By Mark Rowe

23 Jul 2015

The countryside and climate change were strangely absent from the election campaign and the Queen’s Speech. Why – and what does this mean for DECC, Defra and the governance of the environment? Mark Rowe reports

Long gone are the days when a prospective prime minister was flown off to the Arctic to hug a husky. During the election campaign it was all but impossible to find any debate about climate change, or other environmental or rural issues.

That was curious on two fronts: it’s hard to find a serious scientist who thinks climate change is not happening; and more immediately – given the short-termism that comes with five-year parliaments – there are 200 MPs holding rural seats, while 37 of the 198 pre-election marginals were in rural areas.

And it’s not as if the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) or the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) have been sitting idly by. Their in-trays were ferociously busy during the last parliament: floods; the price of milk; reform of fishing and agricultural policies; bovine TB and badger culls; nuclear, solar, wind and tidal energy; pesticides and bee declines; food security and traceability (remember horsemeat?); and rural issues including broadband, transport, affordable housing and the green belt. Yet the campaign trail saw little mention of any of them.

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None were in the Queen’s Speech, with the exception of a half-sentence reference to the climate change conference in Paris this December, which has been billed as the most important environmental summit since Kyoto.

Neil Parish, the newly elected chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, points out that the Conservatives made substantial environmental commitments in their manifesto, such as a 25-year plan to restore the UK’s biodiversity. The other parties did too: Labour would have removed carbon from electricity generation by 2030 – though it did not specify how; the Lib Dems had similar targets. The SNP also wanted national targets for carbon reduction, while the Greens’ energy vision for 2050 proposed the deepest energy cuts. There’s more. The Conservatives issued regional rural policy papers for areas such as the South-West and Yorkshire, Labour published a separate rural manifesto, the Lib Dems a countryside charter. All pledged support to the Natural Capital Committee, which advises on how nature contributes to the economy and wellbeing. Just before the election, Nick Clegg – unaware of his party’s imminent evisceration – announced his green lines in the sand.

“But there weren’t any speeches,” says Alastair Harper, head of politics at the Green Alliance think tank. This is all the more strange, because as Harper points out, polls suggested that the environment was the main issue which voters felt wasn’t being addressed and talked about. “It could have been talked about more,” he agrees, “but it’s not quite fair to say it wasn’t on the parties’ radar. It’s more about the way they didn’t use the opportunity to talk about something the public wanted to hear about.”

The quandary for the leaders, suggests Harper, was that had David Cameron said something about the environment, then Clegg and Ed Miliband would simply have said the same, because they had all been fully briefed by Defra and DECC officials, and consequently all agreed on climate change. “The environment wasn’t a top issue,” he says, “but when has it ever been? It’s not an area where battles are formed. That wasn’t a way to differentiate yourself.”

Of more significance, Harper argues, was that in February, Cameron, Clegg and Miliband signed a joint pledge to tackle climate change, which they said would protect the UK’s national security and economic prosperity. The pledge committed them to seek “a fair, strong, legally binding, global climate deal which limits temperature rises to below 2°C”; to work across party lines in order to agree UK carbon budgets; and to accelerate the transition to a competitive, energy-efficient low-carbon economy.

“It was the only joint pledge of the last parliament,” says Harper. “That meant the environment was effectively taken off the table in the election debate. It’s one the basic tests of a responsible and reasonable government that it will protect the UK from climate change.”

Harper suggests that the issue should be viewed from the other side of the looking glass. From this vantage point, it was arguably far better for departments such as DECC and Defra to keep their heads below the parapet during the election. “No department wants to be on the front line of big issues. That’s where bad policy comes from. The Home Office is littered with the corpses of bad ideas and policy created on the hoof to make headlines.”

In such a scenario, it’s possible to argue that, behind the scenes, the machinery of environmental government was purring on happily enough.

“That joint pledge was what DECC wanted,” says Harper. “They wanted clarity of purpose and a guarantee of continuity and commitment, whatever the outcome of the election. They didn’t have to go into purdah. They could keep working towards the Paris conference."

Since the Tories won, things have become more straightforward for both Defra and DECC. “The Tories have their manifesto proposal for a 25-year plan to make Britain more brilliant [a pledge to grow and sell more British food] ,” adds Harper. “The departments can focus on making sure they get the right terms of reference, the right goals, and the right people overseeing the implementation of those goals.”

DECC has one other, more challenging, task. As Harper points out, it must now marry two Tory manifesto pledges, which appear at first glance to be contradictory: to end the renewable obligations scheme for onshore wind a year early – a move announced on 18 June – which is effectively a declaration not to build any more; and to prioritise renewables at the lowest possible price. 

