A Green Future: 25 year plan launched (archived)

Note: for some reason I hadn’t saved this piece from Lush Times to this blog. It’s an old piece from 2 years ago.

Michael Gove – the most energetic and intellectual Environment Secretary we have had for many years – has been busy. Fresh from his performances at the two big annual farming conferences of the year (which I will write about next week), Gove  (perhaps with a push from the Prime Minister) has today published the long-awaited 25 Year Plan for the Environment.

Having seen a draft of the truly dreadful version created under his predecessor Andrea Leadsom, I’ve been looking forward to seeing what he has produced (from all accounts he’s  had a very personal involvement in its creation) and the result is… 151 pages of verbiage.

Verbiage – an overabundance or superfluity of words, as in writing or speech

Why did it need to be so long and why did it take such a long time to produce?

It’s heartening, of course, to see the “intrinsic value” of nature repeatedly mentioned.  Intrinsic in this sense means the value of nature for its own sake, not because it provides people with benefits – crucial though these benefits are.

The idea of Natural Capital is central to the plan – and it’s a controversial idea.

Some Natural Capitalists believe that everything in nature has a financial value – the danger with this view is that if something can be priced, it can be sold. Others recognise that some aspects of nature – beauty, or as a source of inspiration, cannot be valued economically, but are still of immeasurable value. The plan recognises this, without explaining how these “intangible” values will be protected.

There is a suggestion that if we all do our part, then the Environment will be protected – deciding whether to use a single-use coffee cup (with its non biodegradable plastic liner) or not, for example. But when two thirds of the UK is owned by 0.36% of the population, it’s clear that some individuals have a far bigger role to play than others.

One of the weakest elements of the plan  – and it should really be the strongest – refers to “connecting people with the environment”. Apart from this being an uninspiring description of something so critical, there is no ambition or political drive here. And all the aspirations that are outlined fly in the face of reality.

Schools, for example, are being encouraged to create nature-friendly grounds, whilst clearly at cross-purposes, the Department for Education is telling them to build new school buildings on that same ground. And in the case of Toby Young’s Free Schools, these are being established in buildings with no grounds to green.

Can we expect nature-friendly window boxes provided by Defra? And while Defra may aspire to creating more urban green spaces for us to enjoy nature, the reality is that Local Authorities are being forced to sell off parks and greenspaces for housing, to offset cuts from central Government funding.

The Public Forest Estate (that is land owned or leased by the Forestry Commission in England) continues to receive special protection within the Plan. This probably emanates from the 2011 forestry sell-off debacle – which ultimately led to Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman being publicly humiliated by former PM David Cameron (remember him?) in the House of Commons. Other public land continues to be sold off though – Ministry of Defence land (such as the Nightingale and Meadow haven at Lodge Hill Kent) is being sold off for housing, as are Prisons, Public Parks and even NHS land. While Forests are safe, the public estate is being quietly disposed of – with big implications for the environment.

We know how keen Michael Gove is on Beavers, but it looks like he did not get this all his own way – the section on Natural Flood Management mentions “building small-scale woody dams” but doesn’t suggest that the reintroduction of beavers is the best way of building them. Why, I wonder, pay people to build woody dams, when Beavers will do it for free?

A commitment to produce a Strategy for Nature – to replace the now aging (and mostly undelivered) Biodiversity 2020 strategy, does feel a bit like the can has been kicked down the road, yet again.

And although it’s welcome to see a target of 500,000ha of new wildlife habitat being created, why is there no commitment to protect the existing and still threatened areas of high quality wildlife habitat?

We really need the series of Sites of Special Scientific Interest, (started in 1949), to be completed – before what’s left has gone.

Another challenge will be how to prevent new wildlife habitat, created under a 10-year- scheme such as countryside stewardship, being converted back into farmland again when that scheme ends.

The plan is full of good intentions and these need to be recognised and encouraged. But what we also need to remember, is that under this and the previous Government, funding for the Environment Department Defra, and its agencies, including Natural England and the Environment Agency, have been cut, cut and cut again. Defra budgets have been cut by nearly half since 2010 and expert staff have been lost, both within the department and across its agencies.

Environmentalists often bemoan the short-termism of five year Governments. The environment operates on a range of time-scales – many are far longer than five years. Equally, the danger of a 25 year plan is that aspirations can be made that are risk-free – because this Government will not be around in 25 years time to be held to account for their failures, or feted for their successes. After all, if the Government had announced the publication of a 200 million year environment plan, they could commit to the complete eradication of marine plastic, because by then it will have been converted, by geological processes, into a thin layer of oil.

I’ve seen a lot of these documents over the past 30 years, and this is definitely not the worst. But as with all the others, it will be judged by how much of it is actually delivered.

What we need is more herbage, and less verbiage!

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2019…what a year.

The south winterbourne ©Miles King

This will be my last blog of 2019 as I intend to take a bit of a break from social media. But we’ll see how well that works out!

I’m not going to go into any great depth about the political shennanigans that we’ve seen this past year – as we are all far too familiar, perhaps even tired of hearing about it – and I have written about them ad nauseam.

I thought instead I’d just give a quick update on what has been going on here.

The year started with me continuing to write a weekly column for Lush Times, which I was really enjoying. Yes it was quite hard work coming up with a story every week and I had to keep a close eye on all the emerging environmental stories and also try and find interesting ones that weren’t already out there in the public domain. I was also continuing my work with People Need Nature, albeit this was a bit on the back burner, partly because it has been very difficult to find funding to support it.

Once again Lush had come up trumps supporting my report on farmland tax “Where there’s muck there’s brass“, which was the follow up to the Pebble in the Pond, the first report I produced for PNN looking at opportunities for UK agriculture after Brexit.  I worked on this through the Spring and it was published in late June. I’m running a session on farmland tax at the Oxford Real Farming Conference in a couple of weeks time, so please come along if you’re there.

Lush then decided to shift away from social media in April and I could see the writing was on the wall for its digital output including Lush Times. The last piece I did was on their amazing carbon negative packaging made of Cork at the end of July. This was picked up by the Telegraph and went a bit viral from there, which was nice. Also a bit ironic considering how difficult I had found it to get the press interested in my tax report. I was very sad that the Lush writing had come to an end after two years but it also gave me a big nudge to return my focus to People Need Nature again. It was also very sad to see the excellent team of writers, editors, photographers, film makers and podcasters ,that had built up around Lush’s digital work (with Si Constantine at its heart), disbanded.

Away from Lush and PNN, I continue to be involved with the Floodplain Meadows Partnership, which is an excellent project and I feel very lucky to play a very small part in its work. I’ve also joined the advisory board of a new group called Unchecked, created to campaign for the enforcement of environmental regulations. I think this is going to be very significant in 2020, with all the deregulatory pressures that Brexit brings.

