The ‘greenest Government ever’ needs to restate its commitment to a greener Britain

Nik Darlington 9.30am

The European Commission is proposing to reform the controversial Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to maker it ‘greener’. The first negotiations over these reforms begin at the European Council begin today.

Last week, Caroline Spelman, the Environment Secretary, said she was “disappointed” with proposals that “could actually take us backwards”. Defra wants more targeted payments to reward farmers for their valuable environmental role, and for agricultural subsidies to be gradually reduced.

This is something that Jim Paice, the farming minister, told a fringe meeting on food security at the recent Conservative party conference in Manchester.

Mrs Spelman told the BBC yesterday (from 2’30” in video below) that European farmers need to produce “more food sustainably”.

It is true, as Mrs Spelman says, that UK farmers “go out of their way” to preserve the environment and at present they are not being properly rewarded for the provision of that public good.

We do, moreover, need a greener CAP. One that is appropriate for the needs of the 21st century, not les agriculteurs of the Fifties. And a greener CAP shouldn’t mean taking land out of the production, something that Mrs Spelman thankfully agrees with. This would be disastrous for Britain’s food security.

Yet while Mrs Spelman does like to talk green - and, if you’ve noticed, wear green clothing - we should be concerned about the coalition’s commitment to environmental protection.

The Chancellor’s speech to the Conservative party conference earlier this month suggested, as the Guardian's Damian Carrington blogged, a “lack of faith in the power of green policies”.

The FT (£) reveals today that solar power subsidies are being “slashed” and onshore wind subsidies could follow. However, wave and tidal power are being increased. This could be seen as a pragmatic move for an island nation with hundreds of miles of coastline, not very much sunshine and a population (usually rightly) opposed to landscape-blighting windmills. Nevertheless, a pragmatic investor doesn’t put all its eggs in one basket; and even if technologies are not so applicable here, they will be elsewhere, and Britain is well placed to capitalise on green technology growth.

Furthermore, a £1 billion carbon capture scheme has been abandoned in Scotland, while the reforms to the planning system, if not significantly tightened up, pose a real threat to our natural environment.

It is all well and good saying that we need a greener CAP. We do, and I hope that Mrs Spelman and her team force significant reforms to an invidious policy.

But the "greenest Government ever" needs to restate its commitment to a greener Britain too.

Otters in Bristol Harbour: the world spins safely on

Nik Darlington 9.45am

Few films touched my childhood more than Tarka the Otter. The 1979 film is based on a novel by Henry Williamson, first published in 1927, and narrated by Peter Ustinov. It follows a young otter, Tarka, who becomes separated from his mother and siblings and has to defend himself from hunters. So close to Tarka’s day-to-day trials did you get, thanks to the beautiful filming by David Cobham, you connect with him as though he were a person. You feel human despair, human joy and human sadness, when really what you see is just nature taking its course, in all its wonderment, thrills and, yes, cruelty. It is one of the greatest films of any era.

So you can imagine my utter delight to discover this morning that a family of otters have been found living in the floating harbour of Bristol, my old university home and where I was only last week celebrating the Doctor’s graduation.

According to the Avon Wildlife Trust, the sightings indicate improvements in water quality in the city. Bristol City Council will be running further studies in other nearby waterways. River cleanliness is not only good for otters, of course, but all other freshwater life. Clearing up Britain’s rivers is a task that was begun in the 1970s by Peter Walker, founder of the TRG, when he was the country’s first ever Environment Secretary. The changes since then are incredible, with salmon being seen in the once condemned Thames and now otters in a similarly murky river Avon.

Otters are special little creatures, native to Britain but nearly hunted to extinction (a ban was imposed in 1978). They are listed by Defra as a scarce and threatened species but determined conservation efforts have resulted in their numbers increasing. There have been four national surveys of otters since 1977, the last taking place in 2002. Over that period, otter numbers in England increased by an astounding 527 per cent. Recent data for Scotland and Wales is unavailable but between 1977 and 1994, the increase for Britain as a whole was 82 per cent, so still a figure to be proud of (and it is in less wild and more densely populated England that otters have been most in danger). Another survey began last year.

The wildlife and sport writer Simon Barnes delights in ‘the joyful sight of a big, fish-stinky turd’ left by an otter. It is a wonderful sign, like the first swallow, that this fragile world of ours is doing alright after all.

