knew from studies based on beavers in Europe and also the earlier introductions in Scotland: beavers transform rivers and wetlands by felling trees and building dams. They re-create wetlands which have been destroyed in the past. These wetlands support a myriad of other wildlife; they also store carbon and they clean water that has been polluted by human activity upstream, notably diffuse agricultural pollution. By creating wetlands, beavers also help hold back floodwater in the catchment, reducing the intensity of flooding events – events that will become ever more common as the grip of climate chaos tightens. What’s more, the Otter’s beavers have become a tourist attraction, creating jobs in the local economy. Now the Otter’s beavers can officially stay, and Defra will be consulting this autumn over the next steps in the beaver’s return to England.

But they are still a controversial animal: the Angling Trust continues to mutter darkly about impacts on fisheries. Personally, I think this harks back to another mammal reintroduction project to which the anglers have never become reconciled: the otter. The otter became almost completely extinct from England’s rivers in the 1960s and 1970s, due to the use in agriculture of persistent highly toxic pesticides like DDT. After these had been banned, there was a series of unofficial introductions, akin to what has happened with the beaver. Now otters have returned to every river catchment in the country, and the anglers are not happy, because otters do eat fish. Indeed, an otter will happily take a bite out of a prize carp and leave the rest of the body on the reservoir bank, almost taunting the fishery’s owner. Some anglers would like nothing more than to see the otters gone again. I think some of this visceral hatred has spilled over into their attitude towards the beaver.

Forestry interests are also up in arms – apparently beavers are threatening the future of cricket. One landowner, Charles Dutton, (a keen angler and also chairman of the Frome, Piddle and West Dorset Fisheries Association), fulminated:

Cricket bat willows are a particularly high-value crop grown in wetland areas, making them a likely target of beavers. Who would compensate growers for such losses caused by beavers? The government, Natural England, the Wildlife Trust and the National Trust all seem unlikely candidates to offer compensation.”

The National Farmers’ Union has reacted similarly. It has never wanted the beaver back. Responding to the recent announcement, Phil Jarvis, the NFU representative on the beaver working group, said:

“Beaver activity can undermine riverbanks and impede farmland drainage, making fields too waterlogged for cropping or grazing … This seriously hinders farmers’ ability to produce food for the nation.”

Yes, you read that correctly: according to the NFU, bringing beavers back to rivers across England means we will all go hungry.

Let’s set aside the NFU’s obsession with growing biofuel crops (currently covering a shade under 100,000 hectares (ha) of farmland), or their support for growing that essential food crop, sugar beet – another 100,000ha). We could also ignore the fact that over half of our cereal crop is grown not to feed people, but pigs and chickens; or the fact that we produce only a quarter of the fruit and vegetables that we consume; or the fact that we have the largest sheep flock in Europe, with all the consequent environmental impacts. Or indeed the fact that all of this is propped up by £2.5bn a year in subsidies (from your taxes) plus another £2.5bn a year in tax breaks (money that could be spent on public services.)

No, let’s leave those little inconsistencies to one side, because, as Defra, the Angling Trust, and the NFU have all illustrated, this story of the beaver is all about who has the final say over what happens on the land (and the water) of England. As George Monbiot eloquently expressed it on 19 August: those who control the land are pushing back.

Just as Monbiot says there are moves to criminalise trespass by humans, trespass by beavers is also deemed unacceptable. Beavers cannot lobby parliament, write to their MP, march on Downing Street or do any of the other things that citizens can. They just go about their business felling trees, building dams, making baby beavers (kits) and eating plants.

We need to be their voice, as we must be for all of non-human nature.

Photo Credit: “Beaver” by Bryn Davies is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in angling, Beavers, Natural England, NFU | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Ofqual Fiasco and Planning revolution point to where the Vote Leave Government gets its ideas

As I watched the A-level results fiasco unfold over the last week  – the latest in a long line of shambolic Government u-turns  – it got me thinking about how this Government actually decides on what policies it is going to apply. After all, what is a Government without policies? Policies – and specifically policy reform, is what lies at the heart of our crumbling democracy. Elections come along, manifestos are written, people vote and then we have to make do with what we’re given. In this case, we have chosen (collectively) to elect a Vote Leave Government. That probably wasn’t mentioned explicitly in the Conservative Manifesto, but that is very much what we now have. Ministers are chosen according to the loyalty to the cause of Brexit. That nobody is exactly sure what the cause of Brexit, was, is, will be or should have been, is precisely the point. But I am not writing about Brexit today. Other than to note that we do not have a traditional Tory Government, but a very specifically Vote Leave one.

