Alex Morton was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.
Is Michael Gove’s environmental push a Tory success or failure? It might seem unfair to ask currently, since any ministerial cut-through seems near miraculous – but it is crucial. If one person could hopefully create a new Conservative environmental agenda that holds true to our principles while gaining a new audience, it is our energetic and erudite DEFRA Secretary.
Our new approach largely seems to be people are bad and government is good
But the recent 25-year environmental plan is rather depressing. The document’s tone and policies largely reads as “people are bad and Government is good”. The idea of local control is entirely absent. After the 2014 floods, many rural communities and MPs felt useful dredging had been abandoned by a remote Environmental Agency for ideological reasons around ‘not interfering with nature’. A conservative approach would, if not taking account of this, perhaps try to devolve decisions as far as possible to individual areas, the management catchment areas within the Environmental Agency (or the level appropriate). But the Plan pushes the hard-green idea of natural flood management instead.
Central bans and plans and the blight which humanity inflicts looms large. Sometimes action is warranted, as with plastics, but even here, the opportunities that technology can bring is often neglected (e.g. biodegradable plastics alternatives are mentioned perfunctorily). ‘Net environmental gain’ for housing is promised, without any explanation. The most likely outcome is a mess, with this in the judgement of local bureaucrats – and one favouring lower density suburban gardens as more biodiverse and another higher density housing to conserve land. SME builders face yet another uncertain burden but more money will pour into environmental consultancies. The planning inspectorate has thrown out new garden communities in high demand parts of the South East due to existing environmental grounds.
Why not just pledge a planning system with more genuine local control and rely on the fact people like environmental improvements? Government needs to start standing up to every group that argues that new homes are only allowable if they fix (simultaneously) climate change/an ageing population/ health and obesity/ mixed communities/ sustainable transport and a dozen more priorities – everything but the housing crisis. The picture is completed by a large new central quango to monitor and harass Government rather than rely on voters’ judgement. To be fair, there are also positive elements in the Gove masterplan – e.g. streamlining a regulatory and inspection system for farming too complex to achieve either green or efficiency goals. But on balance it is no wonder the Left and hard Green movement is delighted by the package.
The wider Government vacuum has encouraged Conservatives to follow Gove’s environmental agenda. The support of various environmental groups and left-wing commentators has been paraded to show we must be doing something right. Yet such short-term plaudits come with a cost – we imply that such critics are the source of virtue and truth, and that policy should be satisfying those groups. But if Guardian headlines are how voters should judge us, we should be unsurprised when we are found wanting.
There is nothing wrong with agreeing with our opponents from time to time. But our environmental approach should be a chance to set out our morally superior philosophy and practically better approach. We agree with animal sentience because, as well as possessing basic compassion, unlike socialists we oppose the use of conscious beings as pawns. We believe people are rooted in and care about their local environment, so we want to give people and communities more power. We should not forget how communism in practice, which saw local views disregarded by central planners, led to such disasters as the destruction of the Aral Sea and Chernobyl. Even now, the extremes of the environmental movement do great harm to our world – from the dash for diesel they pushed which has harmed quality of the air we breathe, to the nonsense of biofuels pushing up food prices in the developing world.
We understand that trade-offs exist in environmental policy, and that technology and human intelligence can help resolve harm caused by a (justified) dash for growth which has taken us from brutal, harsh and short lives to the current affluence. There is always a place – as a last resort – for direct Government action to safeguard exceptional environments or immediately act if necessary. But it is so because we believe in other measures wherever possible – particularly technological solutions. Yet Gove’s speech to the Oxford Farming conference implies that technology is something to be feared and fought rather than welcomed.
Producers are not the only vested interests
The current approach seems to be based on the idea that vested interests are the ‘big producers’. The introduction to the Environmental Plan talks of how ‘we’ (meaning ‘Government’) can “safeguard cherished landscapes from economic exploitation” and this thread – that humans are exploiters, particularly those living in rural areas – runs through the document. Yet while Gove is right to challenge the excessive subsidy that large farms receive, the idea they are the only vested interest is wrong.
The nexus of largely left-wing pressure groups, academics and others is as much of a problem as the large and subsidy hungry agri-businesses. Further, just because a business is ‘organic’, ‘sustainable’ or any other buzzword, it should be viewed through the same producer interest prism as the rest of the corporate sector. The Environmental Plan implies throughout that environmental gains and economic efficiency go together, and that government action will improve both at once. Yet this is only true if rural people are so stupid that they need government to manage their economic activity and organisations. But if this is right, why not just give Corbyn carte blanche to run our society for us?
It may be that Gove thinks we should see food prices rise – which may be justified in some cases (e.g. if animal welfare is the cause) but if it happens rapidly across the board this will come as a shock to the “just about managing” group of voters. Alternatively, it could be that the plan is for UK farming to be replaced by greater imports as we exit the EU’s protectionist barriers. But if this is the ultimate aim, the allies that Gove has built up will not support him ,but call for measures to stop ‘undercutting’ of environmental measures. We will lose old friends and gain no new ones.
In a Government that often seems adrift, all this is perhaps holding Gove to a higher standard. But observing the recent work of one of the most intelligent and sincere politicians in parliament, the recent environmental push feels less of a synthesis and more of a surrender than might be hoped.