So whilst we might be surrounded by pessimistic economic outlooks and news of depressing human tragedy, just pause, smile, and think of that family of otters, remembering as you do that the world spins, life goes on, and beauty somewhere is being preserved, not destroyed.

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National Countryside Week shows Prince Charles at his best

Nik Darlington 6.05am

Prince Charles is a man who has spent much of his life being berated for trivial things (like having his toothpaste squeezed on to the toothbrush, or whispering not-so-sweet-nothings down tapped phone lines) whilst being heroically correct about some of very important things when chatterers decried him a fool: such as climate change, conservation, heritage and farming. Moreover, the heir to the throne has done more for young entrepreneurs in this country through his Prince’s Trust than Lord Sugar could do in a million lamentable episodes of the Apprentice. And he is the driving force behind the inaugural National Countryside Week.

One year ago, the Prince of Wales set up the Prince’s Countryside Fund with the overall aim of aiding the survival of “the smaller family farmer”. The fund’s objectives include encouraging sustainable farming, attracting young people into the profession, and improving people’s relationship with and knowledge of the great British outdoors.

The fund’s recent survey made for sober reading as it showed the public consistently misunderstand the size and value of our countryside. Four-fifths of people overestimate farmers’ salaries, three-quarters underestimated or didn’t know the extent of agricultural employment (1.8 per cent of the UK workforce) and nearly nine in ten people underestimate the value of rural tourism (£14 billion). On the flipside, more than 90 per cent of people value the countryside and agree that it is important to protect it. There is a basic, innate appreciation on which to build.

Over the past twelve months, the Prince’s Countryside Fund has given half a million pounds to projects such as the Yorkshire Moors Agricultural Apprenticeships Scheme (YMAAS), which has five apprentices working full-time on farms and receiving college training, and the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, which is delivering grants to more than fifty school farms and getting nearly two hundred children involved in farming and gardening - also showing that ‘rural’ shouldn’t necessarily mean apply to the countryside alone.

Of course, despite the prince’s best efforts, he can only be a figurehead. Whatever recent ‘revelations’ about his meetings with ministers, it is politicians not princes who instigate and implement policy. Dylan Sharpe, head of media at the Countryside Alliance, says that the current government has ‘so far struggled to turn around the anti-rural policies of previous administrations’. Sharpe also downplays the recently published Natural Environment White Paper (which I gave a thumbs up to last month), whilst pointing out the forestry fiasco and the ‘ludicrous decision to drive a bulldozer through some of Britain’s most beautiful rural vistas at a cost of £17 billion - just to shave thirty minutes off the train between London and Birmingham’.

The criticisms of the attempted forestry sale and the HS2 project are valid - one was killed off quickly and the latter ought to die a similar death. However, there is plenty in the Government’s credit side, such as the Green Investment Bank, the newly designated ecological protection areas, the pledge to protect amenities such as rural post offices and, as Dylan Sharpe points out, reform of the rural policy framework in replacing the ineffectual Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) with a new Rural Communities Policy Unit.

Moreover, whatever one thinks about wider Conservative party policies, and putting cynicism to one side, a Conservative-led government ought to be a good thing for the countryside. Rural areas of Britain are almost exclusively represented in Parliament by Conservative MPs. Throw the Liberal Democrat MPs into the mix, with their large rural seats in Scotland, and for the first time in many, many years the entire British countryside has siginificant rural representation on the Government benches. Of course, there are potential problems with the currently predominant breed of Conservatism if the obsession with cutting back on red tape means a damaging dismantling of environmental protection regulations in the autumn.

I have written before about the difficulties vote seeking politicians face when reconciling environmental policy with the democratic electoral cycle. If David Cameron is going to go down in history as having led the ‘greenest government ever’ then he and his ministers need to buck the trend of putting short-term votes ahead of long-term environmental benefit. The coalition appears keen to put economic recovery ahead of electoral interests and it must do the same for environmental sustainability.

Prince Charles, however, is not at the whim of any electoral cycle, only the natural coming and going of time. He has consistently put the environment first, and performed wonders for disadvantaged young people all over the kingdom.

