Farmland Tax Breaks revealed

Today the charity I work for, People Need Nature, publishes its latest report, investigating the tax system and how it affects farmland. “Where there’s muck there’s brass: revealing the billions hidden in farmland tax shelters” lays out the many, varied, and some frankly bizarre tax breaks available to farmers and landowners. And we argue that these are providing no benefit to society, and in some cases are operating against things society might want.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the fact that farmers and landowners across the UK receive between £3 and £4 billion a year in subsidies from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. This equates to about £2.5 billion a year in England. Most of that is paid in the form of an area-based payment, while a small proportion pays for agri-environment schemes supporting farming practices, which are more amenable to things like farmland wildlife. Anyone interested in England’s should be interested in what happens on farmland, because farmland covers about three quarters of England. So most of the money, which is paid to farmers, is paid because they own or manage the land, and there are really very few strings attached to that money. That’s not the farmers fault of course, it’s the way the EU and the UK Government decide to disburse those funds.

As a result of the EU referendum back in 2016, the UK will have to come up with a new way of supporting farmers, as we will leave the Common Agricultural Policy. It’s likely that there will be different approaches in each of the UK countries, and I’m really only talking about England from now on. Michael Gove, when he took over Defra, immediately starting talking up the opportunity to create a new way of supporting farmers, to provide what are known technically as public goods. This is not particularly helpful language, but it’s economics-ese for things that society benefits from, which cannot be provided by the market. These might include more farmland wildlife, better water quality in our rivers, reduced downstream flooding in our towns, more pollinators for our crops – and even somewhat elusive things like “rural vitality”, which is some complex measure of the health of rural communities.

The Agriculture Bill, which is now stuck somewhere in Parliament, has taken this thinking forward, and it looks like there is still a good chance that at the end of all this farmers will only be paid for public goods, and the old system of receiving a subsidy for owning the land, will be gone. There are still many problems with the Agriculture Bill, but the central premise of “public money for public goods” still stands. But what about the tax system? Is it working to support provision of public goods, or not. And if not, should it also be reformed? This was something that had been bothering me (and others who know far more about this than me) for a while.

When Chris Packham asked me to be his Minister of Agriculture and write a chapter in last year’s People’s Manifesto for Wildlife, I thought this would be a good opportunity to raise the issue of farmland and tax, which I duly did. I was surprised that this was picked out for particular criticism, so I thought I had better get on and find out what the situation actually is.

What I found was surprising – that the total tax breaks available on farmland in England are as great as the total subsidy paid under the Common Agricultural Policy. And there are even fewer conditions placed on those tax breaks than on the subsidies, conditions that could mean the tax regime provides benefits to society. The main tax breaks are Red Diesel, Business Rates exemption and Inheritance Tax exemption.

The first two operate day in day out on every farm in the land, though of course the more Diesel you use, the bigger the tax break you benefit from. So this particular tax break, worth around a billion pounds a year across the UK, and £550M a year in England, will mostly go into the pockets of big arable farms, where most of the diesel is used.

I was surprised by how much Red Diesel is used on arable farms – one 220ha potato farm in Essex gets through 200,000 litres of diesel in every growing season. That works out at 909 litres of diesel per hectare. Although this particular farm grows potatoes one year in six on a rotation, the red diesel used growing those potatoes (roughly speaking) adds around 10g per packet of CO2 to their carbon footprint.

Farmland and farm buildings are entirely exempt from Business Rates. This is worth about £1Bn a year in lost rates – rates that increasingly flow directly to cash-strapped Local Authorities. Again, as rates are based on the value of the land, the larger the area of land owned, the bigger the saving. So this exemption is worth most to the largest landowners. There are no conditions attached to this exemption. Indeed this exemption is so deeply buried that the Government don’t even make an assessment of how much it costs the Exchequer.

The third doesn’t really show up in the annual accounts of farms, because Inheritance Tax exemption (Agricultural Property Relief or APR) on farmland only applies on the death of the owner. Tax Justice UK recently published a report showing that 62% of APR in a recent year benefited just 261 families in England. It’s difficult to put a precise figure on the tax benefit and it varies considerably from year to year, but APR and the related Business Property Relief are likely to cost the exchequer around £700 to £800M a year.

There are then a whole plethora of other tax breaks available to farmers – from VAT exemptions, exemption for road tax and MOTs on farm vehicles, to “roll-over” relief from Capital Gains Tax. If some farmland is sold for development, when land suddenly becomes worth perhaps a hundred times as much as it was, that can lead to a hefty capital gain tax bill. Roll-over relief allows that profit to be re-invested in farmland and no tax is payable. That pushes up the price of farmland for everyone else and encourages wealthy investors in, who may well see the land is nothing but a means of sheltering their wealth and generating a guaranteed income.

Together these tax breaks create a rich and complex landscape, which has led to the creation of a mini-industry of tax accountants, land agents and consultants. Worse still it, has created the ideal conditions for investors looking for a place to shelter their wealth from taxation, quite legally, without having to move to the Caribbean. Even without considering the effect of the farmland tax regime attracting in those seeking tax shelters, it’s salient to note that, as Guy Shrubsole’s recent book “Who Owns England” revealed, 50% of England is owned by 25,000 landowners, who are the beneficiaries of this very generous tax regime.

Guy has found from Land Registry data, that between 2004 and 2015, 280,000 acres of land was purchased by offshore entities. I worked out that, just for this land £50M a year in farm subsidies and tax breaks is flowing offshore, to who knows where. The total farmland owned offshore is likely to be far higher though.

It’s also worth considering how these tax breaks fit in with proposals for things like pesticide or fertiliser tax. There would be little point in introducing such things, without looking at the existing tax regime. a 25% fertiliser tax would raise £250M a year, which sounds like a lot and may help to reeduce fertiliser use. But when compared with the £550M a year tax break on red diesel, it’s not so big, and any climate benefits from a fertiliser tax would be counteracted by the red diesel subsidy.

Likewise with pesticides – UK farmers spent £900M on pesticides in 2016/17 – although this research suggests they have collectively overpaid by £200M – equivalent to £44/ha. And this illustrates quite well where these tax breaks are flowing. They are not, to any great extent, flowing to the small struggling family farm. They are benefitting the big landowners and large arable farmers. But they are also being priced in, by the agricultural suppliers (of chemicals, machinery) and by the retail buyers. I suspect that a fair chunk of that £2.4Bn a year is going to the likes of Bayer and Tesco.

None of this provides the sort of public benefit that the new Agricultural Policy Michael Gove has established, is seeking to create. While Brexit might be a nightmare for all sorts of other reasons, this is a great opportunity to open up the tax maze to scrutiny and explore how it could be reformed. Reforms that could mean this substantial amount of money is channelled towards farmers who manage their land sympathetically for wildlife, adopt the principles of agro-ecology, and produce the food we desperately need more of in our diet, like pulses, fruit and vegetables.

Posted in agriculture, Chris Packham, People Need Nature, peoples manifesto for wildlife, public goods, tax reform | Tagged , | 8 Comments

A New Hope?

 

There have been very few days recently when politics have provided good news of a morning, but this morning is definitely one of them. The EU elections – which were always going to be a proxy for another go at working out what kind of a relationship the UK (specifically England) wants with the rest of Europe – have delivered that news.

 

And the news is…that with the strongly pro-EU Scotland and Northern Ireland still to declare, England and Wales voted  in favour of pro-EU parties, with a vocal minority supporting pro Hard Brexit parties, UKIP and The Brexit Party. In reality of course the strong turn-out for UKIP in 2014 was ported across the the Brexit Party, as UKIP disappeared off into Nazi territory. And a smallish percentage of Tories (and an even smaller percentage of Labour voters) joined them.

