Gove governing Defra is a bad move for the environment

Michael Gove now oversees environmental policy, food, farming and fisheries. His arrival in the cabinet is part of Theresa May’s struggle to avert a leadership bid. More than ever, we need an independent government-backed assessor for the environment, biodiversity and wildlife.

Politically, we live in curious times with no certainty that the government will be stable or strong enough to survive the Brexit process. Theresa May has reappointed most of her pre-election cabinet, but she moved Andrea Leadsom from Defra to become Leader of the House of Commons. Michael Gove has been brought back to cabinet as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We have gone from a barely noticed Defra Secretary to one that will crave attention by swinging a wrecking ball through environmental regulation.

Andrea Leadsom was a climate change sceptic and even asked Defra officials whether climate change is real. Apparently convinced by them that it was, she nevertheless supported shale gas extraction through fracking. She also backed foxhunting and selling off forests.

Similar criticism might be made of Michael Gove, who tried to demote climate change in the school curriculum. He backs foxhunting and the badger cull and wants the Habitats Directive rolled back after Brexit.

It is very difficult to point to anything Leadsom achieved during her 12 months in charge of Defra. Gove is likely to make his presence felt in Defra from day one. He is renowned for his ‘slash and burn’ style of politics, an appropriate analogy given he is now in charge of agriculture.

Farmers are already braced for a major shakeup in their funding after Brexit. They are guaranteed the existing level of subsidy under the Tory manifesto until 2022. Gove remains a ferocious opponent of the Common Agricultural Policy.

He blamed the EU’s common fisheries policy for his father’s fish merchant business “going to the wall” – though his father denied that this was the case. Reduction in quotas and a protectionist stance on keeping foreign vessels out of British waters will give a short-term boost to the fishing industry, at the cost of a long-term decline in fish stocks. The roll out of Marine Protection Zones under Andrea Leadsom and her predecessors has been sluggish. We are unlikely to see an improvement under Michael Gove.

Leadsom failed to publish the much delayed 25-year plan for the environment. Now that is promised as part of the Brexit process. That suggests that it may be used to dress up environmentally destructive polices as a progress towards a green government.

Fortunately, the main responsibility for climate change lies with Greg Clark, who heads the sprawling department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. He has long favoured a low carbon economy.

No one is expecting Michael Gove to be interested in habitat restoration and in enhancing the contribution of peat bogs and moorland make to promoting biodiversity and reducing flooding. George Monbiot’s rewilding agenda won’t even get a look in.

Gove has raged against the Habitats Directive. Referring to the Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area, designated to protect the Dartford Warbler and other birds, he complained that the protected status was getting in the way of housebuilding  and “massively increasing the cost and the regulatory burden for housing development.”

Gove’s attack on the Clinical Trials Directive shows an aggressive attitude towards safety regulation. It means he is unlikely to increase restrictions on neonicotinoids, which many scientists and environmentalists have argued are partly responsible for the decline in bees and other pollinators. He must tackle the toxic air that pollutes so many of our cities. Defra has produced such a weak Air Quality Plan to address the issue, that it is once again facing challenges in the courts.

The environment barely featured in the general election campaign. It is no longer at the forefront of politics. Without the stability and strength of EU protection, our environment is vulnerable to the whims of here today, gone tomorrow governments. The Great Repeal Bill may keep EU environmental protections in place but the directives are principally implemented through regulations. This is where Michael Gove will burn the rulebook.

More than ever after this cabinet reshuffle, there is a need for an independent government-backed assessor for the environment, biodiversity and wildlife. We have the Committee on Climate Change. We have the Office of Budget Responsibility. We have a Food Standards Agency. But for the environment, we only have the Environment Agency and Natural England. Both have been shown to be under the government’s thumb in recent years. We need an independent voice, close enough to government so that it is noticed, but distant enough to ensure that it is free from political interference.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice

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16 Comments

  • Andrea Leadsom was a climate change sceptic and even asked Defra officials whether climate change is real. Apparently convinced by them that it was, she nevertheless supported shale gas extraction through fracking.

    Good. CO2 emissions in the US have been cut significantly by the replacement of coal by shale gas. And frankly, I would rather that Europe be powered by British gas than by Russian. (Or is anyone going to tell me about the fine environmental standards they have in Putin’s Siberia?)

  • Appointing Gove is just a big slap in the face to the public. It seems to come from the “well, we can get away with it, so why not?” school of thought. I can only presume that it’s a ploy to make a Brexiteer deal with the farmers, but that inevitably pushes the global and trans-boundary issues into the background.

    I’m not convinced by the notion that gas from shale has meaningfully lower CO2 emissions. The process is prone to a lot of fugitive emissions, which tend to be conveniently overlooked in some comparisons.

    That said, I agree with the idea that relying on Russia for fuel comes with additional problems.

  • Phil Boothroyd 13th Jun '17 - 9:22am

    Anything that starts ‘Gove governing…’ is bad. For reasons unknown he is apparently quite popular with a fair few back benchers in the Tory ranks – so one would assume he has been appointed to keep them on side.

    I was pointed to this website last year – http://www.gove2016.co.uk – and the cartoon shown still cracks me up and summarises my view of Gove perfectly.

