As a member of Cabinet and head of a Government Department the Secretary of State for the Environment has significant power over the natural environment, this power can be used for the benefit or detriment of the other species with which we share this planet.
As Owen Paterson moves on to be replaced by Liz Truss let’s look at the legacy of all the Environment Secretaries – or at least those that I have been aware of, which seems to date back, appropriately, to the age when I became eligible for a vote.
Here is my summary of the high points and low points for each Secretary, in terms of what they did for wildlife:-
11th April 1992
Passed the Habitats Directive and signed Biodiversity Convention with John Major
Construction of Twyford bypass destroys part of chalk grassland SSSI
27th May 1993
Introduced Biodiversity Action Plan with cross departmental support and Landfill Tax that still funds much wildlife conservation work
Construction of Newbury bypass destroys heathland reedbeds and ancient woodland SSSI
2nd May 1997
Countryside and Rights of Way Act enables better management of SSSIs and introduces statutory underpinning for BAP list
Destruction of brownfield wildlife began in earnest
8th June 2001
NERC Act extends biodiversity duty to all public bodies
Didn't take opportunity of a review of the Common Agricultural Policy to push home EC proposal that would have transferred more subsidies into wildlife friendly farming
5th May 2006
Put climate change at heart of Defra and boldly started setting statutory process for reducing carbon dioxide emissions
Didn't use personal political capital to rescue Biodiversity Action Plan process from growing malaise
28th June 2007
Passed Marine and Coastal Access Act, providing for the protection of large areas of marine wildlife
Failed to grasp emerging issue of pollinator decline or respond to Buglife's Neonicotinoid review, and allowed the Biodiversity Action Plan to expire – "we value ecosystems not the components of ecosystems"
12th May 2010
Defended Habitats Directive from Treasury attack
Gave away too much to Treasury, including 50% cuts to budgets and the Aggregates Levy that had funded many important environmental projects
4th Sept 2012
Drafting of National Pollinator Strategy started
Broadly failed to act on evidence, particularly enthralled with pesticide company claims that neonicotinoids are safe for wildlife and led unsuccessful charge to stop EC partial ban
15th July 2014
From the perspective of wildlife there were wins and losses under each Environment Secretary, but some were weighed more one way than the other. Inevitably ranking their legacy is tempting. Who was the best and who the worst for bugs, plants and other organisms?
John Gummer remains the yardstick, an Environment Secretary who combined political weight and a principled commitment to the environment. To a greater extent than any other he trusted wildlife charities and they trusted him, initiatives were joint, across Government and across society and key issues of the time arising from the signing of the Biodiversity Convention and the increasing evidence of climate change were taken seriously and addressed. Not everything was perfect and the Department of Transport in particular was on a destructive path at the time.
It is credible to declare Owen Paterson as the worst Environment Secretary ever. He had two fundamental failings – a stubborn disregard for science and evidence, and failure to play European politics to the benefit of wildlife. These are appalling short-comings in the role of Environment Secretary, where that which you are guardian of does not express its needs though the ballot box or national union and where so many important decisions are now taken with colleagues across Europe. His views on badgers – need to be culled; climate change – not a priority, it has always changed; and neonicotinoids – safe for bees; did not waver one nanometre from the date of his appointment to the date of his departure. Conviction politicians can be attractive if their convictions are right, they are loved if they are in your favour, but they are despised if both wrong and contrary.
The wildlife conservation sector is heavily dosed with science degrees and watching as the science and evidence about crucially important issues accumulated and was ignored was very painful. Worse than that Owen Paterson’s commitment to proving that Neonicotinoids were environmentally benign led to him promising publically, and to international peers, that he had proof that neonicotinoids did not affect bumblebees, before the data from his Fera field experiment was analysed. The findings of the report were that arable fields were grossly contaminated with neonicotinoids at levels that were affecting the health of bumblebees. Under huge pressure the author Helen Thompson took the most polluted colonies out of the analysis so that the results were no longer statistically significant and concluded that there was no effect on bees. The European Food Standards Agency saw through the ruse and dismissed the study, expressing concern about “how Thompson et al. elaborated and interpreted the study results to reach their conclusions”. This report was probably the biggest ‘horlicks’ since the Iraq dossiers, Helen Thompson must have been relieved to take a new job with neonicotinoid manufacturer Syngenta shortly afterwards.
