25 Years of Gove

This morning PM Theresa May, supported by Environment Secretary Michael Gove, released the government’s much-anticipated 25 Year Environment Plan.

The 25YEP is something that Mr Gove was quick to insist upon after his assignment to the role of Environment Secretary. Now, I’ll confess, I was not all too chuffed when that appointment was announced, as up to that point Mr Gove didn’t really have any track record of being an environmentalist, apart from being a publicly acknowledged climate-skeptic.

But I’m not too proud to confess that I have been very pleasantly surprised by Michael Gove’s first few months in the post – from taking unprecedentedly firm action on Neonicotinoids, to committing to the concept of paying farmers for the delivery of public services. And now with the *first* (*there will be many revisions) release of the 25YEP, he seems to be doing good.

I also appreciate the nod in the 25YEP to the fact that 25 years extends well beyond one political term – noting that it’s because we’re tackling issues that are far larger than a 5-year turnaround period. One could presume that Mr Gove intends the 25YEP to be a bit of a legacy piece for him – and personally I’m a bit torn between remembering everyone else who’s had a significant hand in this movement, and remembering how relatively limp his predecessors have been on environmental progress.

So what does 25YEP say?

From a blast through the 151-page document, the 25YEP is promising a pretty new (and needed) approach to environmental management (dare I say ‘stewardship’?) in the coming years.

The theme of ‘public money for public services’ is continued throughout – this argument being that, under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) (the way agriculture works throughout the EU, just about), there’s this thing called ‘Basic Farm Payments’. BFP means that a Farmer will receive money just for being a farmer, based solely on the amount of land that they own. It likely leads to cheaper commodities (like milk being cheaper than water in recent years), but is fundamentally flawed in that the tax-paying public end up paying farmers lots of money, regardless of how productive the farm is. At it’s most extreme levels of social injustice, BFP gives tonnes of money to owners of vast areas of the uplands who provide next to nothing in food commodities. The land in question will be legally classified as ‘farmland’, but the legal requirements for that are just that a very small number of sheep have to occasionally be present for grazing. (I’ll direct you to Mark Avery and Guy Shrubsole for more on this debate). But in short, you can probably see why this jars with people who think they should see some kind of public service or return on their tax money.

To some legitimate farmers who do actually farm but, through geography and circumstance, still depend on BFP for the majority of their income, the idea of losing BFP is pretty scary. However, there is the promise that something better will be replacing it – and for people like the hill farmers of England and Wales who already take a strong stewardship role in maintaining their landscape, not just their flocks, they might actually finally find those services financially valued.

Something that the 25YEP is clearly quite proud of is the fact that it’s the ‘world’s first’ to utilise a Natural  Capital approach to environmental policy.

Natural Capital is, basically, putting a financial value on Nature. This has long been experimented with by environmentalists, and also pretty divisively debated between purists and pragmatists. In it’s crudest interpretation, Natural Capital states that everything has a value that is translatable into a financial figure. That ‘Puts a price on Nature’, it commodities beauty and intrinsic value, and opens our great Gaia up to thorough a ravaging by heartless capitalists. Some purist conservationists loathe and fear Natural Capital, as it is such a bastardisation of something that to them is sacred and priceless.

However, in practice it’s not that bad. We environmentalists have to come to terms with the fact that we are trying to change a fundamentally capitally-driven society, and at the same time I’m sure wouldn’t object ourselves for a little more financial recognition for all our efforts to save the world.

So in the case of Natural Capital in the 25YEP, it really just comes down to the fact that we need to value more the actual services that the environment provides us (like natural flood risk management, storing carbon, cleaning water, providing better food for longer, even looking nice) and particularly the nation’s farmers deserve to be remunerated for being the managers and maintainers of those services.

As the example it gives in the 25YEP:
“Our farms provide so much more than just food. They provide recreational activities to an estimated value of £200m for farms and nearly £300m a year for woods. Furthermore, the way farmland and woodland filter the air is valued at £182m and £794m per annum.
Which references UK Natural Capital: ecosystem accounts for freshwater, farmland and woodland

The way in which these figures such as these are calculated is usually with a degree of subjectivity, and it’s not to say “Ok, if we invest in £794m of air filters we could do away with woodlands”, but the point there is that the *value* of these environments is presented in a ways that fits with the rest of the economy (and the minds of economically-driven people).

“What’s your favourite bit of 25YEP Andy?”
I hear you ask.

Something that’s come as a genuine and pleasant surprise to me, given that it’s not been talked about much if at all (by Gove) in the run-up to the release, is the inclusion of Peatlands! Yay Peatlands! We really need to focus a lot of effort on peatland restoration ASAP, which is what I’ll be pushing for with the release of my upcoming film, The Carbon Farmer.

So overall, 25YEP is looking pretty good, in my opinion. It’s by no means complete, as there’s still a lot to work out in terms of how we’ll actually implement the ideas laid out in the plan, and fulfil these bold new ambitions, but the important thing is that ambition itself. The brazen ambition to do something radically new and different – and built of a pretty sound consensus of what environmentalists, the general public and farmers all agree would be a good way to go – is just what I was hoping to see.

Yay for Peatlands!

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