If I were Prime Minister: I'd make sure all my Cabinet appreciate the beauty of our countryside

Our series in the run-up to the General Election – 100 days, 100 contributors, but no politicians – continues with the Director General of the National Trust

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The Independent Online

If I were Prime Minister, I’d use my first Cabinet meeting to send all my colleagues off to join a National Trust Ranger out on one of our countryside properties for a week.

They’d spend seven days working up on a moor, out on the Downs or down on the farm. Not only would they get hands on experience of the wonders of the wildlife and landscapes we look after, they’d also see how much our visitors enjoy and value the beauty and variety of our countryside.  

With the Election in May, they should see the birds, butterflies, flora and fauna at their best (and they shouldn’t get too cold and muddy).  

They would also learn how important nature and the environment are to the health and wealth of the country.  It’s all too easy for politicians to complain that protecting the environment and our precious wildlife is a drain on the economy.  

There are moves afoot to weaken the protections on some of our most precious habitats and species in the name of “progress”. But it’s quite the reverse. Clean air, fresh water, healthy soils and well-functioning eco-systems are essential to support economic growth and public health. You only have to look at the devastating effect environmental degradation and pollution have on communities and economies in developing countries – in Haiti for instance – to see how important good environmental regulation is.

We are blessed in this country with a rich heritage of landscapes and wildlife, but we can’t take them for granted. Only a few years ago, we’d have said that hedgehogs and house sparrows were nothing special. The number of hedgehogs has gone down by more than a third since 2003 and house sparrows are on the endangered list.

And where are the clouds of butterflies that our grandparents would have taken for granted on their country walks?  Seventy-five percent of our butterflies are in decline. There are lots of people out there who “get it” - farmers, landowners, businesses and organisations like ours. We know how to manage the countryside so that it is healthy, beautiful and productive, and we understand what good environmental regulation looks like. Government needs to “get it” too.   

All the surveys show that people really care about the natural world on their doorstep, and they are the folks with the votes.  So I hope my Cabinet colleagues would return to Downing Street with their eyes and minds opened, and with a sense of panic that we need to do something to protect and enrich our precious natural world before it’s too late.  I’ll be happy to put it in my first Queen’s Speech.