Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Greenest government ever – that's a sick joke


Some false ideas need robustly confronting, and never more so than when they are enshrined in slogans, as slogans can develop a power of their own, almost an independent life; and such a one is the idea that the administration of David Cameron is going to be "the greenest government ever." This phrase, first uttered by the Prime Minister in a speech to civil servants last May, has now become a mantra and is regularly trotted out as an earnest of the Government's good environmental intentions, almost as if it had been a manifesto commitment. Yet, based on what the Government is actually doing, it is so far from the truth as to be risible, and it needs to be demolished; or better, it needs to be shot with a silver bullet and buried in a lead coffin at a crossroads with a stake through its heart, just in case any minister has the brass neck to try to resurrect it.

If you examine the environment policy of the Coalition, you will see that it is split into two: climate change, and everything else. This split is reflected in two separate ministries, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), run by the Liberal Democrat Chris Huhne (with Tory help), and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), run by the Conservative Caroline Spelman (with an all-Tory ministerial team).

If we look at what is going on at the DECC, we would have to say that the Coalition is making a pretty decent fist of its climate policy, both at home and abroad, even if it is largely carrying on arrangements inherited from Labour. It has accepted the toughest targets in the world for cutting Britain's carbon emissions, and is punching above its weight in the thorny international negotiation process about tackling global warming. Well done, chaps (and chapesses). Keep it up.

It is when we turn to what is going on at DEFRA that the picture clouds over, especially when we look at what the department is doing for its key trusteeship, which is the natural world. It is flogging off the public forests; it is trying to abandon its care of the national nature reserves; it is in hock to the farming and chemical industry lobbies about the dangers of pesticides; and just in case anyone senior and appropriately qualified might want to suggest it could do things differently, it is ruthlessly getting rid of all its independent advice.

The Sustainable Development Commission, that's gone; the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, that's going; and Natural England, its wildlife agency and repository of a whole world of expert conservation knowledge, is being emasculated, and has been publicly told: "If you're thinking about helping to formulate policy, don't. We'll do that. Back in your box."

In these measures, DEFRA is showing a contempt for the value of the natural world or, at least, a singular failure to understand it, which the public has begun to notice and resent. Take the sale of public forests. It is being driven by a radical ideological agenda, that of the Big Society, the slimming down of the state by devolving state functions to citizens' groups (and saving lots of money in the process).

Yet applied to forests, this agenda turns out to represent almost the exact opposite of what most ordinary people want. It is an article of Tory faith that the first duty of the state is to defend its citizens, but what has become clear is that an exceptionally large proportion of the population feels that it is also a duty of the state to defend the natural world, especially very special parts of it such as forests.

The Government has not understood this at all – or has only just begun to grasp it – and it was doubtless an unpleasant shock to ministers to find, from a YouGov poll published a fortnight ago, that the proportion of the public supporting its proposed forest sell-off was a whopping 2 per cent, and the percentage which was actively hostile to it was 84 – figures which surely represent some kind of record.

In terms of policy acceptability, this is a car crash. It stems from a failure of the imagination, from a failure to see forests as anything more than a commodity, as anything other than a pile of trees which can be flogged off (in this case for £250m). Whereas many people, of course, see forests for what they really are, whole wondrous ecosystems full of scents, birdsong, light and shade, and peace.

It's the same with the nature reserves, and the Government's wish to ditch them to someone – anyone! If there hasn't been a poll yet, there has been Professor Sir John Lawton, our greatest authority on wildlife sites, remarking this week that the Government's attempt to abandon its responsibility for nature conservation was "disgraceful".

It used to be the case that the Conservatives were the party with instinctive sympathy for the natural world, whereas Labour tended to see nature (or at least, the countryside) as a Tory plot. This Government is different. You can say it has been blinded by ideology, you can say whatever you damn well like, but this is an administration which, in dealing with nature, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, and the idea that it is going to be the greenest ever is just such unmitigated garbage – it is, to use an old Fleet Street phrase for a dodgy news story, a complete parcel of bollocks, and should be met whenever it is uttered with a loud, long-lasting, vulgar, offensive raspberry.

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