The big winners (again this is just England and Wales) were the Lib Dems and Greens. I have to say I was delighted to see Molly Scott-Cato returned in the South-West. But for them to be joined by so many others, in the most surprising of places (East of England and West Midlands being perhaps the greatest surprises) is particularly uplifting (and even more so when you look at how well they did across the EU). As expected the Lib Dems did particularly well, soaking up many votes from pro-remain Labour voters.

Yes The Brexit Party won most MEPs, though with only a modest increase on UKIP’s outing last time. But as I wrote previously this election was not really about MEPs going to the European Parliament and being politicians there. I mean, seriously. Is multi-millionaire property developer Richard Tice going to spend his year shuttling between Brussels and Strasbourg, sitting in frankly tedious meetings arguing over arcane policy questions? Of course he isn’t. I predict that very few of the Brexit Party MEPs will turn up in Brussels more than a handful of times. James Glancy will I hope prove to be an exception there. Hopefully the Living Marxism/Spiked online’s faux Libertarian Claire Fox will never turn up.

But either way, the Brexit Party was not formed to act as a serious political party in the European Parliament. It was formed to create pressure – mainly on the Tory party. And, now that Theresa May has finally been forced out, the pressure for a Crash-Out Brexit is going to be applied, in a very focused manner, on each of the prospective party leader candidates. This, coupled with the likelihood that at least some of those who have returned from the UKIP camp to be Tory party members again, will have done so in time to be able to vote in that leadership election (I believe 6 months is the cut-off), means that the Brexit Party/LeaveEU/LeaveMeansLeave and all the other fronts they have created, will have a big influence over who the next Tory party leader is. You could argue that the sole purpose of TBP was to drag the Tory party further to the right.

Assuming the Tories do indeed appoint a pro Crash-Out Brexit leader  – and I really don’t want to think too hard about who it might be as I’m still feeling quite upbeat – their first test will be to form a Government. The DUP will no doubt feel happy to take another £billion to form some sort of coalition or support deal. But this is where it gets very messy for the Tories. Because there is already a significant caucus forming around some senior figures (who will be on the backbenches) like former chancellor Phillip Hammond and Amber Rudd, who have already stated very clearly that they will oppose a Crash-Out No Deal Brexit. I have a seen a figure of 60 Tory MPs who have already committed to opposing this course of action. Which makes it highly debatable as to whether a pro Crash-Out Brexit Tory leader could even form a Government. So a General Election seems increasingly likely.

In such an election, as the Tories move further and further to the right to stop The Brexit Party, the centre ground is left open. And it needs no crystal ball to see the Lib Dems, fresh from their successes in both the Local and Euro Elections, rushing in to fill it – who knows some of the more reasonable Tory MPs might have already joined them, as well as Change UK. It’s difficult to see the Greens capitalising on their successes in either the Local or Euro Elections, with our ridiculous first past the post system, but in a few key constituencies they might do well.

Which leaves the big unresolved question: Labour. Labour has suffered horribly as a result of its ambiguity over Europe. Nobody believed their claim that they could get a better deal out of the EU – and of course the overwhelming majority of both Labour MPs and its constituency, voted for remain. Senior Labour leaders are now breaking cover. Both Emily Thornberry and John McDonnell have come out this morning and last night in support of a second referendum. But this would be unnecessary if a General Election is coming. It’s what goes in Labour’s manifesto which counts. Labour can put forward as many radical and exciting ideas on tax justice, on land reform, on a green new deal, as they like. But unless they have a clear position on our future relationship with the EU, they will be toast.

Personally I think their position should be this:

1. To honour the result of the referendum, while recognising that it was fundamentally flawed, both in the plan and the execution.

2. To leave the EU but stay in the single market and customs union.

3. To launch a high level independent judicial inquiry (equivalent to the Mueller Inquiry) into the cheating that happened during the 2016 Referendum.

4. To immediately commence negotiations with the EU with a view to rejoining within five years, subject to significant reform. Reform would have to include the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy and a severe clamp down on the power of corporate lobbying within the EU, but the list would be much longer.

I would love for us to just be able to say “you know what, let’s just forget the past 3 years and pretend it never happened.” and somehow magically we would be back in the EU. That is not going to happen. The country is still more or less split 50/50 and the longer that continues, the greater opportunity it provides for populists like Farage to take advantage.

 

 

Posted in 2019 Euro elections | Tagged | 5 Comments

Euro Elections provide yet another opportunity to give Government a kicking

Brexit seems to throw up one crazy thing after another.

After having been told repeatedly by Prime Minister May that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, we now find ourselves in a position where not only has no deal been rejected by Parliament, but May’s own deal (which I’ll leave to you to decide whether it’s a bad or good deal) has also been rejected. Parliament appears to have collectively decided that no deal is just as bad as the only deal on the table, and rejected both.

While Westminster’s Parliament is in paralysis the other Parliament, the European one, is holding its five yearly elections. These were the elections we weren’t supposed to be taking part in. But thanks to the Government and Parliament being incapable of delivering the Brexit that would have obviated our inclusion, we now find ourselves having to take part.

It seems pretty unlikely that the MEPs elected in the forthcoming Euro elections will be in the European Parliament for their full five-year stint. Equally, it seems very unlikely that Brexit will magically happen before June 30th, thus meaning they don’t take up their seats at all. Those MEPs will be in the European Parliament, for an unknown amount of time. They will probably not be able to take any real part in the work of the Parliament, since no-one will know whether they will be there from one week to the next. Will they be treated as pariahs, or “zombie” MEPs, found wandering the corridors of Brussels, or congregating in local restaurants. It’s difficult to say.

And what no-one can doubt, aside from a few zealots, is this: The fact we are even taking part in these elections, three years after having voted to leave the EU, shows what a mess Brexit has been, right from the very start of this messy path David Cameron laid out for us all in 2015.

Now, the Euro elections are an opportunity for us as voters – to do what? Electing MEPs seems like the least useful aspect of the election, given that we have no idea whether they will even take up their seats. These elections are above all symbolic – and for many they will be either ignored, or used to convey a message – to Government. For Remains parties like the Greens and LibDems they will act as a proxy second referendum. For the Brexit Party, they are an opportunity for the electorate to give a massive kick up the bum of the government towards the hard Brexit.

I spoke to James Glancy, prospective Brexit Party candidate for the South-West of England. Glancy is a decorated war veteran and ardent conservationist, working for Veterans for Wildlife – a charity which trains veterans to help wildlife rangers protect wildlife – projects such as the Loziba wilderness project in South Africa. Glancy is also very involved with promoting the conservation of sharks, including on a Discovery channel TV programme.

I asked Glancy if he was officially the Brexit party’s environment spokesperson, but he explained that TBP only has one policy, which is that the UK leaves the EU now, without a deal. (This was slightly contradicted by Nigel Farage at the weekend when he described briefly what TBP’s immigration policy was. But there is no manifesto.)

Glancy is clearly concerned about the environmental crisis we find ourselves in – he spoke supportively of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg’s visit to the UK. He also reflected on how bad the EU had been for wildlife, citing the CAP and CFP as examples. I asked him whether he was bothered about Nigel Farage’s deep scepticism of human-induced climate change, but he was keen to emphasise that TBP is a broad church. (That is certainly true!).

Four TPB candidates emanate from the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which veered from far-left to hard-right, as it morphed from RCP via Living Marxism, into Spiked Online.  This group is notoriously anti-environmental and contemptuous of concerns about climate change . Spiked’s leading writer and activist Brendan O’Neill even attacked Greta Thunberg’ autism. Glancy shrugged off these concerns, but did note that “Claire (Fox) and I locked horns on the environment” when they first met. Former RCP activist Claire Fox, a regular on the BBC’s Moral Maze programme, is standing as an MEP for the new Brexit party so it sounds like this will make the development of a common Brexit Party manifesto for the environment a challenging project.