If you would like to make a donation to the Prince’s Countryside Fund, you can text it, donate online or over the counter at your local Post Office - follow this link for more details.

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Putting a price on nature

Nik Darlington 9.43am

It is not often that I get hugely excited about a 2,000-page economic impact assessment but this morning I am flicking through the freshly published UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA), which is possibly the most important document of its kind in this country since the Stern Review in 2006. And if you don’t believe me, its website was running more sluggishly than a First Great Western this morning, so someone’s reading it.

The NEA is the first comprehensive overview of the UK’s natural wealth. Forget for a moment GDP, GNI, PPP, hydrocarbon reserves, you name it. This looks at the nuts and bolts of UK ‘ecosystem services’ - such as timber, farming, carbon storage, tourism, soil maintenance - and slaps a robust price tag on them. And the results are impressive.

There have been studies in the past that indicate the health and social benefits of living and working near green spaces. The NEA now puts the value of those spaces at £300 per person - that is three times as valuable as a resident’s parking permit in Richmond. The water quality improvements from inland wetlands are worth £1.5 billion annually (or 30,000 times Thames Water’s fine in January 2010 for polluting the River Wandle). British woodland’s carbon storage capacity is worth £680 million each year - significantly more than the couple of hundred million pounds the Government thought it could raise from selling them. Overall, the health and welfare benefits of the UK’s green spaces amount to £30 billion every year, which is thee-quarters of the UK defence budget, or five times the combined budgets of Defra and DECC.

Why is all this so important? Lord Selborne writes in his foreword to the report:

While we pay for some ecosystem services like food and fibre, we are often unaware of the importance of others such as natural water or air purification, and would be alarmed at the cost of providing these artificially. This under-estimation of the value of natural processes in economic terms means that we take inadequately informed decisions on how to use these resources. The result is pollution, loss of species and ecosystems and damage to the processes we need, with real economic costs to either recover them or provide artificial alternatives.

It has always been difficult convincing people about the need for investment of time, effort and resources in maintaining our natural environment. Of course, when confronted, the British public turn out to be vociferously environmental, such as during this year’s forestry fiasco. Yet when faced with the choices of building, buying and making stuff, economics tend to trump the environment.

For instance, the Business Secretary Vince Cable kicked up a fuss about the new UK carbon reduction targets and blamed Tata’s closure of a steel plant in Sunderland on burdensome British green regulations. Yes, there is certainly a case to make that decarbonising our economy, whilst providing new employment in green sectors, could result in job losses in other industries. But with the information contained in the NEA, there is now a countervailing case to make of the economic value to the country for protecting our natural environment.

Caroline Spelman, Environment Secretary, says the NEA, which has taken two years to compile, has “played a big part” in putting together the forthcoming Environment White Paper. One of the most important functions for the NEA is in re-shaping UK planning policy. Professor Bob Watson, who led the study, said:

Urban green space is unbelievably important - it affects the value of houses, it affects our mental wellbeing. This report is saying ‘this has got incredible value, so before you start converting green space into building, think through what the economic value is of maintaining that green space’ - or the blue space, the ponds and rivers.

London, for instance, is one of the greenest cities in the world, with parks (and in my south-western neck of the woods, golf courses) dotted all over the place - just flick on Google Earth to see the mossy patchwork. But in the most deprived, under-achieving and crime ridden areas, green spaces are neglected or lacking. Even Boris Johnson’s proposal to revive London’s lost rivers doesn’t seem so daft anymore.

The National Ecosystem Assessment ought not just be a useful plaything for journalists to tell us how much money our bumble bees are worth, and forgotten the next day amidst some employment figures or footballer’s missives.

Nor should it only feed into Defra’s upcoming White Paper. The lessons it teaches and the information it gives must prefigure just about everything we do. Nature is so much more than pounds and pence but in policy terms the NEA is invaluable.

Britain has always been an ingenious nation at buying, making and selling objects, knowledge and services. Napoleon’s little nation of shop-keepers has proven that it can slice, dice and flog just about anything of economic value (and even things of no value at all, like a certain few financial derivatives). It’s time we genuinely acknowledged the value of the the natural wealth beneath our feet and all around us: the fields and forests, the flora and fauna, the rivers and even, in this bucolic corner of Surrey, the greens and the fairways.

Twitter: @NikDarlington

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