Michael Gove is Britain’s environmental champion – no one is more surprised than me

In yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, Michael Gove sets out his plans for an environmental watchdog post-Brexit. As education secretary under David Cameron, he was seen as a career hungry politician willing to risk quality education in a drive to create academies, open creationist schools and dictate what was taught in lessons. He was marginally better as Justice Secretary, but not much. Now, he is well on the road to becoming Britain’s leading environmental champion.

This is not the first conversion on the environmental road to Damascus but it could be one of the most important.

It is even more surprising because Defra and its predecessors have seen a succession of environmental wreckers at the helm.

All I can remember about Peter Walker, the founding minister of the former Environment Department, is him complaining about housewives putting their washing out alongside rail lines. The environment, in his view, was meant to be tidy. Over the years, we have seen some very forgettable environment ministers. Those that made their mark did so for the worst of reasons. Michael Heseltine started the sell-off of council houses under the Right to Buy in 1979. We are still feeling the impacts of that populist move today as generation rent finds much of its income absorbed by housing costs.

Fast forwarding brings us to Caroline Spelman, whose attempt to privatise part of the public forest estate led to her downfall. Earlier, Nick Brown had fallen on his sword after shutting down most of the British countryside during the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak. Shropshire MP, Owen Paterson, who replaced Spelman, was a vocal critic of climate change science.
But there were successes, including the 2009 COP15 summit in Copenhagen. That was the first time we saw a serious commitment from British and world leaders to tackling climate change.
John Gummer was an accident prone Defra secretary. He is now mostly remembered for feeding a hamburger to his daughter to prove that meat was safe during the “mad cow disease” epidemic. But he reinvented himself as Lord Deben. He has since kept climate on the agenda under his astute stewardship as chair of the Committee on Climate Change.
Which brings us back to Michael Gove. Just a few months ago, I was deeply sceptical of Theresa May’s decision to bring Gove back into the government to lead Defra. That was a view widely shared amongst environmentalists and green leaning politicians. Former energy and climate change secretary Ed Davey said: “I didn’t think it could get any worse but putting Michael Gove in charge of the environment is like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. It’s bad news.” Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas said it was hard to “think of many politicians as ill-equipped for the role of environment secretary as Michael Gove.” Their views were partly based on Gove’s repeated calls to scrap EU regulations that protect the environment after Brexit.
But Gove has surprised us all. In July, he spoke to the Green Alliance, championing green thinking. Then he spoke to the WWF. Days later, his speech, “The Unfrozen Moment”, was as astonishing as it was unexpected. Gove began by quoting Philip Larkin’s bleak poem “Going, Going”. He went on to say;

In the 45 years since [Larkin] wrote we have lost green space, cut down trees, sacrificed meadow and heath land, polluted our earth, air and water, we placed species in danger and we’ve run down the renewable resources – from fish to soil – on which our future depends. Farmland bird numbers have been cut in half, species have been devastated, bees and other pollinators threatened.

I was sceptical. Writing about Gove’s speech at the time, I created the cartoon that illustrates this article. I am now thinking my scepticism was misplaced. Gove seems to have been converted to the environmental cause.

Although Theresa May has consistently promised that relevant EU rules would be brought into domestic law, the reality of environmental protection is that it relies on technical regulation as much as law. And it relies heavily on the European Court, a body that can bring sovereign nations into line on environmental behaviour, and ensures that domestic law meets European objectives. The court hasn’t always been successful. Britain dodges around toxic air regulations and Poland continues to slay ancient forests. But the Court is the backstop for Europe’s environment. Without it, here today gone tomorrow politicians would sacrifice environmental quality for party funding and a few more immoral votes.

In the Sunday Telegraph, Michael Gove has set out plans for a new environmental champion;

We have to establish a new, world-leading body to give the environment a voice and hold the powerful to account. It will be independent of government, able to speak its mind freely. And it will be placed on a statutory footing, ensuring it has clear authority. Its ambition will be to champion and uphold environmental standards, always rooted in rigorous scientific evidence… We will create a new policy statement setting out the environmental principles which will guide us. This statement will draw on the EU’s current principles and it will underpin future policy-making.

I can’t fault that ambition.

The government may not survive long enough for Gove’s ideas to be implemented. But we should applaud positive moves to protect the environment when we see them.

Today, I find myself applauding Michael Gove. No one is more surprised than me at that.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Thursday editor of Lib Dem Voice.

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  • Yeovil Yokel 13th Nov '17 - 9:40am

    I don’t believe it.

  • Gove sounds sincere BUT, as umpteen people supposedly said, “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.”

  • If we are to have a growing population, we are going to have to keep cutting down trees and digging up meadows.

    If we are going to concrete and tarmac over our environment, no amount of demonising a life-giving gas will solve whatever ‘climate’ problem we are supposed to be experiencing.

    It’s the human disease – environmental destruction: we are all guilty.

  • His main reason for saying this is that we will be losing the protection of European environmental legislation, as Andy Boddington says. It is, at best, about maintaining the status quo but it is better than his predecessor’s simplistic approach to the environment. So-called “Independent Bodies” used to exist in the form of the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Commission. Both have been reorganised, merged, renamed and then starved of funds in their present guise in England and in Wales to the extent that are basically doing what the government tells them. I have no experience of the situation in Scotland or Northern Ireland. In the case of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales most environment matters are a devolved responsibility so what Gove says carries little weight there. I must admit though that Gove is at least talking about the subject as if he means it.

  • Richard Easter 13th Nov '17 - 12:06pm

    Worth noting Gove’s less than positive view of Grayling’s tenure in the Justice Department, and reversing and trashing quite a bit of Grayling’s rubbish – including punitive court fees and legal aid reforms, so he is perhaps not quite the monster he is made out to be.

  • Richard Underhill 13th Nov '17 - 12:10pm

    “talking about the subject as if he means it” is what he does. Please see Gove’s discussion with the Deputy Prime Minister during the coalition. Clegg agreed to a meeting but found that Gove was ‘imaginative’ across a range of subjects. His plan to redevelop the prison estate is similar to Ken Clarke’s policy of selling hospital sites in order to use the money to build new hospitals.
    As PM John Major made Michael Heseltine the Environment Secretary in order to abolish the Poll Tax, which had been one of the worst mistakes of Margaret Thatcher and Kenneth Baker. We made that point during the Ribble Valley bye-election, forecasting that the Tories would abolish the Poll Tax, which they did.

  • Tony Greaves 13th Nov '17 - 2:36pm

    I suggest we wait to see the colour of his proposals and judge them on that basis. One thing that is clear is that he is not making friends with a lot of farmers who think he is a bit of an eco-freak. We will see.

  • I know people who work in schools they are less than impressed with Mr Gove. I’m inclined to accept their opinion of him.

  • David Raw 14th Nov ’17 – 8:50am…….What on earth is going on with LDV ?……….Within a couple of days we have had main articles praising a) Priti Patel, and b) Michael Gove – two of the most toxic brexit Tories around. It’s like a mouse singing the praises of the domestic cat………..

    ‘Fillers’, as Corbyn hasn’t done anything to upset us this week?

  • Simon Banks 17th Jan '18 - 8:37am

    I’ve never thought Gove was insincere – just wrong. On education, I think he believed in what he was doing, which made him more dangerous. On the legal and incarceration systems, he took a fresh look and was less populist than Grayling. That probably cost him when the Tories found themselves leaderless. So the issue is whether what he believes is right. On the environment, it sounds better than we’d get from a more cynical politician.

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