There’s also a long running story of family illness which I won’t go into, but it’s thankfully much improved.

What do I hope for in 2020? Well it looks like there might be some very interesting arts/nature projects developing, which I think could be just what PNN needs, to take it forward. We  also have some good urban nature/nature connection projects on the go, which I will write more about in the new year. As for politics I think I might take a step back from policy work, aside from one small project looking at the perils of this mad tree planting craze we are in the midst of. I will keep blogging on here as and when I think there’s something interesting to write about.

So it just leaves me to thank everyone who has read this blog (or my never-ending stream of tweets), and especially those who find the time to leave comments.

Happy Christmas and New Year.

 

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Happy 70th Birthday to the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act (and SSSIs)

Parched acid grassland on Black Down, in the centre of Dorset AONB ©Miles King

While supporters of the Corbyn Project continue to search their souls for reasons why Labour now has the smallest number of MPs since before universal suffrage, I thought I  would commemorate a small but significant anniversary – it’s 70 years today since the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was made law – by the most Socialist Government this country has ever seen.

The 1949 Act, as its known in the trade, introduced National Parks and the first nationwide right of access to the countryside (as the name would suggest). But the act also created Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) and National and Local Nature Reserves (originally just called Nature Reserves). Almost as an after thought the Act also introduced the concept of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (though back then they were areas of special scientific interest). A National Parks Commission was created to oversee the creation of the Parks adn AONBs. And something called the Nature Conservancy was created – mainly to look after the Nature Reserves – and if they had any spare time to look for areas of special scientific interest, draw some rough boundaries on a paper map, write a sentence of two as to why they are interesting (for scientists of course).

But things were so different in 1949 that the Government didn’t feel it necessary to inform landowners that their land was of special scientific interest, only the Local Authorities. What the LA’s were supposed to do with this information is unclear, but it does give an idea of how things were viewed back then. There was no sense that all of this wildlife was about to get swept away as a result of the food policy and consequent subsidies provided by two separate acts – the 1947 Agriculture Act and the 1946 Hill Farming Act. Joined up Government didn’t exist back then either, although there is a single line in the Act which states that whatever the National Park Commission or Nature Conservancy (and Local Authorities) might wish to do, they must  to “have due regard to the needs of agriculture and forestry”. That means they had to bear in mind that Agriculture and Forestry come first.

There’s no question that this was a visionary piece of legislation and it set the foundations for everything that would come afterwards. What it singularly failed to do was to prevent the catastrophic loss of wildlife (and landscape character) that was to come in the following three decades. While lines were drawn around National Parks, AONBs and areas of special scientific interest, there was little to stop the landowners from carrying on and doing what they wanted. Or rather doing as the Government instructed or encouraged (via generous subsidies) them – whether that was ploughing up down and meadow to sow the newly-created wonder-grasses or cereals; or planting up heath and moor; wood and forest, with conifers. The 1947 Town and Country Planning Act in combination with the new Parks and AONBs legislation did prevent urban sprawl from spreading into them, but did nothing to stop the bulldozer and the plough, or the ever increasing number of sheep on the hills.

Despite the repeated protestations that the law was failing in its avowed intent of protecting our flora and fauna and the places they lived, nothing serious was done until 1979. Thanks to our joining the EEC (yes the irony should not escape anyone), as it was then, we were legally obliged to implement the EU Birds Directive. This led to the next most important piece of UK wildlife law – the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. There was  the most almighty row as  farm, forestry and landowning vested interests sought to prevent any change from taking place ie to provide actual protection for those SSSIs. It was at the time the most heavily amended piece of legislation ever to pass through Parliament and I don’t know whether that record has subsequently been broken. Even after the Act was passed it was so flawed that it gave landowners free rein to embark on a further period of intensive destruction until an amendment was brought in, in 1985. The Nature Conservancy Council, then sent out its officers to find out what had happened to all those paper protections afforded following the 1949 Act. Sadly the original series of SSSI maps has not yet been digitised and made publicly available. But I have seen some of them for Dorset when I worked at English Nature. It would make a sobering study.

When the SSSIs were “renotified” in 1985 and 1986 (a euphemism as the original notification was only to the Local Authorities remember), in a heroic project carried out in the teeth of landowner opposition by a very small band of civil servants, what they found was shocking. Many sites had been lost, were heavily fragmented, or so badly damaged that there was nothing left to protect. But further damage had been stopped – and since then very few sites have been completely lost (mainly to infrastructure development like roads). Of course the quality of those sites has continued to decline in many cases, but that’s another story.

So 70 years on we stand at another crossroads in the history of nature protection in the UK – but it’s as though someone has turned the finger post around and we’re heading back to where we came from. Forty years of EU membership has provided a whole additional layer of protection (and funding)  – creating our Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas. All but a few anomalous sites are SSSIs under their EU protection – and it’s worth remembering that when the Habitats Directive was enacted in 1992 (partly thanks to Boris Johnson’s dad) the UK originally stated that they didn’t need to do anything about it because SSSI law already gave the sites all the protection they needed. It took a lot of campaigning and legal action to make them change their minds.

It seems to me inevitable that these additional EU protections will be stripped away before long – aside from anything else that protection was rooted in the threat of the UK being taken to the EU court and given massive fines which they couldn’t wriggle out of. If the laws creating additional protection for European Sites stay on the statute book, they’ll be a useful as those original SSSIs were back in the 1950s ie paper protections.

 

 

 

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Election Blog 8: The aftermath

Remember waking up to the shock of the Referendum result in 2016? Today feels very different. Yes the Conservatives have won 363 (with 2 yet to declare), by taking seats off Labour in their traditional heartlands. They have a reasonable majority but it’s no landslide. Labour won 419 seats in 1997. The Tories won 343 in 1992 and 376 in 1987.

Thanks to our ridiculous electoral system, the Tories gained 30% of the total electoral vote, and have a healthy majority. 33% of voters did not vote. I’m increasingly of the view we should adopt the Australian system where it is compulsory to vote. “No taxation without representation” can work both ways.

Johnson has already admitted he’s won by “borrowing” votes from Labour, suggesting he knows this is a temporary shift as a result of two things – Brexit and Corbyn. Leave voters in Labour constituencies will have been horrified by Labour’s vacillation over Brexit and their position going in to the campaign was confusing, even if it was logical. Logical doesn’t win campaigns.

Perhaps more significant was Labour and floating voters’ distrust of Corbyn himself. He was elected leader by accident and he has shown his inability to be the leader Labour needed, at this critical moment. His own deep euroscepticism was clear for all to see, even if he reluctantly agreed that the party would take a different line – but he was certainly responsible in part for their confusing shifts and slides in position over the past four years. His utter failure to tackle the anti-semitism scandal will also have contributed to people viewing him as an unsuitable leader of a political party, let alone Prime Minister. And then there’s that long history of supporting radical (and militant) causes around the world. It’s what a devotee of international socialist revolution would naturally do. But most people would not want someone adopting that political stance to be their Prime Minister. So people didn’t vote Labour because Corbyn (and the cabal around him) was in power.