Glancy has plans to make a positive contribution to EU politics if he is elected, particularly on shark conservation.  Will he be given the chance though? Farage has used his membership of the Fisheries Committee as a propaganda pulpit. But in one three-year period he only turned up to one out of 42 meetings and still fails to understand how the CFP affects overfishing in UK waters, as opposed to UK policies on selling quota, and its long history of promoting over-fishing.

But more fundamentally what is the purpose of TBP in the European Parliament? To mount an insurrection from within? This doesn’t seem like Glancy’s style or his motivation (even if he was in the Special Forces). His vision is of the UK providing moral leadership to the world in environment and climate action, redirecting a big slug of International Development funding towards the environment and climate action – he is keen to see a new flotilla of Royal Navy ships to tackle overfishing and protecting ocean wildlife.

Glancy is very enthusiastic about rewilding (I spoke to him just days after we had both been at the Knepp Estate) and wants to see far fewer sheep on the hills, to encourage more nature to return there. Ironically a no deal Brexit, which is what TBP is campaigning for, will no doubt help this happen, albeit in a chaotic manner. Crashing out without a deal will mean lamb exports collapse because around a quarter of all lambs produced here are for export, mostly to the EU. At least in the short term, there will be far more animals on the hills. But once they are gone a no-deal Brexit would see the sheep farming industry  contracting to a much smaller scale.

Interestingly Glancy is not in favour of a no-deal Brexit: “I don’t want a no deal Brexit. We need a free trade deal and agreements to cooperate on a range of areas.”

What of the other parties standing in the elections? Both Labour and the Conservatives are going to be punished by the electorate, as they were in the recent local elections, though for different reasons. Many Conservative voters feel they have been betrayed by their party for failing to deliver Brexit and they will vote TBP. Labour continues with its “constructive ambiguity” policy, seeking to appeal to pro-Brexit Labour leave voters in the Midlands, Wales and the North, while simultaneously appearing sympathetic to its mainly pro-remain supporters elsewhere. It may well lose voters to both the TBP on one side and the Libdems/Greens on the other.

UKIP have disappeared off into the realms of the far-right, are definitely not worth mentioning.

Which leaves the Lib Dems, The Greens and the newly-formed Independent group or TIG.

The TIGgers have also given very little away as far as their policies concerned, aside from wanting the UK to remain in the EU. Both the Libdems and Greens are unambiguously pro-remain – and it will be very interesting to see whether they succeed in garnering a significant proportion of the vote between them, but in such a way that they split the vote and end up with fewer MEPs.

But then, as this isn’t really about electing MEPs, that’s not so much of an issue.

There’s been some talk about tactical voting on the remain side, and a campaign set up by Gina Miller is seeking to tell people who they should vote for in each region. Bizarrely they are telling people to vote Libdem everywhere in England. I find this bizarre and unhelpful, especially when the Greens did so well during the Local Elections, and in the 2014 election.

If this election is about sending messages and not MEPs, then the combined vote of TIG, the LibDems and Greens is the important number for those favouring a confirmatory second referendum, for example. And our green MEPs, people like Molly Scott-Cato and Keith Taylor, have been working very hard in the European Parliament on environmental issues.

 

 

Posted in 2019 Euro elections, Brexit, Nigel Farage, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Shooting Birds and Biased Reporting – a tale of two BBC presenters

I can’t honestly remember a time when environmental stories have been so high up the news agenda-  and for such a long period. Perhaps, it’s a reaction to the never-ending and increasingly tedious coverage of Brexit  – which suddenly disappeared as the Easter recess began.

It was certainly excellent timing on the part of the Extinction Rebellion movement to commence its operations (mostly in London but elsewhere too) immediately Parliament had shut down, though I suspect it can only have been a coincidence. For whatever reason, the press jumped on Extinction Rebellion as the story to cover. And as the occupation of iconic landmarks such as Waterloo Bridge, Marble Arch and Oxford Circus continued, day after day, the coverage seemed to increase, broaden and even on occasion start to delve into the underlying issues.

Of course there was a great deal of backlash and anti-environmental sentiment on show particularly from the hard right  – and this reached a climax, almost as though a thunderstorm had built to the point where lightning inevitably struck, as the schoolgirl climate activist, Greta Thunberg, arrived in London for her speech to Parliamentarians, before which she had addressed the assembled crowds at Marble Arch.

Most egregious of those attacks came from author and Spectator columnist Helen Dale – a sort of female Aussie Toby Young if you will. She suggested Thunberg be interviewed by Andrew Neil, and that Neil should seek to use Thunberg’s Aspergers status as a way of attacking her and cause her to “have a meltdown on national telly.” As far as I know (Neil has blocked me on twitter) he has not yet condemned this appalling suggestion. As he wears his deep and very public scepticism of human-induced climate change like a badge of honour, it’s reasonable to assume he would relish the thought.

Acting outside the law

As the Extinction Rebellion melted away, it was replaced, albeit at a lower but still significant level of coverage, by a more “birdy” story. New enviro-legal kids on the block, Wild Justice, had made its first kill. Legal Action by WJ, recently set up by Chris Packham, Mark Avery and Ruth Tingay (all hopefully familiar names to regular readers, viewers and listeners of Lush content) had created a last minute panic inside the headquarters of Natural England and Defra, their boss department.

WJ’s case was that Natural England had been unlawfully applying the General Licences under which landowners, gamekeepers, farmers and even conservation organisations, cull wild birds for a variety of reasons. Without going into the details (which you can read on the Wild Justice website or Mark Avery’s blog) Natural England had been acting outside the law it is required to regulate and enforce, as indeed had some of those who had been killing birds under the Licences, though there is nothing to suggest that they had been doing so deliberately.

Now Wild Justice had expected Natural England to carry out the necessary changes to its procedures such that next year’s General Licences would be issued (or not) in such a way that they met the requirements of the law. Instead, Natural England announced that this years’ Licences, which were already being used, were to be revoked, almost instantaneously.

Naturally there was uproar from the farming and shooting lobby. The National Farmers Union (NFU) and the Countryside Alliance were first out of the starting blocks (as always) and much sturm und drang followed.

Radio Four’s Today programme hosted a discussion between Mark Avery and the Countryside Alliance’s Baroness Mallelieu – a Labour peer who is also a member of the Exmoor hunt and Staghounds. Mallelieu appealed to the soft hearts of R4 listeners by describing how newly born lambs will now have their eyes pecked out by rapacious crows and ravens, because farmers will no longer be able to shoot them. More interestingly, she suggested that NE had been acting unlawfully for years because “some paperwork got lost” in the hand-over from the old team at the Ministry of Agriculture. This is quite an argument coming from a distinguished QC and she didn’t sound as though she had even persuaded herself.

Conspiracy or cock-up?

What is clear though is that Natural England does nothing without it being signed off by Defra, so if the paperwork was lost, it was lost by Defra not NE. Had someone at Defra thought that this would be a good “green Gove” story ahead of what look like disastrous Local Elections for the Tory Party?

Conversely, had someone somewhere thought this would make a truly disastrous start to Tony Juniper’s reign as Natural England chair since he started his new job on the very same day as the story broke?

It’s always more sensible to assume cock-up rather than conspiracy (a corollary to Occam’s Razor) – and it may not be a coincidence that Natural England lost its long-standing and highly effective Legal Director a few weeks ago. That of course hasn’t stopped the pro-hunting press from spotting that Tony Juniper and Wild Justice Director Mark Avery know each other, and concocting a conspiracy from that little-known, but very public, fact.

Natural England is keeping its head down and not doing any press work – but as we know they don’t have a press office anyway, so how could they? Defra released a vague response, ostensibly from Natural England, on the Defra media blog.  After that Defra felt it necessary to publish a further piece, including a hint of mea culpa from the acting chair at the time the decision was made, Lord Blencathra. Given his close links to the Countryside Alliance, you would think he might have anticipated (or even phoned a friend to find out) how this would play out. What is clear is that Natural England is taking the flak, and Defra is using them as cover.

Impartiality at the BBC?

