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Bad green policies waste money

My Times column on conservation and the British countryside:


Even Michael Gove’s enemies concede he is good at tackling vested interests. Even his friends concede he has a knack for making enemies in the process. In his new job as secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, if he is to achieve anything, he may have to do a lot of both. So here’s a field guide to the vested interests he will encounter in the countryside.

Bruce Yandle, the American economist, once coined a phrase to explain why the disastrous policy of prohibition became law in the United States between 1920 and 1933: “Bootleggers and Baptists”. A very effective coalition developed between high-minded, high-profile moral campaigners and low-mind, low-profile smuggling profiteers to push for the outlawing of alcohol. The result was legislation that was good for bootleggers and Baptists but bad for society as a whole.

As Mr Yandle put it: “Baptists lower the costs of favour-seeking for the bootleggers, because politicians can pose as being motivated purely by the public interest even while they promote the interests of well-funded businesses”.

This coalition is alive and well in the farming and environmental world. Bootlegger car makers got politicians to give tax breaks to diesel cars on the Baptist grounds that they produce less carbon dioxide, with the result that we have worse air pollution than we would have had. Baptist greens preach about the imminent dangers of climate change, enabling their bootlegger chums in the renewable-energy industry to trouser vast subsidies for ruining landscapes and killing eagles while reducing emissions very little, if at all. Politicians fall for it.

Farmers nobly say they are feeding a hungry world and protecting the countryside from ruin, while actually defending a subsidy system that deters innovation, gives them a retirement income and pushes up the price of land.

In other words, Mr Gove will not have to learn the difference between the lesser whitethroat and the spotted flycatcher to do well in his new job, but he will have to spot the vested bootleggers hiding behind the green Baptists. He will be familiar with the problem from his time as education secretary, where he took on the teachers and civil servants on the grounds that they were sometimes serving their own interests more than those of their clients — children.

The civil servants in Defra are almost entirely in thrall to whatever the big environmental pressure groups say, in a fine case of regulatory capture or Parkinson’s law: greens lobby for regulations, which civil servants need bigger budgets to administer, and the monitoring of which can be outsourced back to the same greens.

Try telling an environmental bureaucrat that you think his or her priorities or methods are wrong and prepare to be denounced on moral — not practical — grounds by their allies in organisations with very big budgets. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the World Wide Fund For Nature are huge multinationals these days with a combined annual budget of more than a billion dollars, a big chunk of which is spent on lobbying, suing and public relations — rather than practical conservation.

Yet some green priorities are wrong and somebody needs to say so. The current obsession of the environmental pressure groups, shared by the civil servants and quangocrats, is that there must be no “watering down” of environmental designations after Brexit. That is to say, the alphabet soup of “special protected areas”, “marine conservation zones”, “Ramsar sites”, “sites of special scientific interest”, “areas of outstanding natural beauty” and so forth must not be lost, even though some of them derive from European legislation.

Nor should they be lost. But the risk of that is zero. What actually happens inside those zones and in the rest of the countryside to encourage nature to thrive is of far greater importance. And today the environmental bureaucracy and the green lobbyists with which it is allied are more obsessed with attending conferences, producing reports and monitoring compliance than with taking practical, active measures to conserve species. Too many wear suits and not enough wear boots.

Let me give you a specific example. The curlew is one of Britain’s most iconic birds, its haunting call synonymous with a Pennine dawn in spring. These islands host 25 per cent of the world’s population but in Ireland their numbers are now down by 90 per cent, while in southern England they have all but vanished as a breeding species, and even in uplands such as the Lake District and Wales they are becoming worryingly scarce. Of the world’s eight species of curlew, two have almost certainly gone extinct.

Fortunately, curlews are thriving in the North Pennines. Earlier this spring I spent several dawns watching birds in a Durham dale and the bubbling song of hundreds of curlews was continuous. This success is not because of legislation or the designation of the area as a nature reserve. It is because of grouse shooting, a self-financed form of conservation that protects and manages the habitat that curlews like and controls the predators that eat their eggs and chicks — chiefly crows, foxes and stoats.

The result is a landscape from which those subsidised bootlegger blights of the uplands — wind farms, non-native blocks of forestry and overgrazing — have been excluded, allowing curlews to thrive along with golden plovers, merlins, lapwings, ring ouzels, redshanks, black grouse and short-eared owls, all of which I saw in my dawn vigil last month.

Mr Gove should demand that environmental policies are judged by their results, not their intentions. In fisheries, air pollution, tackling invasive species, reforming farm subsidies, wildlife conservation, badgers, landscape protection, genetically modified food and pesticides, what counts is not the size of the budget going in, the moral motive behind it, or the number of committees overseeing it — but whether it gets results. That should be the watchword of the new Defra secretary.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times