Of course there have been lots of dirty tricks and I’ve read that there was a massive social media campaign by the Tories in the last couple of days of the election. Hopefully we will find out the details but Facebook appears to be deleting the ads now so perhaps we will never know how effective it was in shifting votes in key constituencies at the last minute. With a decent majority there is now little chance of there being any kind of investigation into electoral malpractice, and certainly not the root and branch reform we desperately need of our electoral system and regulation of electoral campaigns and funding.

One thing which is now resolved is that Brexit is solely the domain of the Conservatives and they will now own whatever happens next. The Brexit Party has fulfilled its role, shifting the Tories towards the hardest possible Brexit and Farage will disappear off to the US dinner speaking circuit. Thank goodness for that. One thing that is still unclear is how the ultra-hard right European Research Group clique within the Tory party will behave now. Does Johnson have enough of a caucus, particularly among the new intake, to support his approach of a 11 month transition period and the “border in the Irish Sea” solution to Northern Ireland. Or is the ERG still large enough (or perhaps enlarged) to push for other forms of Brexit. Given that Labour will be in total disarray for at least a couple of years it seems unlikely that we’ll see anything like the bizarre coalitions that sprung up in Parliament over the last couple of years. Johnson has a clear run at whatever Brexit he wants to get done. And he’ll have to live with the consequences whatever they are.

On the environment, which let’s face it had a good campaign, I hope that some of the manifesto commitments made by the Tories stick. But the underlying reality still stands, which is that leaving the EU is bad for the environment – especially as Johnson has made clear he is moving away from the “level playing field” alignment with the EU. So we can say goodbye to the extra protections afforded by the EU directives – Habitats, Birds, Nitrates, Environmental Impact, Water Framework, etc etc. This is going to be painful. Will it make a massive difference to nature in the UK? difficult to say but the changes will be very significant in some places. EU law has held back housing development around the Heathlands of southern and central England for 15 years now (including here in Dorset). Those restrictions must be under severe threat as the housebuilders (who help fill Tory coffers at every election) look to capitalise on all that land becoming available, without having to spend anything on SANGs. There’ll be further relaxation of planning rules to allow development in the Green Belt and I would expect around villages  and towns. And a further accelerated sell of of public land (for housing.)

The fate of UK agriculture now rests in the hands of whoever becomes Trade Secretary and how keen they are on a US trade deal. Opening up our borders to imports of cheap food from the US and elsewhere will spell disaster to our farmers who can’t possible compete on price, however much they intensify. Equally a poor trade deal with the EU, or no trade deal at all, will cut off exports markets for Lamb and Beef, in particular. I’d also expect rules on growing GMO crops to be relaxed once we leave the EU.

Action on climate change will proceed in the slow land towards net zero by 2050, but once we are tied closely to the US, our enthusiasm for action (especially overseas) will be mitigated by whoever is in power there. Nevertheless I can see a big forestry programme getting going, with mass conifer planting on all that abandoned sheep land. I’m sure Confor will be grateful to Friends of the Earth for delivering their policy agenda for them. As a sop to the environment lobby, expect to see a handful of new national parks delivered by the Glover Review and some more introductions of lost animals; but with landowners being given free rein to cull them if they breed too successfully.

One question that is still to be resolved is whether Johnson and the Tory Party will shift wholesale to the positions adopted by the hard right  – the faux libertarians who occupy all those Think Tanks in Tufton Street. I’m talking about the “Singapore on Thames” vision, of a low tax low regulation society (although Singapore is much more complicated than that). This vision involves completely dismantling the welfare state created after the Second World War. I’m in two minds at the moment as to whether it will happen. Chances are that there are enough devotees of this political stance in the new Cabinet to push for it to happen. On the other hand Johnson (or rather his advisors) will be mindful of all those “borrowed” Labour voters, who are much more inclined towards a mixed economy. So there might only be baby steps for the moment, putting in place the measures needed to see a wholesale shift after Brexit is a distant memory.

If it’s any consolation, it was still a struggle to get Labour interested in the environment after the initial enthusiasm of the late 90s – and progress to reform the CAP was so glacial that I’d more or less given up believing any significant change was possible 5 years ago. We are still more likely than not to have a new agriculture policy which supports payments for public goods – and that’s worth campaigning for.

Nature still needs our voices to be heard, whatever Government is in power.

 

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Election Blog 7: Anatomy of a Dead Cat

It seems, finally, that this election campaign has come to life, despite all the Tories’ best efforts to keep it in the deep freeze – ok I’ll stop with the horror tropes now. Maybe (heheh).

It started with the most extraordinary event  – which Marina Hyde has effortlessly described (never a good idea to compare yourself with such giants – I tell myself) so perfectly. Boris Johnson now has “phone robber” added to the long list of names Stewart Lee has assigned him. Of course the story that Johnson sociopathically avoided having to comment on was the story of Jack who, with suspected pneumonia, ended up sleeping on the floor of Leed General Infirmary because there were no beds.

It’s like the Christmas story, but in reverse, with Boris Johnson as some dark Christmas character from German folkore like the Krampus or from the StruwwelPeter stories.

It was I think more than anything else the wonton casting-off of social norms and the fact that he was being filmed by an ITV camera crew as he did it, that caused the sensation, as much as the story of Jack itself. Anyway within an hour it was clear there was a major crisis brewing and the CCHQ disinformation unit – otherwise known as CCHQ had to spring into action. They needed a Dead Cat. A dead cat is a story of such craziness, such appeal to the media, that it will displace whatever awful story is already running.

First they tried the “we’re going to privatise the BBC” line while Johnson was dressed up like a pantomime Elf n Safety gorn mad character in a Sunderland factory. This didn’t cut through at all and indeed people were already commenting that it was so obvious that it was a blunder.

 

 

 

 

 

They needed another plan. Health Secretary Matt Hancock had been dispatched to Leeds General Infirmary  – well it’s not entirely clear what the plan was, perhaps to say sorry (to whom though?) – but he was there and as he left the building he was confronted by a tiny group of Labour protestors – literally about five people who were shouting at him. As you would. As his car left a man with a bicycle gesticultated at the car and Hancock’s special advisor walked into his raised arm. That was it. No altercation. No scuffle. A video released quite some time afterwards revealed the protestor saying to the Spad “you walked into my arm.” as if to suggest the Spad had said something like “you hit me.”