  • Jenny Barnes 13th Jun '17 - 10:03am

    fracking tends to release methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Also, we don’t use russian gas; mostly norwegian or Qatari LNG – despite our friends in Saudi Arabia creating difficulties there. You are ofc right that burning methane produces less CO2 per kwh than Coal, but we still have more fossil fuels than it’s safe to burn, so it’s, frankly, idiotic, to go looking for more. Around 80% of existing fossil fuel reserves is stranded assets unless we make the planet uninhabitable for humans. It’ll recover just fine once humans are gone, though.

  • I wish we could ditch this “climate change sceptic” nonsense – climate changes; that’s what it does.

    And if we wish to demonise a natural trace gas – CO2 – then please do so without blaming it for the consequences of humanity destroying Earth’s natural environment.
    CO2 is beneficial to the bio-diversity of this planet; humankind is not.

    And it is of no use the members on this site decrying a relatively harmless gas, whilst it is approving of exponentially increasing the population of the UK.

    Neither should it be in agreement on the matter of sending ‘environmental teams’ around the globe on useless Earth-saving junkets, whilst leaving a trail of CO2 behind them.

    It’s all hypocrisy – I’m no fan of Gove, but please find another stick to beat him with.

  • I cannot think of a worse appointment to Environment May could have made. Quite simply, it shows how politically weak she is.

    Gove will take a slash and burn approach to environmental regulations. He is also very keen to remove regulations governing food standards, unafraid of a race to the bottom when it comes the selling of poor quality meat in British shops, as they allow in the USA.

    On the other hand, I expect he will also be on the receiving end of the wrath of farmers and fishermen when they realise the consequences of Brexit for their livelihoods. When that happens, it will be well-deserved. I will be getting the popcorn out…

  • Richard Underhill 13th Jun '17 - 12:24pm

    Google on Leadsom and ivory. She should hang her head in shame. Maybe Catherine Bearder MEP or Caroline Lucas MP will say something printable.

  • Peter Andrews 13th Jun '17 - 12:26pm

    Gove in charge of the Environment and Climate brief will be a disaster for the British environment

  • Sue Sutherland 13th Jun '17 - 2:49pm

    As far as I’m concerned this appointment is the final straw. May is as bad as Trump now she’s in bed with the DUP and is a climate change denier. Once the Coalition was over the Tories have been revealed as a total incompetent, unprincipled gang and I’m longing for our party to attack them for this.

  • Phil Beesley 13th Jun '17 - 4:21pm

    I know I’ll get knocks but I am not a climate change denier.

    @Jenny Barnes:
    “fracking tends to release methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.”

    Methane, CH4, is slightly lighter than CO2. It is more reactive and will react in the environment as it rises through air. A Level chemistry. Methane is an economically viable product for frackers; frackers use it to heat workers’ huts etc. Methane capture over domestic waste sites has been economically viable for years.

    “Also, we don’t use russian gas; mostly norwegian or Qatari LNG” — we use a pool of gas. We don’t know where it comes from. It is just gas.

    “You are ofc right that burning methane produces less CO2 per kwh than Coal”

    Therefore we should burn methane, CH4, in preference to coal.

    Indeed, having discovered a source of methane, we should use it while we think out the problem.

    “but we still have more fossil fuels than it’s safe to burn, so it’s, frankly, idiotic, to go looking for more.”

    Do you really wish petroleum engineers to look at nasty stuff like tar sands when there are pumps full of gas? Keep searching for natural gases, I’d say.

    “Around 80% of existing fossil fuel reserves is stranded assets…”

    If 80% of fossil fuel reserves are stranded assets, it means that the deals couldn’t go through at the time. It means that there might be a deal for somebody. Not the deal they hoped.

    “…unless we make the planet uninhabitable for humans.”

    It’ll recover just fine once humans are gone, though. That’ll be good for our kids.

  • Jenny Barnes 13th Jun '17 - 5:51pm

    phil beesley
    ” I am not a climate change denier.”
    quack quack waddle waddle…I think it’s a duck.

  • Richard Underhill 13th Jun '17 - 6:27pm

    Caroline Lucas (Green, Brighton Pavilion, former MEP) said recently that the so-called “Great” Reform Bill will transfer EU environmental legislation to UK jurisdiction shorn of its enforcement mechanisms, which are dependent on EU membership.
    If she needs a seconder in the Commons we should try to provide at least one.
    “Great” is unparliamentary language, just spin. The Reform Act 1832 disappointed most of its supporters. It disallowed votes for women. It did provide the Duke of Wellington with an opportunity for a U-turn. As a soldier he did know when to retreat.

  • I never realised fox hunting caused climate change, you learn something every day.

  • Tracey Hodgson 14th Jun '17 - 12:45am

    HI, proud European who loves your Pro- European policies and thinking seriously of joining you. Your manifesto says about wider animal welfare issues you support. What does this entail, will the ban on fox hunting etc be further improved? Gove in charge of the Environment is like sticking up two fingers to anyone like me who cares about our environment deeply. I am horrified at the sheer contempt the Tories have for people who oppose them.They act like nothing has happened….

  • I am not an expert on climate change and will not comment on that. However, the Habitats Directive revealed how backward the UK government had been on protecting habitats and species here. I spent the later years of my career implementing it. It would be a disaster for conservation if he “rolls back” the work that has been done so far.

  • John Ashworth 2nd Jul '17 - 4:52pm

    Why would taking back control of our EEZ fishing zone of 200 nautical mile/median line make fish stocks worse?
    As someone who has worked in the industry since 1963, and involved in environmental issues, I know the very opposite would happen. The mixed fishery around the UK is different to anywhere else, and needs a flexible policy not the rigid system we have now.

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