Owen Paterson’s minister Richard Benyon once said to me that “It must look as if we are in the pocket of the agrochemical industry”, he was right, it did.
Again there were a few positives to report, under Paterson Richard Benyon made surprisingly good progress with reducing the impact on wildlife from fishing and Lord De Mauley’s National Pollinator Strategy is a great idea. But Owen Paterson’s concession to the NFU that only 12% of the farming payments would go into environmentally friendly farming, instead of the 15% he had repeatedly backed, was a massive lost opportunity. The EC farm ‘Greening’ proposals were also nullified when he allowed pesticide soaked pea and bean crops to count towards the 5% of each arable farm that will become ‘Ecological Focus Areas’. It is arguable that Owen Paterson’s impact on wildlife is generally characterised as missed opportunities to slow or halt declines, rather than actual damage to wildlife such as that resulting from the cuts under Spelman or neglect of the Biodiversity Action Plan process under Benn. Indeed while Owen has ignored a bigger pile of evidence about the damaging effects of neonicotinoids on pollinators, both his predecessors also failed to act on this issue. The one high note for Owen himself was his stout defence of the Environment Agency against unreasonable and incorrect criticism during the floods of early 2014.
I only hesitate to award the ‘worst ever’ epitaph to Owen Paterson because those with longer memories than I can recall the reign of Nick Ridley (Paterson’s uncle in law), who by all accounts hated wildlife, and as the Environment Secretary between 1986 and 1989 set in place the shattering of the Nature Conservancy Council and tried to sell off all the National Nature Reserves.
So I wonder how Liz Truss would like to be remembered?
The first thing to note is that there is an election in May next year so it is probable that, disasters aside, she will have at least 10 months in post. She has a pretty safe seat so if the Conservatives form the next Government her time in post may extend, but her priority must be to make the most of these ten months to establish her and her party’s credibility on the Defra brief.
It is unlikely that in the next ten months there will be a slot to put new environmental protection legislation through Parliament and it would run counter to both the Government’s and her anti-regulation, free market ideals.
However, the draft National Pollinator Strategy is on the table, her predecessor did not show a lot of interest in bees, leaving the running to Lord De Mauley. While the strategy is being warmly welcomed, it is also being criticised for failing to adequately allocate new resources, build cross Government support, or address pesticide concerns.
In the last fortnight a YouGov poll has revealed that bee and pollinator declines is the number one environmental concern of the British public, 85% are concerned or very concerned, compared with 73% concerned about climate change.
Here surely is the opportunity for Liz Truss to be seen to be addressing the general public’s environmental concerns; while also appeasing the rural population by protecting £510 million of agricultural productivity. Just as previous Environment Secretaries have put climate change and biodiversity centre stage the time has come when a dynamic and forward looking Environment Secretary can do the same for bee and pollinator declines.
Later this summer the House of Commons Environment Audit Committee will produce its inquiry report examining the draft National Pollinator Strategy. This could be the trigger for Truss to produce a bolstered National Pollinator Strategy, with high level cross department engagement, a significant dedication of resources, a commitment to restoring a network of wild flower meadows across the countryside, and a re-positioning of the Government’s unblinking support for the pesticides industry.
Barack Obama has set the pace with his far-reaching presidential pollinator order, can Liz Truss take a grasp of this issue and give Britain a National Pollinator Strategy to be proud of.
Do you have a favourite Environment Secretary? Perhaps a least favourite one? Do you agree with my summary of their contributions? Any glaring omissions from the lists of highlights and lowlights? What should Liz Truss do?
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