Within minutes Laura Kuenssberg, Robert Peston and Tom Newton-Dunn – who we shall call the client journalists, for the purposes of this charade, were tweeting that the Spad had been punched, and things had turned nasty.

 

 

 

We still don’t know how these three knew what had happened as none were on the scene. Newton-Dunn has been having a particularly bad week, after earlier publishing a story about the hard-left cabal around Corbyn, which turned out to include real Neo Nazis in its sources. The story was pulled after threats of legal action.

Anyway, the dead cat had been swung and had made contact.

What was interesting was who was amplifying the message – an awful lot of bot accounts on twitter. Hopefully someone will do an analysis as it could prove instructive – initial analysis here.

The “punch” story spread like wildfire – and within half an hour was on the Mail online as well as the deniable Tory/Brexit disinformation unit otherwise known as Guido Fawkes. By 5pm it was clear that the punch story had been exposed as a fake – BBC reporter Nick Eardley, who was actually there, confirmed on PM that there was no fight, no punch just an accidental collision. The story continued to run, but now there was a counter story all on its own – against Kuenssberg, Peston, Newton-Dunn and their client journalism, their willingness to swallow lines from “a downing street source” or ” senior conservative party source”, or whatever euphemism is in play at that particular moment.

By the 6pm news Kuenssberg’s report made no mention of the punch and she issued an apology on her twitter feed, but of course the damage had been done. Although actually the damage had not worked because the Jack story was still there blazing away at 10pm. Perhaps there was a secondary motive with the dead cat, which was to cast Corbyn supporters as violent leftist thugs hell bent on destroying the system – much as Newton-Dunn’s Neo-Nazi inspired hard left conspiracy story, had wanted to do.

Since I left the crime scene I see this morning that a new dead cat attempt started late last night, with claims that Jack Barr’s photo was staged and he couldn’t possibly had had pneumonia. This is how low the Tories are prepared to go. As I’ve said before it is a “no holds barred” contest. More on today’s dead cat here.

Is this all a storm in a tea-cup (or cat basket)? perhaps. But one thing is clear. Whereas we all knew that the Mail the Telegraph, the Times etc all the billionaire-owned media, are not to be trusted, now we can add client journalism in the broadcast media as those either willing or susceptible to being manipulated, happily amplifying dead cat stories to disinform and confuse the public, the voters.

This is not good news for our democracy. So we have to redouble our efforts to bring the media to account after all this is done and before it’s too late.

 

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Election Blog 6: zombie apocalypse

The week begins – a week where, it would not be too melodramatic to suggest, the future of the UK could head in such stupendously different directions depending on the outcome of the election on Thursday, that it would end up being two different countries. And in one case it could literally mean it ends up being two different countries, with a third piece handed over, or back, depending on your viewpoint, to another country.

In this very short series of blogs I’ve tried to examine the various parties’ views on the environment and their commitments to change things in that regard. It’s fair to say that the environment – or rather climate change – has figured very significantly in this election campaign. Most significantly we’ve had a bidding war between the parties as to who can come up with the most ambitious net zero carbon timetable. One spin off of this has been the “tree rush” with parties vying with each other to come up with the most unrealistic tree planting target. Although I haven’t discussed them we have also seen Labour publish a “plan for nature” and the Greens also commissioned a New Deal for Nature. I might come back to these, but Mark Avery has looked at them both if you want some analysis. Friends of the Earth has awarded Labour the prize for the “greenest” manifesto, which has irked the Greens. As to whether the various parties have donned green clothing in a cynical attempt to capture current interest in the environment… I will probably return to that question another time.

Looking at the campaign more widely, it has been characterised by dirty tricks, which is where I started this series, but also perhaps of greater concern, a lack of accountability on the part of the Tories and Boris Johnson in particular. He has avoided scrutiny by the public and the media. When he has appeared it’s always been on his own terms – carefully stage managed events so as to avoid difficult questions – either about his own character or his policies. In recent days he’s taken to cancelling public events on some transparently unbelievable excuse. He’s just not turning up. The media has to take some responsibility for this – especially the BBC which is at least supposed to be impartial. Most of the media of course supports Johnson so why would they bother trying to hold him to account? Far from it, some amplifying the toxic world of the extreme right in their quest to paint Corbyn as a dangerous extremist at the heart of a hard left conspiracy.

Channel 4 empty chaired (or ice-sculptured) him for the climate debate, but the really big no show was the Andrew Neil interview. Now regular readers will know my views of Neil but even I accept he is the big beast of political interviewing in this country. Never mind that he was Johnson’s former boss at the Spectator, or shares a lot of political views with him – in fact I’d suggest Neil is considerably further to the right than Johnson – in as much as Johnson has any cogent political positions on anything.

As well as Johnson avoiding  public scrutiny the Tory manifesto is remarkably thin on any details of policies or spending. Any semblance of a plan peters out towards the end of 2020 and I think this is deliberate. Because if Johnson gets in then we will be heading to a no deal crash out Brexit this time next year (leaving Northern Ireland half in and half out of the EU). All experts and the EU have said that there isn’t an ice sculpture’s chance in hell of concluding a Free Trade Agreement with the EU within 12 months, especially one where we are not aligning the “level playing field” on workers rights, the environment, etc. Conversely we know the USA is ready to start negotiating their FTA with us on day one. And they will come in very hard, on all the things they have been fighting the EU on for the last several decades ie demanding we allow in their food – chlorinated chicken, hormone beef & pork, GMO crops, which the EU banned. And charging more for medicines the NHS buys.

Couple that with the fact that the USA has just broken the World Trade Organisation dispute settlement mechanism. This means that trade wars, which of course Donal Trump loves, will no longer easily be negotiated into peace agreements. And that means the likelihood of the UK being drawn into a heated up trade war between the US and the EU will increase dramatically. The vote on Thursday could literally move us from one geopolitical sphere into another one – and Orwell’s vision of the UK as Airstrip One will be made flesh.

What can we expect then if Johnson does get in with a reasonable majority – say something between 20 and 70?

Forgive me if I indulge in a bit of speculation.

Obviously Brexit will proceed as he plans. After a year of further tumult we crash out without an EU trade deal, on 31st December 2020. This alone will drive a bulldozer through Johnson’s avowed spending plans – forget more money for the NHS – those 40 hospitals – or was it six refurbished ones? No one will remember the details by then. The Universal Credit roll-out will throw tens of thousands of the poorest and most vulnerable in society onto the edge or, or over the edge into homelessness. What will be done with them all? Perhaps a return to the workhouse is on the cards.

Naturally Scotland will push ever harder for independence – who knows, perhaps even a militant group might pop up, given the level of suffering Brexit will impose on this country which voted so overwhelmingly against it. Northern Ireland is far more likely to slip back into the dark days of the troubles, as both sides find they have been shafted by Johnson’s Brexit agreement.

