Julian Jessop is the Chief Economist at the Institute of Economic Affairs, but is writing here in a personal capacity.
Gove M. was appointed Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) on 11th June 2017. One year into his term he has, in my view, made a most promising start. In particular, I’d award Gove an A grade both for ‘diligence’ and ‘engagement’. At this stage I can only give him a B for ‘attainment’, but it is still early days.
Gove has long been widely respected as a values-driven, conviction politician, not afraid to pick a fight. Allies and foes alike acknowledge him as an instinctive reformer who is able to articulate a strong vision. Few have therefore been surprised that he has remained one of the most active departmental ministers in his new role and has shaken DEFRA up, for the better. This is all the more remarkable given his leading part in the Brexit debates, which might have left no time for anything else.
I’m told insiders welcome the fact that he is such a high profile and relevant Cabinet member. Even sceptics have noted major improvements in the energy of the department after a succession of what they saw, not always fairly, as uninspiring appointees. Whether it turns out for good or ill, Gove is not another ‘safe pair of hands’.
One consistent theme is his conscientiousness. Gove studies a brief thoroughly and takes the trouble to read around a subject. Another plus is his willingness to reach out to a wide range of stakeholders, without shying away from a fight. His rhetoric has been powerful, notably on the importance of the environment, the risks posed by climate change, and the potential of the green economy.
These messages have been well received by green NGOs who, whether you like them or not, have been more ready to engage positively with the work of the department. Indeed, he has brought in several advisers from the broader environmental movement, including Tamsin Cooper (previously at the think-tank Green Alliance) and Richard Benwell (from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust).
The benefits can already be seen in at least two areas of DEFRA’s work. The first is Gove’s drive to replace the Common Agricultural Policy with a system of farming subsidies that takes more account of the interests of consumers and taxpayers, while creating stronger incentives to protect the environment. This is entirely sensible. If he does indeed manage to ensure that public money only goes to farmers who deliver wider social and environmental benefits, Gove will deserve to be remembered as one of the great reformers. That he will have angered some powerful vested interests in the process is probably a good thing.
The second is his development of a more credible ‘25-Year Environment Plan’ based on sound economic principles. A good example is the concept of ‘natural capital’, which is an attempt to properly value assets such as the environment and ecosystems and the benefits that they provide. Many feared that this plan would simply be ‘motherhood and apple pie’, devoid of any real substance. Here it may be a relief to some that Gove is still willing to listen to ‘experts’ such as Professor Dieter Helm, the economist.
But there are some caveats, too. Most obviously, Gove’s ability to implement major changes in some key areas of policy is limited as long as the UK remains in the EU, or at least bound by its rules. The jury must therefore still be ‘out’ until the UK is ‘out’ too. On the other hand, his claim that Brexit will free the UK to be more environmentally ambitious is also questionable. There is already little to stop a member state from going further than the EU’s common standards require, if it wants to, as long as this doesn’t disrupt the internal market.
In the meantime, many of DEFRA’s announcements have been little more than ‘easy wins’, such as the moves on packaging, the ban on microbeads and the setting of a (distant) 2040 deadline for ending sales of new petrol and diesel cars. These announcements are all politically savvy, both for the Government and Gove personally, but not especially brave or bold. There is still a risk that some of these proposals are diluted in the consultation and implementation process, as some have already said of plans to tackle poor air quality.
However, my main concern is the meaning of a ‘Green Brexit’. Gove has made clear that there will be no abandonment of the ‘environmental principles’ that the UK has adopted during our time in the EU.
This is fine, if he simply means keeping universal principles such as ‘polluter pays’ and due regard for animal welfare (hardly unique to the EU). But sometimes he appears to side with those – including green lobby groups – who assume that the EU’s rules and regulations are always optimal, even when they are neither proportionate nor science-based. While ‘chlorinated chickens’ have (literally) been done to death, they remain a good example.
Similarly, while we obviously need to think about how best to manage powers that will be repatriated from Brussels, Gove’s proposals for a new environmental protection body may actually go too far. This agency could quickly be captured by those that want us to continue to replicate the EU’s policies, regardless of their suitability, or bind this and future governments to all sorts of questionable environmental targets. The lack of flexibility could also tie the UK’s hands in future trade negotiations, and limit the scope for progressive regulatory optimisation and liberalisation after Brexit.
Many in the green movement would welcome these outcomes, of course. But the Treasury might indeed have a point in questioning whether any additional burdens on businesses and consumers would be truly justified. Either way, there are clearly risks here.
In summary, a year is a short time in environmental policy and Gove deserves the benefit of the doubt. But it is important that he continues to show the same willingness to take on special interests and advocacy groups as he did at Education and at Justice, even if they include some of his new friends in the green movement.