Someone else who is taking the flak for this is Chris Packham. Packham receives constant attention from the shooting lobby which has been running a long campaign trying to get him sacked from his roles at the BBC. Three years ago, in an earlier echo of the Greta Thunberg attack I mentioned above, I wrote about some in the shooting industry who were seeking to exploit Chris’ Aspergers status as part of that campaign, and the support they received from the hunting lobby within Parliament. A change.org petition created by a member of the shooting industry has garnered over 100,000 signatures, demanding the BBC sack Packham for his work with Wild Justice. The Countryside Alliance thinks that Chris’ campaigning outside his BBC work mean he shouldn’t be given a platform by the BBC.

So far, the BBC has rejected these complaints on a number of grounds. Chris is very careful (bar the occasional slip) in keeping his views on wildlife, and campaigns he’s involved with, like Wild Justice or the People’s Manifesto, separate from his work for programmes like Spring or Autumnwatch. Whereas the more unsavoury end of the hunting lobby turn his gate into a gamekeeper’s gibbet.

It got me thinking – is there anyone else, who has a high profile job with the BBC where they are active politically outside their BBC work. And yes, you may have guessed who I was thinking of – the BBC journalist and broadcaster, Andrew Neil.

Neil has a very important role within the BBC’s political output, fronting political and current affairs programmes such as Politics Today. He interviews politicians from across the political spectrum – and in doing so gives them airtime and a platform. Nigel Farage for example has been interviewed by Andrew Neil many times. Neil is renowned for his aggressive questioning technique. It’s interesting to note how many of Neil’s utterances, from his interviews, get picked up and repeated in a glowing manner by the right-wing media – places like the Daily Express or gutter-press website Guido Fawkes.

Some commentators have suggested that Neil expresses a particular political view via his presence on the BBC – Scottish blog Bella Caledonia detailed Neil’s antics in light of his attack on Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who had done so much to reveal the dark story of Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, Brexit and Trump. And it’s hard to avoid observing Neil’s glee at the prospect that Brexit would seriously damage the EU project, in this piece to camera shortly after the Referendum vote.

Neil chairs the board of the company which owns the right-wing magazine The Spectator and other magazines. The Spectator in particular publishes writers which challenge and attack climate change science (a view Neil supports); who sympathise with islamophobia (Roger Scruton for example, who was sacked from his Government advisory role for his repugnant views); who endorse far-right regimes such as Viktor Orban’s illiberal authoritarian democracy in Hungary, and who support a hard Brexit. Neil was Boris Johnson’s boss when Johnson edited The Spectator. Neil is also a big fan of the dark-funded corporate lobbyist “think tank”, the Adam Smith Institute.

Neil’s work for the BBC apparently sits comfortably within its editorial policy, though this is increasingly criticized even by former insiders, for pandering to the far-right. But he brazenly uses his twitter feed to endorse his hard-right political views, which have not changed since his enthusiastic support for Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s and 80s.

As former Newsnight presenter and LBC radio commentator James O’Brien said; “If [Neil], who publishes Nazi apologists, racists, climate change deniers, homophobes, misogynists and disaster capitalists in The Spectator, is considered impartial enough to present BBC political programmes, it’s unsurprising that his pocket fascists frequently appear on them.”

Have there been orchestrated efforts to investigate or challenge Neil’s role as one of the leading political commentators on the BBC; and on the basis of his many outside interests and his very robust views on politics? No: where complaints have been made, they have been unceremoniously batted away – indeed the BBC editors, and even their complaints department,  leap to his defence.

It seems only Chris Packham is subject to this degree of vilification, for what he does, in the name of wildlife, beyond his BBC role.

You can show your support for Chris by signing this petition calling for the BBC to keep him on.

Posted in Andrew Neil, BBC, Chris Packham, countryside alliance, Natural England | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

A Net Loss for Nature

netted hedgerows. ©Stewart Abbott

An extremely unpleasant new craze is sweeping the nation: It involves wrapping up lengths of hedgerow or even mature trees in netting. The idea is that once a hedge or tree has been netted, birds are unable to nest there. Why would anyone want to stop Blackbirds, Robins or Blue Tits from making nests?

Once a bird is sitting on a nest it gains legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. It cannot be moved, nor can the hedge or tree, except under licence, during the nesting season. So, if you want to, say, build a new housing estate on land which is currently criss-crossed by hedgerows, and you don’t want to be delayed by some pesky nesting birds, then wrap the hedges up to keep them bird-free.

Can anyone see any problems with this cunning plan? What about birds that become trapped in the netting. What about Hedgehogs which might stumble into the net and become stranded, unable to move; vulnerable to being eaten by predators, or just starving. What about bats – which are much more strictly protected (under European Law) than most birds. Yes bats do roost in hedgerows and in trees – and when they emerge from hibernation, just around now, they will find themselves trapped on the inside of a large net.

This appears to be a new thing for this year but nets have appeared across the country, as this google map shows. After some fairly widespread coverage on social media, and in the news media (e.g. here and here), a petition was launched on the government petition website. That petition has now garnered over 200,000 signatures (as of 3/4) and local people are taking action by removing netting and saving trapped wildlife, though some birds have been found dead in the nets. The petition calls for the activity to be banned. The RSPB, whose job it is to protect wild birds, had initially taken a meeker position, asking developers (nicely) to think carefully before they put nets over hedges and trees. Subsequently, they and CIEEM brought out a stronger joint statement calling for the use of netting to stop (except under exceptional circumstances).

Vox populi vox dei?

I find I’m unable to watch the BBC TV news any more. Every single time I’ve turned it on (often accidentally) there’s someone being interviewed in a high street, usually near some market stalls. Does every town have market stalls or does the BBC news team scout out towns with them so they know where they must film? Or perhaps the whole thing is a set next to the new Albert Square one. Invariably the vox pops are from people saying “we’re fed up with the politicians …. We just need to Leave the EU NOW!” Or worse, dark accusations of betrayal. How is it that the interviewer never asks “and would that mean staying in the Customs Union, creating a new Customs partnership, do we stay in the Single Market, what about Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement?”  All those knotty questions that nobody ever asked the public before the Referendum vote. Or perhaps the interviewer did ask those questions and received a blank look, or a reply that was not broadcastable.

From the Government all we hear is the tired old cliché “we must respect the Will of the People” and “this was the largest vote this country has ever seen” and dark mutterings about civil unrest, if the Vote is not delivered in the most extreme way possible. But this is simply not true. The Referendum vote was not the largest vote in UK history (General Elections have had larger total turnouts). And while more people voted to leave than remain, the electorate split 37% leave, 35% remain and 28% did not vote. Further, there was significant disenfranchisement, particularly of younger voters (and UK citizens who had lived abroad for more than 15 years), thanks to changes to the way the Electoral Roll is updated, introduced by David Cameron – remember him? And of course the 3 million EU nationals resident in the UK, who had no say at all on their future.

I must admit I have yet to see or hear a Vox Pop with a member of the public from the 28%; perhaps they might say “no I didn’t vote in the Referendum. I found the arguments on both sides very confusing, so I didn’t feel I could make a decision.”  Perhaps they were right, because we now discover, nearly three years later, that the arguments were very confusing – so confusing that the Cabinet itself cannot agree on what the Referendum meant, nor can the Government, nor can Parliament. And certainly not the public. Nobody can agree on what the decision to leave the EU actually meant, nor how it was going to be achieved. Perhaps the electorate weren’t asked the right question.