Priti Patel will be free to fulfil her destiny as the most extreme Home Secretary in decades – rounding up immigrants (illegal, legal, what does it matter?), dumping them in detention camps. You know the score. Anyone wanting to use “public” services like schools and hospitals will need to show proof of status. New privatised police units will be seen regularly patrolling wealthy neighbourhoods (those that aren’t already gated and fenced), while sink estates descend into low level urban warfare, helped by a relaxation in the gun laws (you think the NRA won’t have a big say in the US trade agreement???). Capital punishment will return – and anyone who thinks they will be able to camp out for a few weeks on a bridge over the Thames will discover that right to protest was criminalised alongside trespass. You really won’t want to end up in the new mega-prisons, where gangs effectively enforce discipline.

Is there anything else left to privatise? Yes of course there is. Local Council services  – those few that are still in the hands of the public sector, will be outsourced. And as Council budgets continue to be squeezed tighter and tighter, anything that can be charged for will be charged for, so only the prosperous will be able to afford them. Want your streets cleaned? You’ll have to pay for it. Adult social care? Only available privately. Sorry.

The cliff edge will also approach for UK farmers.A double whammy of reduced subsidies and cheap imports will do for many farms. Those that can survive will intensify their management, squeezing every last ounce (yes Imperial Measurements Are Back!) of crop or unit of livestock from their land. Once free from the EU the shackles of Red Tape can be thrown off and there won’t be any staff to check on compliance of whatever paper thin regulations are put in place to replace them anyway. Where farmers have gone to the wall (eg the sheep industry long propped up by subsidies and tariff walls) land will be bought up cheap for heavily subsidised commercial conifer forestry. What were once denuded hills will become bright conifer green plantations. Still  – climate action! Maybe a few Lynx will find sanctuary in them, as with the death of the sheep industry, the single voice opposing their return goes quiet.

Cheap food of questionable safety will be allowed in under a zero tariff regime, but there won’t be any food safety officers around to check whether it’s safe or not, so outbreaks of food poisoning will go unreported or will spread out of control. And as Johnson morphs into our very own version of Viktor Orban, anyone trying to bring these things to the attention of the public will find their funding has been cut and a brick through their window for starters.

If I paint a rather dark picture of what the future holds, please accept my apology.  And of course I could be completely wrong. Let’s hope so.

 

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Election Blog 5: UKIP manifesto

I was planning to write the latest addition to my short and instantly forgettable election blog series, but then the first of the winter bugs came along and knocked me off my perch. I’m back on it again (sort of) and am inspired by the high point of any election campaign, that being the publication of UKIP’s manifesto.

To say UKIP is a spent force in British politics would be an understatement. But it is worth remembering that they managed to reach 27% of the vote in the 2014 European Parliament elections. And it’s reasonable to conclude that this incredible showing influenced both David Cameron and Ed Miliband, to commit to a Referendum on EU membership, in their respective 2015 manifestos.

How have the mighty fallen. Cameron ran away after cocking up the Referendum and is now hiding in a Shepherd’s Hut, stoking the wood-burner with remaindered copies of his autobiography. Miliband sits on the back benches musing over what might have been, if whoever came up with the Ed Stone idea had never been born; and UKIP.

UKIP. I always thought, at least from the time when Farage mounted a coup and took it over after the ’97 general election, that UKIP was a deniable asset of the extreme right wing of the Tory party (formerly known as The Monday Club). Its goal was always to get us out of the EU, other policies were irrelevant, except insofar as they would deliver that goal – immigration (as a proxy for racism) being the card they always played, year in, year out.

There was another faction operating over the same time period – we’re talking about 20 years ago, which also wanted out of the EU – though for a subtly different set of reasons. These were the Hayekians, the libertarians, which morphed into the Hard Right group of Think Tanks and their apparatchiks orbiting 55 Tufton Street, with their wealthy US billionaire funding. This group wanted the UK to be free of the shackles of EU legislation – directives which the UK were required to sign up to – on everything from workers rights, to environmental protections. One particularly influential source of funding was the Koch Brothers, who supported the Tufton Street conspirators very generously. They made their billions from fossil fuels and weren’t going to allow any quasi-commie EU legislators stop them from destroying the planet in the name of Big Profits.

The two factions have worked together over the past couple of decades, though I think it’s fair to say the relationship has been fractious. It’s been suggested to me that this fractiousness is just a cover and they are really one group. I am not convinced, but history will tell us in the end. That they split into Vote Leave (the Tufties) and Leave dot EU (the far-right) during the Referendum campaign is illustrative, even if they did evidently work together when it suited them.

Anyway, enough ancient history. Is there anything worth saying about UKIP’s manifesto? Arguably the best thing to do would be to ignore it. But that would be a mistake, because UKIP still represents a small proportion of the electorate. People really do believe the stuff they write.

The manifesto is a weird mix of state-authoritarian and low-tax libertarian and in that sense politically it makes no sense whatsoever. However, this accusation could equally well be applied to the Tory party manifesto, so that doesn’t get us anywhere.

On agriculture, UKIP is of course thrilled that we are leaving the hated Common Agricultural Policy. Everybody seems happy about this, aside from farmers, and agricultural policy experts who have been thinking very carefully about what the consequences might be if the replacement is even worse.

Aside from the bleedin’ obvious that leaving the CAP means we will have to produce a “tailor-made” policy (duh), UKIP’s first priority for UK farming is anti-microbial resistance.

“a wide range of grants with tackling anti-microbial resistance as a major priority.”

this is the top priority.

Following that UKIP are very concerned about “traceability and origins of raw materials”, “country of origin, method of production, transport and slaughter.”

They finish with the neat idea that they will ” incentivise more British students and young people to pick the harvest during their summer holidays rather than relying on foreign labour.”

No detail is provided as to the methods of incentivisation   – cattle prod? or perhaps just making a summer of hard manual labour a requirement for any EU student wanting to come and study in the UK.

On methods of slaughter, I’m not going to sully this piece with any comment about the rampant Islamophobia which reeks from this document, other than to say it’s there.

The agriculture section is mercifully brief, but Energy gets its own page. But this is mainly used to reconfirm UKIP’s climate denial position. Marine Plastic is a big problem and Deforestation (remember the far-right loves trees) but – and just to emphasise the point, it’s in bold so you can’t miss it “there is no climate emergency.”

UKIP would reintroduce coal burning power stations and fracking, because, of course, energy autarchy is the goal they seek. But this is where it gets weird. On the one hand UKIP argues there is no climate emergency, but on the other they argue that there is no need for action because the UK’s GHG contribution is so small.

Well, which is it to be? Climate Chaos either exists or it doesn’t. Why would UKIP want to invest in carbon capture and storage technology (they do), if CO2 isn’t a problem?

