Michael McCarthy: Our climate isn't the only green concern

This Government has conflated "the environment" with climate change; the rest is forgotten

Related Topics

Policy confusion is fascinating to witness in a political party – it's rather like seeing a child playing blind man's buff and continually bumping into things – and the latest political collision with the sofa occurred on Friday with an announcement from Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State for Environment and the person the public angrily perceives as the seller-off of England's state forests.

The sale of nearly 100,000 acres of publicly owned woodlands was being postponed, Mrs Spelman announced, so that post-sale guarantees for public access could be "significantly strengthened". This statement was actually much less, and much more, than it seemed. Most people, unfamiliar with the fine detail of policy, might well have seen it as a major U-turn, as the beginning of the end of the controversial big forests sell-off; by no means. The consultation exercise on the full sale of nearly 650,000 acres of publicly owned forests continues unaffected; the sale postponed on Friday was merely the annual disposal of up to 15 per cent of its estate which the Forestry Commission is allowed to do in the normal course of its buying and selling of woodlands, and which was going ahead anyway.

Yet if it was less than it appeared, it was also more. The fascinating thing is this: the announcement was entirely unexpected, and the Government had no need to make it. It is clear that it was indeed made to give the public the impression that the whole forestry sell-off was undergoing a rethink, with the aim of taking the heat out of the row and buying some political breathing space. It was a classic Whitehall Panic Measure.

And it is not the first, in the recent unravelling of the Government's policy towards the natural environment. A week last Friday Mrs Spelman proclaimed, in that classic forum for important Government disclosures, a tea-time email to The Sunday Telegraph newsdesk, that England's state-run national nature reserves "would remain in the public sector". Most people had no idea that they might not; but the Government had for months been covertly pursuing a policy of getting rid of them too, and was freaked into abandoning their divestment by the forests row. (What is actually going to happen to the nature reserves now, no one has a clue – ministers least of all.)

When a Government starts hastily backtracking on its own policy like this, something has obviously gone wrong with its joined-up thinking, and this is the case here. For the Tories, the single most politically damaging aspect of the storm of opposition stirred up over the forests sale – half a million signatures against it – is that it makes a nonsense of David Cameron's personal pledge, issued on 14 May last, that this will be "the greenest government ever". (You can almost hear the clipped phone conversation between the No 10 adviser and Mrs Spelman's private office: "The Prime Minister wants this sorted out now.") How then, could Mr Cameron, or Mrs Spelman, or anyone else in Government, not see this coming?

The answer is that this Government has conflated "the environment" with climate change; the rest is forgotten (at least at the highest level). It was actually in the specific context of global warming policy that Mr Cameron made his "greenest ever" pledge. He saw, rightly, that saving the climate is of overwhelming importance; but he failed to see that there are other green issues, such as the care of the natural world, which are also immensely important and which the public may deem crucial.

To be fair, being blinded to everything else by climate change is not the fault of this Government only; some of the traditional green pressure groups have followed suit, and Jonathon Porritt, doyen of green activists, pointed out in an angry blog last week how little most of them have done to combat the attack on nature conservation. But the Government will have to wake up to its mistake, or its pledge to be the greenest ever will turn out to be the biggest hostage to fortune of its time in office.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam