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Dirty water, dirty politics and dirty lies

Michael Gove tried to paint himself as a green Brexiteer. Now he’s giving builders a green light to pollute

Image: The New European

When you announce a policy and those who line up to oppose it include a bona fide national treasure and one of Britain’s favourite charities, it might be time to wash your hands of the whole thing.

That is the position Michael Gove finds himself in after his move to weaken building standards was criticised by the Undertones singer-turned-environmental campaigner Feargal Sharkey and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). But since his decision will let the housing industry pollute our polluted water even more, perhaps he feels there’s not much point in washing his hands in the first place.

Gove’s move – supported with gaslighting interviews in which he declared “it’s a widespread myth that the quality of our water has deteriorated” – is just the latest row-back on green policies from a desperate government. As it clutches at Ulez straws, it has decided that carrying on with the destruction of the natural world is a vote-winner. It all seems a long way from the promises of a “Green Brexit”.

To show you how far, let me take you back to July 2017. That is when the new environment secretary decided to advertise his green credentials by giving a keynote speech to none other than the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Michael Gove, for it was he, had been a leading advocate of Brexit and so he laid out in his speech a picture of the future as he saw it.

The title of the speech is magnificent: “The Unfrozen Moment – Delivering a Green Brexit”, unfrozen being a reference to the “freedoms of Brexit”. Gove even had the chutzpah to quote from a poem penned by Phillip Larkin to mark the creation of the Department for the Environment in 1972. As Gove said in his speech, Going, Going “is a lament for the erosion and destruction of our natural environment under the pressures of corporate greed, devil take the hindmost individualism, and modernist brutalism.” He then quoted these lines:

And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
the guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
in galleries; but all that remains
for us will be concrete and tyres.
Most things are never meant.
This won’t be, most likely; but greeds
and garbage are too thick-strewn
to be swept up now, or invent
excuses that make them all needs.
I just think it will happen, soon.

The speech gets worse. If you like a good laugh or more likely a cry I suggest you try reading the whole thing:

There should be a prize for anyone who can get beyond Gove saying: “I care about the fate of fellow animals, and I draw inspiration from nature and I believe that we need beauty in our lives as much as we need food and shelter” without feeling sick. I couldn’t.

But do plough on, because the new environment secretary also took the opportunity to announce “a deliberately ambitious agenda” to “reshape British laws to make it a world leader in green policies”.

He even admitted the EU had driven recent environmental improvements but promised to do even better. He conceded that “the European Union has, in a number of ways, been a force for good environmentally” and “I have no intention of weakening the environmental protections we have put in place while in the EU.”

In short, Mr Gove and the government promised that they would not only protect but enhance environmental standards after Brexit. Now it is in the process of tearing them all up or watering them down.

It is all very depressing.

From suddenly deciding it is green to pump more oil and gas from the North Sea to letting the water companies pump raw sewage into rivers and on to beaches, to fighting Ulez and now to removing the environmental standards on new house building that the EU only introduced in 2016, the Tories have shown the real green side of Brexit. It is the green of greed.

So let the water companies pollute, let the building industry pollute, let the oil companies pollute, it is good for profits – and donations to the Conservative Party – and greed is good.

But how did we get here?

Britain used to be the dirty man of Europe, with polluted beaches and rivers, smog and car fumes in town centres. Joining the EU changed that. Successive UK governments were forced, by the EU, to clean up their act or face the consequences – huge fines from the European Court of Justice for not complying with EU standards.

The UK had to act because of legislation like the 1976 Bathing Water Directive and the 1991 Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive. But even so, the UK was always at the back of the class. It dragged its feet, it refused to clean up beaches, it had far fewer safe bathing sites than other countries, it didn’t stop pumping raw sewage into the sea until 1998. But it was forced to comply, eventually.

The UK’s record was not helped by one Liz Truss, who, as environment secretary in 2015, boasted of slashing the inspection of farms, allowing many more to dump slurry in our rivers and eviscerated the budget for checking water quality, allowing the water companies to do much the same with human excrement.

Even after the referendum result the UK was still losing cases at the ECJ, most notably on air quality in 2021, when it was found to have “systematically and persistently” exceeded legal limits for nitrogen dioxide.

The last hurrah of these attempts to make the UK government do the right thing were the 2016 EU rules on “nutrient neutrality”. These mean house builders have to show they are not going to make local rivers worse by building homes and putting in new sewers. They don’t have to improve the environment, they just have to show they are not going to make it even worse than it is. It is not the toughest of green measures.

But even this is too much for this government. It plans to abolish these rules, claiming that this will allow another 100,000 new homes to be built and release £18bn in economic activity.

This is a complete load of old tosh. The idea that environmental protections have created the housing crisis is beyond contempt – it is as if Nimbyism and government incompetence don’t exist.

Nevertheless, Rishi Sunak called the regulations a “disproportionate and poorly targeted old EU ruling”, and there you have it – “Brexit freedoms” allow the government to make the environment worse. This is basically a licence for the building industry to build regardless of the consequences.

The Wildlife Trust’s chief executive Craig Bennett told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the EU rules were “very modest” but that “the housebuilders have been adept over many years at wriggling out of their environmental commitments and they’ve succeeded yet again.”

It is, of course, a bitter irony that the man announcing the relaxation of these rules is the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, one Michael Gove. How far has he fallen since that speech in 2017 and how far has the UK fallen with him?

He boasted in 2017 that, post-Brexit, the UK would be able to “establish ourselves as the home of the highest environmental standards, the most rigorous science and the most ambitious institutions; then the world will look to us for environmental innovation and leadership.”

Well, the world is definitely looking at us now, but not as environmental innovators or leaders. They are staring at us, open-mouthed, in shock and despair at the self-harm, the rank hypocrisy and the rowing back on 40 years of environmental improvement. All of which have happened at the earliest opportunity once the EU couldn’t force the UK government to do the right thing.

Gove’s whole speech – indeed, his whole idea that Brexit was supported by tree-huggers who just wanted to be free from the dead hand of Brussels in order to create even tougher environmental standards – has been revealed as nothing short of a cynical con.

The idea that the UK government is now stricter on the environment, has better water quality than the rest of Europe, better beaches and rivers, tougher air-quality regulations and higher building standards is a sick joke. As Sharkey wrote on Twitter after Gove’s claims: “Not a single river in England passes the chemical test, not one, they all fail, every single one. The ecology test? In 2009, 25% of rivers were in ‘Good’ condition, 2016 fell to 14%, govt’s prediction by 2027 that will have fallen to 6%.”

It has taken seven years to poison Britain’s well; to rip up high standards, to “get rid of the green crap”. Heaven alone knows how bad things will get in the coming years if this continues. Remember a Venn diagram of climate change deniers and Brexiteers is almost a perfect circle – there is a significant part of the Tory party that just refuses to admit that cutting carbon emissions is even necessary and they are gaining more influence.

It is therefore terrifying (and beyond shameless) that after the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election the government seems to have become convinced there are votes to be had in reversing green policies and trashing the environment.

We can only hope the right-wing backlash against environmentalism proves to be a vote loser. Because otherwise, this is just the start.

We are already once again the dirty man of Europe, and we are getting dirtier by the day.

Remember Larkin’s words:

                           … but greeds
and garbage are too thick-strewn
to be swept up now, or invent
excuses that make them all needs.
I just think it will happen, soon.

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