On the environment, UKIP is terribly keen on the Green Belt, but are desperate to build houses all over brownfield land. Has no-one pointed out to them how much of the Green Belt is brownfield land?Apparently it’s “uncontrolled mass immigration” which is the main threat to the Green Belt. who knew.

There’s the usual guff about allowing farmers to drain their land – they already can and do.

Apparently, after  leaving the EU UKIP “will uphold high environmental standards that protect our air quality, waterways, woodlands, farmland and other habitats.”

Well yes everyone’s saying that, aren’t they. But the truth is the standards will slip, whoever gets in power.

And Forest. UKIP loves forests, and trees. They “will protect our woodlands and end the sale and privatisation of woodland managed by The Forestry Commission and National Parks.” In this respect UKIP makes the same basic error as every other party – confusing woodlands with conifer plantations.

There isn’t much else to say, aside from UKIP’s position on Science. UKIP feels that science has not been kind to their world view. UKIP feels it is the only party that truly understands the scientific process and that all its policies are based on the best available science. They use some interesting examples to illustrate their scientific underpinning.

The first one is – yes you guessed it – ritual slaughter. Then it gets weird. Science is apparently causing too many road signs.

“Transport, where suspect ‘scientific’ studies have often been used to justify excessive signage, usage restrictions and road furniture which allegedly increase traffic flow and reduce congestion, and the over-zealous introduction of monitoring cameras and deterrents like speed bumps which allegedly improve road safety and reduce accidents, though common-sense, anecdotal evidence and other, arguably less partisan and more objective academic studies, suggest they frequently achieve the opposite.”

Yes, they’ve fallen over their own hurdle. It’s “common-sense, anecdotal evidence” which is what’s best, if you don’t like the science.

Then comes climate change. “Dogma is no replacement for objectivity, especially when there is so much at stake financially.” Well, yes – it’s difficult to argue with the sentiment.

But UKIP, never being more than a few metres away from a racist dog-whistle, then gets all confused again that maybe there is something in this climate change conspiracy after all, suggesting that the UK’s GHG footprint is “comparable to that of some single cities in the third world.”

Blame the poor!

This final point broke my irony meter. It could almost be a straight steal from any number of reports critiquing the climate denial movement:

“While considering published research, UKIP recognises that it is important to determine who fund-ed it, and what the aims might be of the funder, and also examine the record of the researchers concerned so as to determine if they too are likely to have an agenda. There have been instances when data has been falsified, or analysed only selectively, so as to support conclusions that fit the requirements of a lobbying group. That is not good or acceptable science and needs to be exposed.”

I’ll finish (as this is already way too long) with a final thought. UKIP will halt the rollout of 5G mobile phone technology until it can be proved that the waves are “fully safe for human beings, animals, plants and microbes.”

The clues are littered through this manifesto. The obsession with food origins and contamination, microbial resistance, litter, and now, to crown it – mutation of plants and microbes into new and terrifying monsters.

Yes, it’s Colonel Jack D Ripper explaining that the Commies are poisoning his “precious bodily fluids.”

And people will vote for them.

 

Posted in 2019 general election, UKIP | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Election Blog 4: The Manifestos

too radical for Corbyn’s Labour party

Now that all of the party Manifestos (and the Brexit Party’s “contract with the people”) have been published, it’s possible to make some comparisons between them  – what are they offering to the electorate, and particularly those who place the environment high up their list of priorities?

Interestingly, some recent yougov polling suggests the environment is second only to Brexit as the most important issue for young voters. And given that 1.6 million people (mostly young voters) have registered since the 10th November, what the parties are saying about the environment matters. Whether it will have an effect on people’s voting, considering that Brexit is still by far the most significant issue people will be voting on, is another matter.

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s start with the Brexit Party as we can get that out of the way quickly. The Brexit Party is already a spent force, having done it’s job, of forcing Boris Johnson to move to the hardest possible Brexit, thus occupying the ground TBP had made its own (albeit briefly). They have now returned to the sort of surreal nonsensical territory that UKIP previously occupied. Farage’s big headline one day last week was that he was seeking to work with Donald Trump on a global tree-planting campaign.

Bearing in mind Trump genuinely believes global warming is a conspiracy theory created by the Chinese, and Farage just doesn’t believe in it, it’s plausible that this is a dead cat story, intended to divert from something else – perhaps the fact that TBP has thrown in the towel. Indeed, despite TBP’s contract with the people claiming that they would have a massive tree-planting campaign to “capture CO2” they fail to mention climate change once. Do they have some other reason for capturing this gas? Elsewhere it’s much as you would expect – relax planning rules around housing (BXP chair Richard Tice is a developer).

Another BXP policy is to reduced tariffs on “certain” foods imported from outside the EU (the US perhaps?). This would very quickly destroy large parts of the UK farming industry, freeing up more land for Mr Tice and his friends to build houses on, I guess. You get the picture.

The Green party manifesto is normally pretty radical and this one doesn’t disappoint. They consistently push for a wholesale change in land taxation to introduce Land Value Tax – even for undeveloped farmland, it seems. An LVT charge based on 1.4% of the current land value would mean a hectare of farmland worth £10,000 would generate a tax charge of £140 a year. GP state exemptions would apply – hopefully they would apply to land with high nature or historic value, land owned by charities  – proper charities mind, not “tax- efficient” Trusts; and land where food is being produced under the most environmentally friendly practices – organic being an obvious example.

Labour’s manifesto is striking by the amount of public spending they are signed up to – £80bn a year, apparently. This sounds like is an unfeasibly large amount of money  but then again the NHS costs around £130Bn a year to run, so it’s not that big. And anyway a lot of the spending planned is actually investment.

But that’s not the point. Because the Tories have committed to very little extra spending in comparison and this is the comparison they will now drive home, with the electorate. I think it was a big strategic error for Labour to make this huge spending commitment at a time when people are still feeling the full effects of the last 10 years of massive public sector funding cuts. It creates space for the Tories to argue that they are now abandoning “austerity” and turning on the public spending taps, while still appearing they have that mythical fiscal discipline they always claim is the natural policy of the Tory party (it isn’t.)

Another interesting thing about the Labour manifesto is that they rejected the proposals from the “Land for the Many” working group. LFTM, produced some radical ideas about land-use and the way land is taxed and subsidised. The report was attacked relentlessly in the right wing press – every smear tactic known to hard-right thinktanks was deployed. It appears to have worked and scared the Labour party into backing away. This is a pity as there were some excellent proposals in the report.

I was pleased to see Labour intends to review the tax break on Red Diesel though. This was something I raised in the People Need Nature report on farmland tax breaks.