“Onshore wind power is the lowest-cost renewable, so they will have to break one of those commitments,” says Duncan Brack, who was a special adviser to Chris Huhne, the former energy and climate change secretary. “It is just bizarre. Civil servants can’t marry these things up. I would like to see the internal papers in DECC related to this, pointing out you cannot fulfil both pledges. It’s not something civil servants can work on, it has to be decided by ministers, and the civil servants will then implement it.”

The paradox was also hinted at by Angus MacNeil, the new chair of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, who said pithily that “the current position from the Department for Energy and Climate Change regarding onshore wind needs further scrutiny.”

Civil servants would not be human, suggests Brack, were they not deflated by a perceived indifference or hostility to their work. “The climate change officers were highly motivated. But morale is now very low, particularly in Defra. You seem to have a government that doesn’t appear very interested in what you are doing. The atmosphere is very gloomy.

“DECC did have the ear of government, it was taken very seriously. That wasn’t the case with Defra. Defra suffered the worst cuts of the two departments in the last parliament. They face challenges, a smaller budget and funding ringfenced for flooding.”

A spokesperson for Defra declined to comment on claims that morale was low. When asked if Defra had the ear of No. 10, the spokesperson replied that this was a question best put to Downing Street. She did confirm the scale of cuts endured by Defra and those to come, saying that the department “had already contributed significantly to fiscal consolidation”. 

Indeed, over the last parliament Defra saw a 9% reduction in resource spending and a 25% cut in staff numbers and the department believes it has scope for further reductions across its 34 agencies and public bodies. Key to additional savings will be cuts to what Defra describes as “low-value spend”, which includes funding for projects such as research into urban seagulls.

Ahead of the summer Budget, the Green Alliance calculated that DECC faced cuts of 90% to its staff budgets over the next three years, down from £402m this financial year to £40m. In June, the department was asked to find £70m of in-year savings, while Defra was asked to shave £83m from its £2.1bn annual budget. And the Budget confirmed the Conservative plan to cut subsides to onshore wind, coupling it with a move to end the Climate Change Levy on renewable electricity schemes, which are in effect subsidies for renewables plants.

However, Brack forecasts that worse could be in store for DECC. “I think it is possible DECC will be wound up after the Paris summit and moved into Defra,” he says. “It won’t happen before then because that would not look good politically. It’s slightly depressing. All the focus has gone out of the environmental issues. We have turned very inward-looking.”
Can Defra and DECC take unilateral steps to improve their fortunes? Brack is uncertain. “Government has to have the political will. To a large extent, it will come down to the relationship between the relevant ministers, the chancellor and the prime minister.”

There are implications beyond Whitehall, too, one of which is the perception of government and the civil service as being run by people with little understanding of the world outside the Westminster bubble. Barney White-Spunner, executive chairman of the Countryside Alliance, describes some of that sentiment.

“British country life barely featured in the election campaign,” he says. “People can say that this is because politicians live in Westminster and don’t know what goes on in the countryside. I think that is a bit unfair, as many MPs are country people and several – from all parties – are farmers. But it reflects a widely-held view that this election was all about urban issues, that those of us who live and work in rural areas have walk-on parts in a theme park.”

Other groups were also frustrated by how things played out and point out something few would dispute: that most people care about the environment. “They think it’s important. So it’s a puzzle why we don’t get the traction with politicians at election time, why we couldn’t break through into the political bubble,” says Steve Trotter, director for England at The Wildlife Trusts.
Perhaps, as Trotter suggests, the natural environment doesn’t lend itself to the political cut and thrust that the media relishes. After all, it’s hard to have a ding-dong battle over what can be quite nuanced issues.

Even Brack struggles to put his finger on what exactly was going on. “I don’t know the extent to which politicians tried to make the environment a theme, and how much the media just ignored it, thinking it less interesting than austerity or whether the SNP would hold the balance of power,” he says.

But at grass roots level, if not in the national headlines, there was more of an awareness of just how relevant Whitehall was to everyday life. Shane Brennan, director of external affairs at the Countryside, Land & Business Association, says: “On the ground there was a healthy debate. All three parties issued rural manifestos, and there was a consensus around rural broadband.”

All of this raises wider questions about government attitudes towards the environment. Does the low profile of such issues say something about society, and the people who emerge from that society to become MPs and civil servants? “People are increasingly disconnected from wildlife, the distance children and adults roam from their houses has shrunk,” says Trotter. 

“That also applies to MPs – very few of them, perhaps 20 or 30 in the last parliament – showed a real, personal passion for the environment. We need to get decision-makers connected to the natural environment again.”

Either way, NGOs will continue to hold the feet of ministers and the civil service to the fire as they press for meaningful policy to be implemented. “I don’t think politicians were unaware of the importance of rural issues,” says Brennan. “On the ground the strong views of rural communities were made very clear. But that’s not to underestimate the job that we and other interested groups have to make sure the new government and MPs deliver on meeting those needs.”

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