I was going to write something about the Planning Reform proposals that came out last week but that already seems like months ago. Does anyone remember? The plans are to dispense with half the democratic planning process – no that’s not right. The plans are to dispense with the main democratic element of the current two-stage planning process – that being the right to object to planning applications. The People (to capitalise them as the Vote Leave Government would have us do) will now only be able to contribute their thoughts and views during the creation of Local Plans. This bit of the process is usually way beyond the capacity of most people to influence as it’s technical and already bound up by rules set by the national Government (the rules were pulled together into the National Planning Policy Framework in 2011).

These nationally set rules already determine how many houses must be built in each planning authority area, which makes the preparation of Local Plans somewhat less democratic than may be thought.  If, as a citizen or a community group, you feel your local Council has failed to meet the tests set out in the planning system, you can take them to Judicial Review and have the decision overturned by a Judge. Except now the Vote Leave Government is planning to remove that right too.

Where do these ideas come from? Who comes up with these clever policy reforms? In the case of the planning white paper, it’s quite easy to spot the trail of crumbs. They lead back to a familiar place – the small incestuous cabal of neoliberal thinktanks. Policy Exchange leads on this. PE was set up by Michael Gove and his mates while new Labour were in power. These particular planning reforms were incubated at PE; a small offshoot of PE called Localis; and another very small thinktank called Create Streets. Jack Airey moved from Localis to Policy Exchange (for a couple of years), before hopping into 10 Downing Street this February as its planning guru. This is his white paper.

Nicholas Boys-Smith worked at the Tory Government’s favourite outsourcing consultants McKinsey (who infamously wrote the Lansley reforms which did so much damage to the NHS) before setting up Create Streets. Boys-Smith worked with Mrs Thatcher’s darling intellectual of the (far) right Roger Scruton, on his Living with beauty report on planning design. Boys-Smith will also be working with consultants on the creation of a national model design code, which will further constrain Councils when drawing up their Local Plans. These are the new harbingers of public taste.

Changes have already been made to another element of the planning system – use classes. Time was when local authorities were able to decide, through their Local Plans, whether an area should be mixed use, predominantly housing, employment use, retail, industrial, and so on. That’s all been swept away. One consequence of this is the creation of housing from former office blocks – creating new slums. One of last year’s rash of Brexit MEPs – Ben Habib, made a tidy profit through his firm First Property, from these conversions before his brief foray into politics.

Returning to the A-Levels fiasco, it’s unsurprising to see Education Secretary Gavin Williamson blame Ofqual – the regulatory body charged with ensuring exams are marked properly, for the mess. But who was it who instructed Ofqual to make sure that, whatever system they came up with, there was no grade inflation this year? Would Ofqual have included “we must not have any grade inflation” in their algorithm as the first and most important criteria if the Education Department hadn’t stipulated it. As it turned out, in order for the algorithm to ensure no grade inflation, but also for it to take account of the fact that it was simply impossible to determine grades for very small sample sizes, such as are commonly found in private schools, the algorithm was forced to reduce grades for large state schools and especially Sixth Form Colleges, while Private School grades increased. Where might this obsession with grade inflation come from?

Dominic Cummings was Michael Gove’s key advisor at the Department for Education during the time of chaos in 2013, when they sought to push through (by any means necessary) their plans to revamp the National Curriculum, remove continual assessment and place exams at the heart of grading for both GCSEs and A-Levels. Gove and Cummings believed they were in some existential battle for the soul of England’s education with “the Blob”. This was an idea imported wholesale from the states, the idea that educatioal academia and the teaching profession were in cahouts to protect themselves and impose mediocrity on school students. There were probably some communists lurking in the shadows too. Cummings is obsessed with grade inflation. He’s written repeatedly about it in his blog. He believes A-Levels have become too easy, allowing too many students to go to university, devaluing a university education.

These are two illustrations from many, showing how policy is being developed by the Vote Leave Government. One might expect, in a normal world, that Government policies, especially radical ones like fundamentally reshaping the planning or education systems ,would be based on empirical studies: evidence gathering, running some pilots and reviewing their success. But this Government is fuelled by pure belief in its own righteousness, by the personal views of key individuals, and with the help of its friends in the neoliberal thinktank world, thinktanks often opaquely funded and influenced by vested interests.

This piece first appeared on West Country Bylines

 

 

 

Posted in covid19, Cummings, Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove, neoliberalism, planning, Policy Exchange, Think Tanks, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments