Last Friday (21st July) saw Michael Gove make his first keynote speech as Environment Secretary. It would be safe to say that his appointment to the role was not universally welcomed and in some quarters actively feared. So, what does his first speech tell us about his intentions for his new role and the impact of Brexit on environmental policy in the UK?
What's the Environment Secretary's stance?
The speech was delivered at WWF’s Living Planet Centre which tells you quite a bit about the tone and content. He began with a strong statement of his own personal feelings about the environment and quoted the Department of Environment’s first white paper from 1972 and the Philip Larkin poem “Going, Going” commissioned for it. In a lengthy and seemingly heartfelt discussion of environmental degradation, he concluded that “we should not aim simply to halt or slow the deterioration of our environment. We must raise our ambitions so we seek to restore nature and reverse decline.”.
It was encouraging to see climate change and its impacts referenced throughout the speech. The US stance was clearly criticised when he said that he “deeply regret[s] President Trump’s approach towards the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.” Adding that “International co-operation to deal with climate change is critical if we’re to safeguard our planet’s future.” He also flagged the publication of Defra’s second National Adaptation Programme in 2018. The programme seeks to provide a comprehensive plan of action to improve resilience to climate change impacts.
The impact of Brexit on the environmental policy
A recurring theme of the speech was that Brexit provides an opportunity to renew and strengthen environmental protections. He backed up this point by saying “as the UK Climate Change Act shows, this country is more than capable of bringing in our own strong legislation to protect the environment, independent of the EU.”
As you would expect the speech majored on the Common Agricultural (CAP) and Common Fisheries (CFP) policies and how they have failed to achieve stated environmental goals. CAP payments are based on owned land area. The speech suggests a transition to a system that allows “public money to reward environmentally-responsible land use.“ It also signalled the setting of more sustainable fishing quotas in UK territorial waters.
Not only does this bode well for fisheries policy but draws a line under his previously reported views on “experts” and their usefulness. In fact, the tone verged on the obsequious when, in describing his new department, he said, “we are fortunate to have in DEFRA a team of scientists, economists, policy specialists and analysts second to none. It’s a privilege to be working in a department where the quality of analysis and advice, as well as the commitment to rigorous science, is so impressive.”.
Natural Capital Accounting gets a mention
In addition to the clear statements on agriculture, fisheries and science there was clear mention of less conventional thinking including Natural Capital Accounting (NCA). Acknowledging frustration with delays in publication of Defra’s next 25-year plan he made it clear that NCA would be included in it saying “I want to ensure that we use the insights of natural capital thinking and accounting to develop an approach which will help guide us in every area from reforming support for agriculture to considering how we reform planning policy.” The plan is now due out in late 2017 or early 2018.
A clear statement of intent for environmental protection and enhancement
In summary it is with some surprise that the speech is a clear statement of intent from a committed environmentalist, one who has quickly understood the issues and who has a high level of ambition when it comes to environmental protection and enhancement. We can expect an approach that is science based, uses innovative thinking and will seek to use public money for environmental benefit. Its early days and the proof will be in the plans, programmes and actions that follow but for now we should be very encouraged by the tone, content and ambition of the Secretary of State for Environment.