There is remarkably little in the way of new policy proposals in the Tory manifesto, and even fewer on the environment. A few interesting snippets have come to light in the costings document – namely that they will implement the Glover Review on national parks. But disturbingly for Defra, the costs of the Glover Review, setting up the Office for Environmental Protection, meeting air quality targets; and creating a new northern coast to coast path, will all come out of the existing Defra departmental budget. There will be no new money for the environment.

On agriculture, all the main parties have offered something similar as a post-Brexit farm policy, with most of the money going towards public goods. And everyone has said they will build hundreds of thousands of new houses a year – all on brownfield land! I would take both of these with a big pinch of salt.

There is every prospect that, whichever party or coalition gets in, there will be much more pressure (from the NFU of course) to adopt a productivist policy for food. While Gove was there or thereabouts, an environmentally focussed agriculture bill was in play. If we were to get another Owen Paterson in Defra, that would go out of the window.

As for housing, I can confidently predict that hundreds of thousands of new houses will not be built, regardless of who is in power, or how much more of an axe is taken to planning controls. This is because planning is not holding back the creation of new housing. Read Land for the Many – it explains very clearly what the reasons are.

Finally, I feel duty bound to mention the parties proposals for climate action. Tories have stuck with net zero by 2050 (which is far too late as far as I understand what the climate scientists are now telling us) and the Libdems by 2045 (ditto).  Labour abandoned their conference decision to go for net zero by 2030, now promising to get “a substantial majority” of emissions reduced by 2030. And they’ve certainly committed to spending a lot of money to reach that target.

Labour’s is probably the most sensible and realistic position to take on climate action, but I don’t think the public is yet sufficiently aware of the threat to their way of life, to be willing to vote for it.

UPDATE

one of the LFTM authors Guy Shrubsole, has been in touch to suggest that actually Labour has taken on board a lot of the recommendations from the report, albeit not the more radical ones.

Guy says

” there are plenty of our asks in there, from opening up info on land ownerships to supporting county farms, reviewing allotments act, reviewing whether business rates should be replaced with LVT, letting public authorities buy land cheaply again,  higher council tax on empty homes, tax on second homes, and an offshore property levy.”

 

Posted in 2019 general election, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Election Blog 3: Tory Dirty Tricks

When I started thinking about the Election I thought that it would be good to write a series of blogs exploring how the environment was being treated, both in the Manifestos and in the Campaign. But, as has happened with Brexit over the last nearly four years now, other things keep catching my eye.

Once the Tories reveal their manifesto I will do some compare and contrast on environmental policies – suffice to say that offerings from the Greens, Libdems and Labour hold few if any surprises – aside from the fact that Labour in the end decided not to enter the Tree-Planting bidding war, and merely said they would plant lots of new trees.

The thing that has really come to the surface this week has been what I call Tory Dirty Tricks. Now you may think, isn’t that just what Tories do anyway? Well, yes… but this week has seen them take this to a new level of egregiousness. Of course, Propaganda is as old as politics – and all parties, all persuasions use it to some degree. I’m old enough to remember those billboard adverts telling us “Labour isn’t working” back in 1979, during that fabled Winter of Discontent. While the strikes were real, the label was itself a creation of the right wing media, and it resonated with the public, fed up with a Labour Government fighting with the Unions – who were supposed to be its friends.

Somehow billboards covered in pictures showing ridiculously long queues for the job centre, where it was obvious who was putting across the message, seem quite quaint by today’s standards. We’ve been treated with two examples this week of propaganda of quite another stripe – more akin to the sort of thing Cambridge Analytica’s parent company SCL does to swing elections – otherwise known information warfare or psyops.

Firstly during the Leadership Debate the Conservative Press Office twitter account rebranded itself as a fact checking website, and proceeded to spew falsehoods about Labour’s policy positions. This, as digital law expert and commentator Paul Bernal points out, is in direct contravention of Twitter rules on verified (blue tick) accounts. Further, Bernal notes that it undermines legitimate fact checking sites  – and this may actually have been the reason they did it. Twitter told them off but took no action to stop them.

As if spurred on by the fact that they got away with this brazen act of propaganda (way beyond what might be termed Fake News), the main Conservative Party account activated a campaign on the day Labour launched their manifesto. This was based on the hashtag #costofcorbyn, but it built upon a previous action on the 10th November, when the Tories launched a website called http://www.costofcorbyn.com – which various frontline Tory politicians promoted during the Sunday round of political programmes, when they spread the lie about Labour’s £1.2Tn spending plans. This website is actually there to grab personal data (Add you name to Stop Jeremy Corbyn!) so gullible voters  can be targeted with much more propaganda via email or micro-targeted Facebook ads (yes we’re back to Cambridge Analytica again)  – the website is there essentially as a “lead capture trap”, for gathering personal data. So far, typical Dominic Cummings.

What happened yesterday was far more concerning, in that  the Conservatives created a fake website by buying a relevant web domain LabourManifesto.c.o.uk and using this to attack Labour and Corbyn specifically. Once you get to the website it’s made reasonably clear that it’s a spoof/fake. But the tweets that the main Conservative Party account put out all through the day yesterday did not make that at all clear. Far from it. It was obvious that they were trying to deceive. Here’s one of the offending tweets.

 

 

 

 

 

When I mentioned that I had reported this and several other tweets to twitter for misleading voters, various people suggested that it was obviously a spoof and all part of the electoral cut and thrust. This is nonsense. Social Media operates on the basis that people have limited time to scrutinise what passes in front of their eyes, and that much information (including ads) is absorbed subliminally. This is why so much advertising spend is now focused on social media, and is increasing every year. This is why advertising is such a huge industry!

We’ll see whether Twitter takes any action  – but I’m not holding my breath. No doubt further emboldened by the fact that they have once again got away with something that would never be allowed in a newspaper or tv ad, we can only guess what will come next.

Perhaps they have created some “deep fake” videos of Jeremy Corbyn building a bomb for the IRA. Or uttering some foul anti-semitic remarks.

It doesn’t really matter what the next move is. The point is that the Tories (so far only them of the main electoral contenders) have decided that there are no lines that cannot be crossed, all tactics are acceptable to use, because winning is all that matters. When you consider this in the context of suppressing the report on Russian interference in UK elections, the Parliamentary dirty tricks around prorogation; and abandoning efforts to get the Brexit deal through Parliament, in favour of this election, a clear pattern emerges.

The only thing that Johnson cares about is winning, even if that means undermining and damaging what is already a crumbling edifice of democracy – and democratic accountability, in particular. Obviously there are policies (which we shall see clearly once the Tory manifesto has been published) that everyone should be worried about. But actually I think these are less important than what’s happening now.

Because the idea that elections are “no holds barred”, any tactics can be used, will become the norm if we allow it.