Pretty much everyone can agree that the negotiations with the EU have been monumentally mishandled from the outset; and most agree that the very real prospect of leaving the EU without any deal would be catastrophic for the country. And yet, despite Sir Oliver Letwin and others’ best efforts to achieve some sort of consensus in Parliament over a way forward, a no deal Brexit is still on the cards. With this threat in mind, nearly 6 million people have signed a petition calling on the Government to revoke Article 50. It’s worth just reflecting for a moment on the sheer scale of this. I’m not saying all of those who signed would vote Labour, but the number of signatures is the equivalent of 46% of the total Labour vote in the 2017 General Election. Hundreds of thousands of people also marched in London last weekend calling for a People’s Vote – a second referendum. And this proposition – or at least a call for a ballot for the people to confirm any agreement that is voted through Parliament – almost achieved a majority in the indicative votes taken on the Match 26th, and may yet do so on the 1st April. By any standards, the scale of concern expressed by the public via the petition and march is very substantial. These are expressions of public sentiment, every bit as valid as the referendum – arguably more so given what we now know about how both Leave (that’s Vote Leave and the Farage/Banks outfit leave dot EU) campaigns cheated and gamed the electoral system.

A cynical ploy

Compare this with Nigel Farage’s March to Leave. This was supposed to be an army marching on London from Sunderland. Farage was going to show the Westminster elite the strength of feeling among the leave-voting public. In truth, turned into a bit of a farce. Some days have seen just 60 people walking, others perhaps 150. Farage has turned up for a photo-opportunity a couple of times, but is mostly absent. He’s abandoned the walkers to their fate. Fortunately, they have had very nice weather after the first couple of days and I respect the members of the public who have turned out to do this walk for what they believe in, however much I may disagree with them.

Respect is in very short supply though. Consider how the Government reacted to the nearly 6 million who signed the Revoke Article 50 petition. I did my own Vox Pops  – this is how the Government’s response was described; “condescending…. mealy-mouthed… they talked down to us like children.”

And how will the Vote Leave demonstration – planned originally as a celebration of us leaving on the 29th, now more likely to be an expression of anger and perceived betrayal –  play out? Hopefully not with any violence. (Update – yes, there was violence.)

It does feel though that our democracy, which we have come to take for granted, is feeling vulnerable. It is a fragile thing. It can easily be damaged or destroyed. Like those birds struggling to escape from the netted hedgerows.

And history may also conclude that Brexit was also a cynical ploy to graft private profit, by ignoring the laws which the rest of us abide by, but which apparently don’t apply to everyone.

This article first appeared on Lush Times

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Why EU laws to stop pets chasing wildlife (and livestock) are not comical.

 

It’s always tempting, when writing a weekly column, to return over and over again to a well chewed bone called Brexit. And despite Westminster having descended into full-blown Whitehall Farce territory last week, I am going to resist the temptation for now. I would, however, recommend reading whatever Brexit-related musings Marina Hyde has produced (they are out usually on a Friday); or for a surreal take on life generally, Stewart Lee is hard to better. Instead, I’m going to return to another couple of equally well-chewed, but perhaps not quite such botulous skeletal remains, in the form of Natural England, Housing, Dogs and the Ministry of Defence.

Firstly, I think we should all welcome one of the more unusual decisions made by Michael Gove in his entire political career. Gove is something of a political chameleon – who can forget his sycophantic interview two years ago, with the newly elected US President Donald Trump, for example?  Or his suggestion that the Good Friday Agreement was equivalent to the appeasement of Nazi Germany? Or the fact that he was one of the main leaders of the Vote Leave campaign for Brexit, which has worked out so well for everyone. I imagine he would like us all to forget at least two and probably all three of these facts.

Gove’s task was to find a new chair for Natural England – the Government-funded public body which has the job of standing up for Nature in England. And which, of course, I have written about previously ad nauseam.

Gove could have followed his predecessor Owen “badgers moved the goalposts” Paterson and chosen from within his own circle. In 2013, Paterson gave the job to Tory Party donor Andrew Sells, who made his fortune building housing developments. Sells was Treasurer of favourite Tory think-tank Policy Exchange, for which Gove was the founding chair.

Dark-funded corporate lobbying outfit the ‘Tax Payers’ Alliance (TPA) has a long running campaign to get right-wing people placed into public positions running organisations like Natural England, presumably  fearing a modern re-enactment of the old “reds under the beds” moral panic of the Cold War, where Soviet sleeper agents (brainwashed or not) were installed into Western Democracies, waiting for ‘that phone-call’ and the quietly muttered code word that would activate them to murderous intent.

But no. Gove is mercurial by nature and liable to delight in sending everyone off-balance, as he proved by selecting Tony Juniper as the new Natural England chair. Not only selecting Juniper, but sticking to his guns, when Number 10 balked at the appointment. For Tony Juniper is not a Tory. Tony stood for the Green Party in the 2010 General Election and gained 3,804 votes.

I’ve known Tony for over 30 years, meeting him when were both students at University College London. I worked with him when he was leading the wildlife campaign for Friends of the Earth (I was at Plantlife). I remember following him around a variety of locations near Newbury during the Newbury Bypass protests – neither of us were arrested. We don’t agree eye-to-eye on everything: Tony has nailed his colours to the mast of Natural Capital, something to which I am deeply opposed – and we’ve aired our differences on this in a public debate. Nevertheless, it is difficult to underestimate just how important an appointment this is.

Previous chairs of England’s official nature guardian had been from ‘the Great and the Good.’ When Andrew Sells took over as chair I looked back at the history of this role. Previous incumbents included aristocrats, Whitehall Mandarins, more aristocrats, city bankers, and aristocrats.

It was only in 2001 that a working class Labour council leader, with a fierce passion for nature and landscape, Sir Martin Doughty, broke the mould. But this turned out to have been a minor aberration (or as the TPA would see it, confirmation that the Reds really were out there) and when Doughty died his replacement was a farmer, Poul Christensen. Christensen oversaw the very controversial protection of the former MoD training area at Lodge Hill in Kent, as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). He was sacked shortly afterwards by Owen Paterson, possibly for being not enthusiastic enough about the Badger Cull.

The fate of Lodge Hill continues to hang in the balance, although its protection as SSSI means that for now its future is relatively secure. Homes England has indicated that it no longer wishes to build on the SSSI, just all the way around it. But housing developments don’t just affect the nature being bulldozed to make way for new homes; they have other impacts.

Imagine if every other home built was occupied by a family with a dog. Those dogs need taking for walks, and that means walks in the surrounding land. If that land is a Site of Special Scientific Interest say, for ground-nesting birds, for example… then you can see that lots of extra dogs being walked on that land could have a major impact on the wildlife, for which the SSSI has been designated. No more ground-nesting birds. Even in more normal countryside, dogs can have dramatic impacts on wildlife.

It may not surprise you to discover that planning officers do not take into account, all the extra dogs brought into an area (and their being walked on nearby SSSIs) as a result of new housing development, when deciding whether to recommend approval of such housing. And if the planning officers aren’t looking, then you can guarantee the councillors who make the final decision will not either. But if that SSSI happens to also have a European designation, thanks to the EU Birds or Habitats Directives, things are very different. And despite the fact that we are leaving the EU, at some point, the extra protections afforded by EU law, for Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas, still stand. For now.

And this is exactly what has just happened in York. Because the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is continuing to sell every possible bit of land it owns for housing development. And one of these bits is Strensall Barracks, which the MoD wants to sell off for 550 new houses.

Strensall Barracks is right next to Strensall Common, also owned by the MoD. And Strensall Common is both an SSSI and the European designation of Special Area of Conservation. The Common supports internationally threatened lowland heath habitats, including such delights as Marsh Gentian and the carnivorous Sundew plants.

The Council has concluded that the MoD’s proposals to build houses on the barracks site, will bring lots of extra dogs and these dogs will be taken for walks on the Common (right next door.) The dogs will chase the livestock, performing the vital function of grazing the heathland, and the condition of the SAC will deteriorate. This is all laid out in the Local Plan Habitat Regulations Assessment, which has led the Council to reject the MoD’s proposals. Needless to say the MoD is livid and will want to see Natural England, whose job it is to protect SSSIs and SACs, hung out to dry.

