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Local action improves the environment, not more officials

My Times column on environmental policy:


Michael Gove, the environment secretary, is right to promise higher, not lower, environmental standards once we leave the European Union. Britain has always been a pioneer of environmental policy, and indeed many of our protections pre-date our joining the EU. Besides, thanks to the productivity of our farmers, we can spare land for nature in increasing amounts, and thanks to new science and technology, we can afford ever more effective interventions on behalf of wildlife. Improvement, not just protection, is the aim.

But if Mr Gove thinks that the way to achieve this is to set up a new statutory body, “independent of government” with “clear authority” whose job is to “uphold environmental standards”, then he has clearly been spending far too much time with north London greens rather than real conservationists. This is their agenda, not wildlife’s. Too many urban activists in the environmental movement simply see policy as a cash cow to be milked to support paper-pushers enforcing rules while doing precious little on the ground to help the environment.

The first problem with Mr Gove’s proposal is that such a body already exists. Or rather three of them already exist. If you wish to do anything to or with a species of plant, animal or fungus in the British countryside, the chances are that you will need permission from Natural England (or its Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish equivalents) or the Environment Agency, or the Forestry Commission. Or if you are in a national park, add in the national park authority. And then there are the conservation officers of local authorities. Oh, and the Committee on Climate Change will probably sermonise too.

In short, the last thing the natterjack toads and sphagnum mosses of the British Isles need is another vast bureaucracy. They need people in boots, not people in suits. On land, Natural England is almost all the things Mr Gove promises: an arm’s-length, independent, science-based body with “real authority”; in the water, ditto the Environment Agency; in woodland, ditto the Forestry Commission.

So what’s going on? Mr Gove is too canny a politician to set up another quango for the sake of it, and he is familiar enough with the tenets of public-choice theory to know that “regulatory capture” is a very real problem. That is to say, the vested interests in the environmental lobby groups would soon dominate such a body, directly or indirectly.

But the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has long made clear its opposition to grouse shooting practices, despite their economic and ecological benefits, and has asked the European Commission to find Natural England in breach of the Habitats Directive by not doing enough to ban such burning. Brussels is a sort of appeal court for green pressure groups when they don’t like what British government agencies do. That is essentially what spooks environmentalists about Brexit: the loss of a power of last resort to overrule the government and its arm’s-length agencies.

To which I say, and Mr Gove should say: welcome to democracy. Natural England is answerable to parliament, as are the politicians who appoint its board. If it goes rogue and does something that is arguably bad for its mission, then complain through parliament. There is still judicial review as well.

The arrangement by which unelected organisations such as the RSPB get unelected commissioners in Brussels to decide what should happen in say, Wensleydale, whatever British politicians or civil servants decide, is exactly the problem Brexit is there to address. If an organisation wants to alter policy, let it take on the interests it opposes in parliament rather than behind the notoriously closed doors of Brussels: it can get its view heard in questions to ministers, select committee hearings, meetings of all-party groups in two Houses — all on the record. That’s democracy.

We can’t afford to be complacent about environmental standards. They need to be improved and strengthened. Our agencies and civil servants do far too little about invasive species at the moment, for example. The EU has been futile in the battle to save the red squirrel from the grey. I want to prevent the extinction of the curlew, which is a real danger throughout all of England except on Pennine grouse moors, where heather burning is vital to its continuing survival.

Yes, Natural England and the Environment Agency are frustratingly obtuse at times. I have battled the former over its (until recently) idiotic policies on great crested newts, where fences to keep them off development sites make far less sense than agreements that developers should create habitat for them. I have battled the latter over its not allowing us to eat the invasive American crayfish infesting certain rivers in the north of England, thus preventing us improving, perhaps saving, the ecology of an entire river.

But what is wrong here is the policy and its execution, not the administrative structure. Talk to anybody in the countryside involved in conservation and you will find them brimming with ideas about how to help wildlife. For example, we currently incentivise some farmers to cultivate seedy plants to encourage birds in winter, but most of these run out of seed by February and the birds starve then. It is an easy fix to require plants with longer-lasting seeds; it does not require a super-powerful new body. Countryside policy is disfigured by the triumph of intentions over outcomes.

The last thing the environment needs is further nationalisation. It needs a free schools-type revolution. Ofgreen, as Mr Gove’s new body should be called, would be an undemocratic, interest-group-captured, top-down hindrance to the exciting task of steadily improving our environment with ingenious science, imaginative policy and local decision-making.

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