As I wrote previously, I thought people argument’s in favour of a second EU referendum were deeply flawed, principally because nothing had been done to stop the widespread cheating and lying that epitomised the first one. That point still stands. But what is clear is that the Tory team running this campaign (many of whom worked in the Vote Leave campaign team) is using exactly the same approach as they did  in the Referendum.

Well… it worked for them last time, didn’t it.

 

Posted in 2019 general election, Social media | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Election Blog 2: Floods and Tree-planting

It has been a bit of a surprise to see the environment figure so prominently in the election campaign over the last week or so – usually it’s so far down the list of priorities, or perhaps more accurately the list of issues that generally interest the media, that it never breaks through the surface. Thanks in part to Boris Johnson’s decision to hold a General Election in December, it was the terrible flooding in Yorkshire and Derbyshire which grabbed our attention.

The focus of that attention was Fishlake, a ominously named village neat Thorne – of the notorious Thorne and Hatfield Moors – the large lowland raised bog which was mined for horticultural peat despite a long running campaign to save what was left of it for nature. I have seen suggestions that Fishlake was originally also part of the Raised Bogs of this area, which might explain its name (the lake left after the peat was dug out) and its low lying status. It’s still not clear exactly why Fishlake flooded this year, and not in 2007 when there was a much larger flood in South Yorkshire. But what was clear was how badly the Johnson team failed to react to the flood, turning up to meet the victims over a week late, and looking, as ever, as if he was only seeking a PR opportunity.

There were the inevitable calls to “Dredge The Rivers” from farmers whose farmland had disappeared under flood water. And the conspiracy theory – from the 2014 Somerset Levels floods  that it was the EU which had banned Blighty from dredging also reappeared and did the rounds. That the dredging went ahead in Somerset despite those dastardly EU dredge-police, seems to have passed that particular group of conspiracy mongers by. Quite apart from the fact that it is only likely to help in very limited circumstances, whether there will be any money available for the extremely expensive practice of dredging in post-Brexit Britain, remains to be seen.

Another interesting change in the debate has happened as a result of Brexit, namely around calls by farmers to be paid to hold flood water on their own land. It’s not clear why all farmers – especially ones which farm in the floodplain – should be expected to be paid when their farmland floods. After all, flooding is a perfectly natural event  – just as natural as, say, when it doesn’t rain for weeks on end, as happened last year. Both have an effect on the production of crops. Should farmers be paid for every incident when nature affects the growth of crops – such as a pest outbreak, or disease?

It needs to be thought through carefully, but in principle, the means for paying farmers to provide “public goods” like reducing downstream flooding of urban areas, was going to be made available through the new Agriculture Bill – you remember, the one which nearly made it through Parliament before Boris Johnson closed it down so he could have this election. Whether it comes back in anything like the same shape or form is debateable. The opportunity for farmers to be paid to reduce downstream flooding may turn out to have been just a phantom.

The NFU, bless them, were arguing for payments for flood storage, upstream catchment management, and dredging – the belt and braces approach. If the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Liz Truss get into serious positions of power in the next Government, they will be looking to make a quick deal with the US allowing in their super cheap food. In which case all of this will be academic as farmers will be unable to compete on price, however many rivers are dredged. But the impact of Climate Chaos is now really starting to make itself clearly heard. Potatoes are rotting in the ground, because there has been so much rain as to make it impossible to lift them – or they are so wet that its preferable to leave them in the ground, rather than risk introducing rot to those already in stores.  I suspect pictures of farms surrounded by thousands of acres of flood water in Lincolnshire will become a regular sight. And what was once regarded as the best agricultural land in Britain will be grazing marsh, then salt marsh, then intertidal mud. Lincolnshire farmers may shout “build the wall” but it’s not going to happen. Still, all that’s for another election in a few years time.

On Friday last week we were treated to an auction between the Tories the LibDems and the SNP as to who could promise to plant the most number of Trees. I suppose this qualifies as an environmental story, albeit one from the Ladybird book of environmental activities. It’s easy to set targets for tree-planting and sound like you’re doing something for the environment. Michael Gove on Saturday’s Today programme pointed out that it was a Tory Government that had achieved the lofty heights of 30,000ha of new trees planted in a year, back in 1989.  What he failed to mention was that this was mainly thanks to planting commercial conifer plantations on the globally important peat bogs of the Caithness Flow Country in northern Scotland. Nor did he mention that it was fuelled by tax breaks for millionaires.

I was reminded of a small but significant action at the time, when Friends of the Earth Scotland arranged for a group of kilted Scotsmen (with Piper) to head down to Buckinghamshire and plant some conifers on Terry Wogan’s lawn, as a protest. Also worth mentioning at this point is that the “Environment Secretary” at the time of this environmental outrage, was none other than Viscount Matt Ridley’s uncle, Nick Ridley. There must be something in the water under the family estate, leaking out from all that coal.

Strangely this cautionary tale of the dangers of over enthusiastic tree planting targets did not make it into the coverage. Gove did make a rather pathetic claim that the EU was to blame for the Government not meeting its tree-planting targets though. Again, somehow he managed to ignore the fact that it was his predecessor Owen Paterson who had decided not to transfer across the maximum allowed amount from direct farm subsidies (Pillar one of the CAP) into Pillar 2 (which includes grants for tree-planting) back in 2013.

The Tories have claimed they will plant 30 million trees a year, and the Lib Dems 60 million! at 1500 a hectare that translates into 20,000ha a year for the Tories and 40,000ha for the LibDems. The SNP pointed out that last year only 1400ha of new plantation was achieved in England, compared with 11,200ha in Scotland. Taking individual responsibility is a key tenet of both Conservative and Liberal political philosophy – and that’s been reflected in the Tory attitude to tree-planting – hand out small packs of trees to individuals and community groups and let them find places where they can be planted. This usually means trees end up being planted in the wrong place, where they can damage or destroy wildlife and historic features  – or that they die for lack of water or poor soil. The same problem applies to small scale woodland planting supported by farm subsidies or grants. Farmers tend to plant trees where they won’t interfere with cropping or grazing – and these can often be the last places on the farm where wildlife survives – the scruffy corners, or small patches of agriculturally unproductive grassland – which happens to be rich in wildlife.

Good places to plant trees (or even better allow them to develop naturally) are in the upper catchments of rivers. Add in a few beavers and you create, for very little public cost, wooded wetlands which capture water and release slowly into the downstream rivers. The perfect was to reduce the risk of flooding. Knepp provides a very neat example of how an upper catchment willow carr can develop on former arable land.

PS Congratulations to Craig Bennett for being selected as the next Chief of the Wildlife Trusts.

 

 

Posted in 2019 general election, farm subsidies, farm tax breaks, flooding, tree planting | Tagged , , , | 13 Comments