There’s a certain irony here, which is that during the Referendum campaign Michael Gove singled out for ridicule the protections afforded to heathland wildlife by these EU Directives. Gove talked of comical rules “to prevent cats chasing birds”; rules which also stop those extra dogs from being walked on heathlands.

And now this case, involving these comical rules, will be top of the pile in Tony Juniper’s in-tray, waiting for him when he starts his new job. Will Tony regard these rules as comical? I think that’s unlikely myself, given that Tony expended quite a lot of energy while at Friends of the Earth working to make these laws more effective at protecting wildlife.

Perhaps even Michael Gove no longer regards these rules as only fit for ridicule.

Perhaps even he now understands that it is these laws which are there to protect nature, and it is Natural England’s job to see that these laws are respected, by everyone. Including the Ministry of Defence.

 

This article first appeared on Lush Times

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Time in Nature helps our children’s mental health & wellbeing

It’s fair to say that as a society we are only just waking up to the problems our children and young adults face. To what extent the mental health crisis facing children is linked to increasing social media use is debatable, though some evidence does point towards its damaging effect – particularly on those who may already be vulnerable to the insidious features deliberately designed into some platforms, with Instagram coming under special scrutiny recently. With this in mind, it’s incumbent on us all to consider what we can do, both individually and as a society.

We know, both instinctively, and from scientific evidence, that there are things which improve wellbeing, and therefore mental health. These include taking part in group activities – whether be sport or drama and the arts. But what about being in Nature? We tend to assume that being in nature will be good for everyone’s well-being and recent evidence looking specifically at Children and Young Adults is showing how important this is.

Monitoring Engagement in the Natural Environment  – or MENE as it’s known, is a project which has been running for exactly 10 years now – it’s unusual as a survivor from before the Tory government took over in 2010, when everything changed, as I explored in a previous piece (link to NE article). The MENE project does something very simple, but also quite radical – it uses standard market research techniques (face to face surveys) to find out the general public’s perceptions of nature and the natural environment, asking people how often they visit places where they will find some aspect of nature, why they make those visits, and how it makes them feel. Read more about the 10 years of work here. This is a significant piece of work, and after 10 years it’s possible to see how people’s attitudes towards and time spent in nature is changing.

The recent MENE report exploring young people’s attitudes towards nature and the natural environment throws up some results which should surprise no-one, but also some unexpected and perhaps worrying signals, particularly in relation to the benefits being in nature provides for young people’s mental health and wellbeing. Nearly three quarters of children experience nature (beyond their gardens, which are excluded from the survey) in urban parks and other kinds of green space, mostly in the company of adults. The number of children who are playing or being outdoors without adults has declined dramatically over the past 50 years and this is reflected in the MENE results which found only 18% of children (under 16) were outdoors in a natural environment without adults, and only 6% on their own. Being in nature clearly improves children and young people’s wellbeing, and two thirds of children under 16 agreed with the phrase that “being in nature makes me very happy”. Interestingly this figure dropped to 56% for teenagers and young adults  – and this ties in with a general perception that teenagers become more removed from an interest in nature as other pressures crowd in on their time, focus and energy.

With a large sample of carefully selected contributors, the MENE researchers were able to explore social and ethnic differences – for example finding that children in poorer neighbourhoods were spending significantly less time in urban green spaces, as were children from BAME communities, especially those from Asian backgrounds – 73% of children from white British backgrounds were spending once a week outside in nature, compared with only 51% from Asian backgrounds – a startling difference. In households with dogs, children were consistently spending more time outside without an adult, than children in households without dogs, as you would expect. The difference is most marked for 13 year old children where 42% were making visits walking the dog, compared with 32% without dogs. At the same time the MENE survey is finding that visits by older children (aged 10-15) to nature, without adults, are decreasing at a surprising rate – down from 45% in 2013-14 to 39% in 2017-18. This may be partly due to parents’ concerns about safety, for example having to cross busy roads to get to the park. However it may also be due to children spending more time indoors, for example gaming or on social media.

What MENE does not do is really tease apart the different elements of nature in urban green spaces, to identify which particular attributes make the most contribution towards children’s wellbeing. Is it, for example, the opportunity to watch that ubiquitous but unloved (by Defra) urban mammal, the Grey squirrel?  Or is it related to the number and size of trees, as I expect the Woodland Trust would want us to believe – or is it something more complex related to the structural complexity provided by a range of different features including large trees, shrubs and areas with flowers and butterflies – or some other factor such as opportunities to climb trees or build dens. While I’m not suggesting we engineer every greenspace to maximise children’s wellbeing, it would certainly be useful to know how these  different factors inter-relate to each other.

The other question it raises is whether there is enough greenery in our cities and towns. The MENE results showing that children spend less time in nature in poorer areas may simply reflect the fact that there are fewer green areas in poorer neighbourhoods – and that Councils have less money to spend managing them  – for example in ways which encourage more nature. Cash strapped councils are being forced to sell off more and more land and buildings to make up for the Central Government funding which has been withdrawn over the last 10 years – meaning that, at least in some areas, there are now fewer green areas for children to visit, or those that are available are neglected, making them less attractive. A similar impact is produced by schools being forced to sell off playing fields to pay for new buildings or cover budget deficits.

One thing seems certain – getting children out into nature is good for their mental health and their overall wellbeing – and we can all do our bit to encourage this. Ultimately though, if the parks and greenspaces aren’t there, or are not welcoming, then our children will not be able to benefit from the experiences with nature they provide.

This article first appeared in Lush Times

 

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Squirrels, Pheasants and Beavers: the confusing world of animal releases

Defra minister Therese Coffey has decided to stop anyone from releasing rehabilitated Grey Squirrels – even into gardens.

 

Scotland is once again ahead of the game (or at least ahead of England) as far as legal protection for wildlife is concerned.

Scottish Environment Minister, Roseanna Cunningham, announced recently that Beavers would be given the strict protection afforded other European Protected Species (EPS), under the EU Habitats Directive.

These species are mostly those for which the UK has particular, international responsibility, and include everything from Bats to Harbour Porpoises; the Large Blue butterfly to the Lady’s-slipper orchid.

Having EPS status means that the individuals are legally protected from persecution or killing; and their habitats are also protected, to a greater or lesser extent.

This means that Beavers and their habitats will receive legal protection too – although newly-built dams (less than two weeks old) can still be legally dismantled, without a licence. And capturing or, in the last resort, killing Beavers will still be allowed, under licence.

Now, of course, there’s a certain irony that Beavers will become a European Protected Species in the UK on the 1st May 2019 – which will either be a month after the UK formally leaves the EU, or perhaps 4 weeks beforehand, depending on whether a short delay to Brexit day is confirmed (I still have my doubts). Because of course the legal protection they will receive is based on EU law and that EU law is ultimately founded on the decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union – something which Brexites have been obsessed with and enraged by, for years.

Once we leave the EU, there will still be domestic laws (known as the Habitat Regulations) which provide legal protection for EPS, at least for a year or two.

A most peculiar argument

During our time as an EU member state, if an EPS was being persecuted, or its habitat being destroyed, the UK Government could be taken to the EU court, which could impose very heavy fines, until the persecution or damage was remedied. This acted as a very effective backstop (in that the court’s decision was final) and a deterrent.

Once outside the EU, that backstop disappears along with the deterrent effect. So conferring the status of EPS on the Beaver may not be, in reality, quite as strong a signal that the animals will be given protection as it would have been, had we continued to be an EU country.

Now that Scotland has decided that its Beavers are a proper native mammal, it’s going to be pretty difficult for officials in England and Wales (where they have also been reintroduced) to argue that Beavers are not native there. After all, they were native across Great Britain until about 1600, and for the previous 7 million years or so.

