Michael Gove could use Brexit to shelve key plan to protect the environment, critics fear

Officials tell The Independent they cannot guarantee strategy will be published this year, following delays

Ian Johnston
Sunday 25 June 2017 20:03 BST
Environment Secretary Michael Gove arrives at 10 Downing Street
Environment Secretary Michael Gove arrives at 10 Downing Street (PA)

Green campaigners and political rivals have raised concerns that Michael Gove's return to the cabinet has led to a key environmental plan being shelved.

The 25-year Government plan for the environment was first promised two years ago and had finally been expected in 2017, but officials told The Independent they now cannot guarantee it coming this year.

News of a potential further delay follows fears that Mr Gove's appointment as Environment Secretary would mean a rowing back of protections, with Brexit providing the perfect cover.

Labour claimed the government's failure to publish the plan was down to the current state of “chaos and disarray” following Theresa May's botched election, and her need to bring Mr Gove back in to shore up her premiership.

Shadow Environment Secretary Sue Hayman branded the delay “unacceptable”, and adding: “This news does very little to allay concerns about Mr Gove's environmental credentials and suitability for the Defra role.”

The Liberal Democrats’ environment spokesperson Kate Parminter said: “With Michael Gove at the helm, we risk seeing any future environment strategy watered down and vital EU protections for our wildlife, habitats and air quality slashed after Brexit.”

Greenpeace urged Mr Gove to “get on” with publishing the plan, while the Green Alliance said there is now an “urgent” need for it.

A spokesperson from Mr Gove's department told The Independent: “I don’t have a timeframe for you on the 25-year plan as yet.”

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The Government has already been censured by the courts for its tardiness in adhering to EU regulations on air pollution in the UK, which is said to be causing thousands of early deaths in London alone.

In 2015 the newly elected Conservative Government pledged to reverse the trend towards ever more destruction with a bold commitment to a ’25-Year Environment Plan’ that would tackle pollution of land, water and air, save wildlife and reduce flooding among a host of other ambitious aims.

However, the publication of the plan — already a year overdue — may now not take place until next year with the new Environment Secretary apparently keen to put his own personal stamp on the document.

Mr Gove’s appointment to the Cabinet post was controversial. In the past, he has criticised the European Union’s habitats directive, designed to protect rare and endangered species, saying it “massively increases the cost” of housing.

He also once tried unsuccessfully to remove climate change from the geography curriculum and blamed EU fisheries policies for destroying his family’s business.

Ms Parminter added: “Two years on, the Conservative's long-awaited environment strategy is still nowhere to be seen,” she said. ”Instead we have a dismal record of failure, with no real attempts to tackle air pollution, address water shortages or reduce the risk of flooding.”

She said the Lib Dems would oppose any attempts to cut environmental protection and called for a Nature Act with “clear, binding targets for biodiversity, clean air and water”.

Environmentalists also expressed concern at the further delay.

Greenpeace UK's chief scientist, Dr Doug Parr, said: “This Nature plan was first promised in the 2015 Conservative manifesto. Two years later, the Government seems to be in no rush to publish it.”

He urged Mr Gove to produce a plan worthy of the name.

”This is a great opportunity for the new environment secretary to set out a bold new vision for British nature,” Dr Parr said.

“This should be a roadmap with ambitious targets on things like air pollution, recycling and re-use rates, flood protection, and the richness of our natural spaces on land and sea.

“The plan also needs to tackle the urgent reforms of our fisheries and our farming subsidies which Brexit requires. Both our fishing rights and agricultural support should become means to enhance nature and help sustainable businesses, instead of being a reward for vested interests.

“The Conservative manifesto promised to leave the environment in a better state for the next generation. A bold, long-term plan for nature will be crucial for this pledge to be fulfilled, and the new secretary should get on with producing it.”

Also noting the two years since the plan was first promised, Amy Mount, head of the Greener UK Unit at the Green Alliance think tank, said: “We think there is an urgent need to tackle some of our environmental problems … the sooner we do that the better.

“The Government has already been rapped on its knuckles for failing to produce an adequate air quality plan. Nature is in decline still and we need to be turning this around.”

However she also expressed optimism that Mr Gove might surprise his critics.

“Gove has been certainly very charming over the past week from an environmental perspective. He’s said a lot of good things about this ambitions for the environment,” she said.

“He’s also known for his reforming zeal and may want to shake things up. That could go either way from an environmental perspective.”

And Martin Harper, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' director of global conservation, said: ”Nature needs a plan, but it needs the right plan.

“Any significant delay to the long-awaited 25-year plan for the environment will harm the Government's commitment to be the first to 'to pass on the environment in a better state to the next generation.'”

A final draft of the plan was reportedly signed off by the Prime Minister earlier this year, but was then delayed for reasons that are unclear.

A version leaked to the BBC in April was criticised by environmentalists for lacking practical action despite some lofty ambitions. ClientEarth, a group of the campaigning environmental lawyers which has twice successfully taken the Government to court to force it to come up with a legal air quality plan and is doing so again, describing it as “46 pages of empty words”.

The Commons' Environmental Audit Committee was moved to send a letter of complaint to former Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom, in which it expressed its disappointment at the “continuing delays” and said it was “essential” they did not continue.

One reason for that is the negotiations over Brexit.

The UK’s stance on the environment could affect the talks with the 27 other EU states as such regulations also affect trade. The EU requires states that wish to have beneficial trading arrangements with the bloc to meet certain standards to avoid the dumping of goods that are cheap to buy initially, but are also dirty, inefficient and more expensive to run.

Many existing environmental regulations in force in Britain today are actually EU legislation and there is a need to transfer laws onto the UK statue books.

There are fears that right-wing, climate sceptic MPs will seek to undermine regulations in the post-Brexit UK with even some talk of a “bonfire of regulations”.

A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We are determined to build on the UK’s long history of environmental protection so this generation becomes the first to leave the natural environment in a better state than we inherited it.

“Producing a 25-year Environment Plan is a manifesto commitment and is key to setting out how we’ll improve our environment so the UK is the healthiest and most beautiful place to live, work and bring up a family.”

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