Election '97: Gummer leaps into action over flax

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Funny things happen in election campaigns. Ministers can be galvanised into dramatic state interventions which are extremely rare and unusual the rest of the time.

Take the case of John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment. He has just slapped a Nature Conservation Order on an environmentally precious patch of chalk downland in East Sussex to stop a farmer ploughing it up to plant flax.

It is only the fourth such order to protect an officially designated wildlife site that he has made in his four years in the job. He did so after Friends of the Earth highlighted the threat to the orchid- and butterfly- rich patch of countryside on the South Downs near Lewes last week, and the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats became very agitated.

Stranger still is the fact that English Nature, the government agency which is its official adviser on these matters, had earlier decided that the threatened part of this particular Site of Special Scientific Interest was not of "National Importance" - so it was not worth asking Mr Gummer to intervene to save it.

Mr Gummer asked English Nature to think again about its advice to him - very quickly and very hard. Now, it appears, the advice has changed. "Significant populations" of two wildflowers - the bastard toadflax and the round-headed rampion - both very rare in the United Kingdom, have been discovered at the site. And so he has decided to grant a Nature Conservation Order.

That means that the farmer, Justin Harmer, is forbidden from ploughing the grassland for nine months while he carries on negotiating with English Nature about how the area should be managed.

He had already ploughed part of it, because the European Union cash subsidies he can get for planting flax are much more generous than British government farm subsidies for protecting wildlife - and English Nature declined to pay anything like enough to make up the difference.

Yesterday, English Nature declined to say anything about the site or its advice to Mr Gummer on the site "because this has become a political matter, and as a government agency we can't get involved in politics during an election".

But the Secretary of State's unusual request for English Nature to reconsider the matter caused anxiety within the organisation - and a flurry of tense exchanges between its Peterborough headquarters and its local office which covers the South Downs area. "We're not enjoying this at all," one member of its staff said.

The Department of the Environment, which also takes extra care to be non-political during election campaigns, said: "Information has only recently become available to justify the site as being of national importance."

However unusual all this has been, the fact is that Mr Gummer has saved a wildlife site in the full glare of election publicity. The campaign group Friends of the Earth is delighted, while still fulminating against the legal loopholes and warped subsidies which still allow similar sites to be threatened.

The ending gets even happier. Yesterday, Mr Harmer decided to help environmental protesters unplough the part of the site he had already damaged. They are turning the turf cut by the plough grass-side up again, in the hope that the flowers will survive.