While the benefits of beavers are well established, there are still plenty of beaver naysayers. Some in the farming community argue that the landscape has changed beyond all recognition over the past 400 years and there is now no room for Beavers. This is a most peculiar argument since it implies that everything that is here now in Britain is as good as it can be and nothing must change. In that case, should all new land-uses be stopped? Maize grown purely to feed the biogas industry didn’t exist 10 years ago and now covers 60,000ha of England’s farmland. Did anyone say: “there’s no room for that biogas Maize, we need that land to grow food?

If they did, I didn’t hear them. And of course the anglers – ah the anglers. Many (not all) don’t want Beavers back because they are worried that Beavers will affect Salmon and Trout populations. They don’t seem quite so bothered about other fish species, or fish diversity in general. That smells a bit fishy to me – it may even qualify as being ‘fishist.’

Secret Squirrels

While the return of a native animal and legal protection being conferred upon it is generally welcomed (with notable exceptions), at the same time some people are up in arms over plans to stop a very popular, cute and cuddly, but exotic invader from being released into the countryside. This is the Grey squirrel.

Introduced into Britain in the 1870s, the Greys have been relentlessly spreading across Britain and have been blamed for the near extinction of the native Red squirrel – by acting as a host for a virus which kills the Reds, but leaves the Greys untouched. They also damage trees, especially planted ones – and are thus hated by foresters.

But most people (who aren’t foresters) enjoy seeing the Greys – in the local park or in their gardens. And in urban environments, Grey squirrels might be the only wild mammal, people ever see.

Compassion for any suffering animal is natural, and has led to injured or orphaned Grey squirrels being rescued and taken to special Grey squirrel rehabilitation centres. Here, the Greys are restored to health and then released back into the wild, where it’s considered they belong, despite having been introduced – and having caused the problems I mention above.

Now, the Government has decided that the law needs to change, making it an offence to return a captive Grey Squirrel back to the wild. The Sunday Times newspaper created a bit of a stir by claiming that Environment Minister Michael Gove’s department was going to force rehabilitation centres to kill all of their captive Grey squirrels, which, in turn, forced Defra to issue a rebuttal. It does feel like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut though – there are around three million Grey squirrels wild in the UK – how many do rehabilitation centres release every year – a few thousand at most?

As the secretary of the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals, Samantha Chandler, said: “Surely even invasive species deserve the right to humane treatment if they are sick or injured?”

Well yes. And here’s the rub.

Allowing a few hundred Beavers in Scotland (and a few tens in England) to return to the wild has caused huge controversy – remember this is an animal which lived here for millions of years and is an essential component of our wetland ecosystems.

Changing the law to prevent a few thousand (at most) non-native squirrels go free when there are three million already out there, seems to me to be a bit of overkill.

But allowing 35 million non-native Pheasants to be released every year without any licencing requirement…

Pheasant which cause significant environmental damage, road traffic accidents, disease  – never mind the birds’ own welfare.

Released just so they can be shot, for fun or profit?

Yes, of course, that’s fine, go ahead. No problem.

this article first appeared on Lush Times

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School Strike for the Climate

Hazel leaves emerge in late February ©Miles King

It’s still February but already feeling warm (update: winter temperatures records smashed) Thirty or forty years ago, the middle of February would normally have been the depths of winter in England, but no more: Buds are breaking, the grass is growing enthusiastically, and there have even been sightings of Swallows and Sand Martins flying up from the South.

Has anyone else who suffers from hayfever also had a few sneezes or runny eyes? Welcome to the new climate. Of course we were in the same position last year, before the Beast from the East arrived, but despite its dramatic impact, England had its hottest year on record last year.

Winter is being squeezed – by autumn running into December, and spring starting in February. Elsewhere in the world, Australia has just had its hottest January on record. Normally, this would only happen in an El Nino year, when warm water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean push temperatures up in Australia, and worldwide. This year there has been no El Nino (although one may just be starting up now), which makes the antipodean heatwave all the more alarming.

For those few people clinging on to denial and a desperate desire to find alternative ‘natural’ reasons behind our Climate Crisis, the Sun’s behaviour is not helping. Jeremy Corbyn’s brother Piers, for example, believes the climate is driven by the sun’s activity.  We are now in a period called the ‘Solar Minimum’ when solar activity declines (and sunspots disappear from the surface of the sun). If the sun is driving the climate, solar minima should see global temperatures fall, yet they continue to climb.

While some efforts are being made to reduce the inexorable increase in greenhouse gases emitted from human activities, climate science continues to throw up surprises. Concentrations of  Methane – one of the most potent greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – had plateaued until 2014. Then, inexplicably it started to increase again, and not just a bit but by a lot.

Dramatic increases in methane have been recorded over the past four years, but it’s not at all clear from where the Methane is being emitted. Methane from different sources has different chemical signatures, and these point towards a biological source accounting for the dramatic increase in recent years, rather than, say, gas leakages from the fossil fuel industry. Local monitoring also suggests the emissions are from tropical areas  – which rules out methane leaking for Arctic tundra or Methane hydrates trapped in the sea bed. But whether the increased level of Methane is produced by rice fields or by cattle is unclear. There is still so much we do not understand; for example, it’s possible that a rise in atmospheric methane may be due to climate-change induced chemical changes which are slowing the natural processes which cause methane (which is short-lived, disappearing after about 10 years) to break down.

While scenes of mass cattle die-off in Australia may elicit compassion here, it’s the impact of climate chaos on the farmers who produce our food which will really bring the reality home to people. A recent report from the Climate Coalition neatly summarises what is already happening and how much more dramatic the changes in the near future will be.

You may be surprised to discover that the UK is more or less self-sufficient in carrots and peas. Last year’s extraordinary heat and drought made a big dent in both these crops – carrots were down 25-30% last year. The pea beetle is heading north as the climate warms and if (when) it arrives in Britain, will affect Pea yields. As we are being told to eat more fruit and vegetables, not least because it is better for the environment, there is a certain irony that climate chaos is going to make it more difficult for us to grow them, and the last thing we want is to be more dependent on imports, regardless of chaos around Brexit day.

Nor does it make any sense for the Government to be talking about the UK helping to ‘feed the world’ as Michael Gove said to the National Farmers’ Union conference last week. Exporting lamb and beef to the EU (exports of which are now at risk of total collapse if we crash out of the EU without a deal) is not going to help subsistence farmers in the tropics who produce most of the world’s food. Better that we support research into developing better agro-ecological farming techniques, or use our global influence to help farmers share best practice where it already exists.

All of these things are inevitably creating a collective sense of anxiety and perhaps despair that the damage has already been done and there’s nothing that can be done. So, it’s particularly inspirational to see young people demanding urgent action – a movement which continues to build.

Last week saw the first school strike for climate in the UK – inspired by Swedish school student Greta Thunberg, who has been on strike from school for months. Thunberg’s inspiration led to around ten thousand UK students walking out of school on the February 15 to protest that the Climate Crisis was only being given lip service by this government, and governments in general.

The Government’s response can only be described as crass; both House of Commons leader’s Andrea Leadsom’s dismissal of the action as ‘truancy’ and the Prime Minister complaining that they had wasted their teacher’s efforts in preparing lessons that they were not attending. Theresa May is notorious for ignoring how her reactions are perceived (the optics) beyond the Westminster Bubble, and she surpassed herself with this reaction. Thankfully other politicians reacted with interest and respect, not least former biodiversity minister Richard Benyon, who met local school students to listen to, and discuss their demands. And let’s not forget that born-again environmentalist Michael Gove sought to remove climate chaos from the curriculum during his tenure as Education Secretary, and it only remained after a major campaign – even now it’s treated as a sideshow.

It’s understandable that the generation at school at the moment feel frustrated and angry that their future is being put on the line by the people currently in charge, especially after the Brexit vote took away their future choices to live and work elsewhere in the EU.

Let’s hope these protests build and build over the next months (the next big one is planned for March 15) and grow to the point where they simply cannot be ignored by the politicians, media and the public. This would be a very healthy antidote to the act of national self-harm that is Brexit.

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40 days to a crash-out Brexit (well….35 now).

will we all be eating Lamb come Brexit day?

To me, forty days is a nice round number. It doesn’t fit in well with our time cycles of days, weeks and months, but it undoubtedly has great symbolic meaning, the  most famous of which, perhaps, is the 40 days and 40 nights of rain that caused Noah’s Flood – and transformed the world, cleaning away all of the old sinful ways. But the biblical references don’t stop there. Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert and was subject to all manner of temptations, including the temptation to use his divine superpowers to turn stones into bread, in order to overcome his hunger. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, wandering in the desert for 40 years; and then fasted for 40 days on Mount Sinai, where he received the Ten Commandments.

Today (Monday, February 18) marks 40 days until Brexit day. And like Noah’s Flood, at least for true believers, Brexit will clean away all of the old sinful EU ways, leaving a bright clean sunlit future. Whether we will also need to ask for divine intervention to provide our daily bread through the conversion of stones, remains to be seen. But there really is something akin to a ‘Milliennial Cult’ about Brexit.

Millennial cults – so named because they have a habit of springing up around each Millennium – generally believe that there will be some apocalyptic event and that either the world will end, or there will be a new beginning, or both. Apocalypse literally means revelation or uncovering and our Millennial Brexit cult is now preparing for the great reveal – of a new Britain. This is nothing new. William Blake wrote Jerusalem as a way of describing his belief that a new Heaven could be created, on Earth, in England.

Leaving aside the religious connotations, it may be worth spending a few minutes thinking about what is actually likely to happen on and around Brexit Day on March 29th. If only for practical everyday reasons. To do that, it’s necessary to decide what kind of Brexit is now most likely to occur. There are a number of possibilities: it might be postponed, if Theresa May’s Government decides to ask the EU to approve a delay. May’s deal, which the EU has signed off but Parliament has rejected, might scrape through. Or, a revised version of that deal, such as one that includes Labour’s demands that the UK enter into a Customs Union with the EU, might make it through Parliament and be signed off by the EU. Or the Malthouse Compromise, which means ditching the Irish border backstop and replacing it with unspecified new technology, might be signed off by Ireland and the EU, in contravention of the Good Friday Agreement.

All of these are possible, but unlikely – arguably very unlikely. We have reached an impasse. There is a large enough group – mainly the ultra-hardline Brexit Millenialists of the European Research Group, who will not support May’s deal, let alone anything that’s got a sniff of Labour about it. The EU will not sign off any weakening of the backstop, let alone some unspecified techno-fix. Labour won’t support May’s deal as it stands. And so the existing Parliamentary process leads inexorably to a no-deal Brexit. It’s the default. Unless something miraculous happens, this is where we are heading. In 40 days’ time.

So let’s start with the basic necessities of life: food, water, shelter. All of our drinking water in the UK is supplied domestically, either from reservoirs or aquifers (underground wells). So these supplies will continue whatever happens with Brexit. While leading Brexit prophet Dan Hannan was rightly mocked for attacking suggestions that the UK would run out of drinking water (nobody suggested that), there are certain chemicals which are imported from the EU, and used in purifying water to make it safe for drinking. But let’s assume that there is already a stockpile of these in the UK, or that they could be brought in by boat. British houses are also unlikely to collapse on Brexit day, though the hostile environment that EU nationals are already being subject to is hardly likely to help with shortages of key trades in the UK construction industry. Homelessness and the housing crisis will still be with us after Brexit day. Those houses will continue to receive gas and electricity.

Gas supplies come into the UK via pipelines from the North Sea (domestic production) the EU and Norway; and via giant container ships full of Liquefied Natural Gas. Nearly half of the UK’s gas supplies comes from or via the EU. You can see one reason why the Brexites are so keen on fracking. As the Russians showed with Ukraine in 2006, cutting off a country’s gas supplies can have pretty profound consequences. Electricity is mainly produced domestically, with a small amount imported when necessary via one of several interconnectors, including from France. So we wouldn’t want to really annoy the French, for example by refusing to pay what we already owe to the EU for previous commitments to the EU budget – the £39 billion or whatever the final amount will be. And we certainly would not want to annoy the Norwegians, by trampling on their arrangements with the EU, via the European Free Trade Area. This seems pretty unlikely to happen in the next 40 days.

Impending crisis

Of the three essentials for life, food is the one upon which Brexit day could have a dramatic impact, (although Brexists will continue to shout “project fear” until the cows come home). The simple reason for this is that around half of our food comes from the EU, either directly or indirectly. And it wouldn’t take much of a delay at the border for perishable food such as fresh fruit and vegetables to be rendered unusable. It’s a pity nobody thought about this at the time they decided to make Brexit day at the end of March. It’s just about the worst possible time of the year if we were having to fall back on domestically-produced fruit and veg. Last year’s stocks are running down, but little is coming in from the farms. I guess nobody thought about this as an important consideration at the time, when we were going to have all of our new trade agreements signed on day one. Nevertheless, we will probably still have plenty of potatoes, turnips, cabbages, carrots and Brussel sprouts. But if imports from the Netherlands and Spain (where most of our imports originate) are held up, then that means shortages of tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, lettuce, courgettes and cucumbers. Popular exotic veg and fruit (Avocado Toast anyone?) arrives in Europe at Rotterdam, not directly into the UK.

You might also be surprised at how much chicken we import. As a country (obviously not including the vegetarians/vegans) the UK prefers white chicken meat, rather than brown meat. So we export most of the brown meat and import white meat to compensate. Most of the imported white meat comes from The Netherlands, then Poland. Conversely, if exports of UK food produce to the EU are held up (and face high tariffs), as seems inevitable with a crash-out Brexit, that will lead to a glut of some things. Something like 25% of UK lamb is exported, mostly to the EU. UK beef and pork exports will also be hit. And as for taking back control over our fishing industry…. 75% of the fish that are caught in UK waters are exported – to the EU. Any delays in lorry movements through Dover will spell disaster for the fishing industry.

Without going into massive detail, the picture I am trying to draw is one where things we are used to eating will be harder to find, while food exporters are stuck with products where there is low domestic demand. Will sheep farmers take lambs to market and accept a lower price which means they are out of pocket – or leave them in the fields where there is insufficient grazing to go round? Will the Government step in and start buying produce as used to happen in the bad old days of milk mountains and butter lakes. Even if they did, there is nowhere to store the surplus.

The pound will plummet

While some supermarket shelves will be empty or at least sporadically filled, for other products, gluts may well mean prices are dropped, just to shift food out of warehouses and into homes. But there’s a catch. Because one thing that seems certain is that a crash-out Brexit will cause the value of the pound to plummet. I’m not going to make any predictions, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see one Pound equals one Euro. And that means prices are going to increase across the board. Combine that with job insecurity, and it’s no surprise that the Government has just issued new guidance on ‘riot compensation.’

Of course, this impending crisis will not continue forever, perhaps only for a few weeks. After a few weeks of chaos, the tectonic political plates will shift again. Perhaps we’ll be heading into another general election, with one, possibly two new party leaders – perhaps even some new political parties. Is this really what the country wanted? Of course not. Brexit was always a political project – an unholy alliance of the hard right and the far-right.

The hard right are those, like the European Research Group and their constellation of corporate lobby groups masquerading as charities or think-tanks, who want to shrink the state, privatise everything, do away with as many regulations and laws as possible and let loose the unbridled forces of the free market. The far-right are the xenophobes, the bigots, the racists, the white supremacists – some who want to return to the days of the Empire; look down on “foreigners”, see women back in their place (the home); and who attack social justice as ‘cultural marxism’.

That’s not to say all those who voted for Brexit are hard-right or far-right. Many had their own valid reasons for doing so, though the fact that both Vote Leave campaigns cheated brazenly did not help. But who among them would ever have dreamed we would be where we are now, facing food and medicine shortages, with the Army reserve having been called up to deal with anticipated civil unrest?

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