You know you are in trouble when the twitchers and bunnyhuggers start reaching for the pitchforks. And so it is for Liz Truss’s “mini-budget”, which has managed to outrage not only the financial markets, but also the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
In her first days as prime minister, as well as thoughtlessly cutting taxes for the highest earners, she is also threatening to rip up environmental protections. Will erupting anger over habitats for skylarks and lapwings help to bring down the PM?
“Make no mistake, we are angry,” announced the normally sedate RSPB, before issuing a call to arms to its followers, furiously tweeting – appropriately, perhaps – suggestions for a fightback. This included a suggestion that members should send letters to their MPs.
In an unusually intemperate statement at the weekend, the RSPB stated that, “The government has today launched an attack on Nature.” The Wildlife Trust, with its million members, the National Trust, with 5 million, and the Plant Life campaign all swiftly joined the RSPB. Greenpeace, more used to political confrontation, is also ready to repel assaults on the green and pleasant lands that conservatives are supposed to love.
The row began last week, when the government revealed plans to open up swathes of land for investment zones. These are deregulated areas across the UK, that are designed to avoid the rules and taxes that the rest of us cannot dodge.
There will be around 24 of these sites, from Falmouth to Newcastle, in which planning rules and green rules on nature protection, water quality and conservation will effectively be suspended. It sounds like an anti-nature free-for-all, in a country that already allows water companies to pump raw sewage into its rivers and the sea.
As nature groups were looking on, aghast, at the map showing where the zones would be, news came that Trussonomics also placed no value on environmental protections on farmland.
The government is planning to “review”, for which read “get rid of”, commitments given by the previous Conservative environment secretary, Michael Gove to replace blanket European Union farming subsidies with payments linked to the protection of nature. Under the existing environmental land management contracts, farmers are rewarded “public money for providing public good”, which includes maintaining hedgerows and creating space for threatened species. A reversal could encourage a return of harmful methods of intensive farming, with all the environmental degradation it can cause.
The government also plans to abandon EU law and regulation retained after Brexit by the end of 2023. This is much earlier than previously planned and will lead to the axing of hundreds of rules on environmental issues such as wildlife habitats.
“Basically what we have seen is a three-pronged attack on nature from the Westminster government,” said Kate Jennings, the RSPB’s head of sites and species policy. “Public money for the public good delivered benefits like clean water, rewilding, habitat conservation, nature restoration and the full gamut of beneficial management – things like additions of field margins and hedgerows onto relatively intensively-managed land. It looks like they might be rowing back on that and that’s why we are so angry.”
“It’s like a massive onslaught on nature, with horrific implications for a country that is already among the most nature-depleted,” she warned.
Woodland Trust Chief Executive Darren Moorcroft also spoke out about the “disregard for the natural environment which is coming across strongly as part of the government’s plans for growth.”
The Truss administration is “seemingly determined to ditch and disregard protections which are designed to secure the healthy environment, which is itself a precondition of a healthy economy and society,” Moorcroft continued, calling on the government to halt plans that would set the UK back decades, which he said was based on the “outmoded” idea of seeking growth by scrapping environmental protections.
This backlash comes at the same time as financial markets are delivering a vicious drubbing to the pound on the back of chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s astonishing budget announcements on Friday, which included tax cuts for higher earners pinned to lavish borrowing – borrowing that will become ever more expensive thanks to the rise in government bond yields, also brought about by a budget not backed up by joined-up thinking, forecasts or any other details.
As the magazine Business Green put it: “If it weren’t for its efforts to torch its credibility for economic management, the big political story of the weekend would have been the government’s efforts to torch its credibility for environmental management.”
There seems to be even less proper thinking by the government over the environmental onslaught. The Conservatives’ environmental measures, mostly under Gove, amounted to pretty much the only government plan that could be flagged up as a benefit of Brexit. Given how elusive they are, you would think they would leave well alone.
But Liz “environmental slasher” Truss is not known for her love of nature – or she would not have done so much damage when she was environmental secretary between 2014 and 2015. Her “efficiency” cuts denuded the department — £235 million was culled from the Environment Agency, where a former senior consultant described her as a “poor” minister. She spoke little of her former brief during the campaign for the Tory leadership, and what she did say was embarrassing. She didn’t want farmers filling fields with “paraphernalia like solar farms”, even though solar energy production is currently way below the government’s own target, cheap , is popular with the public, and takes up just under 0.1% of UK land. She also said that she would “put climate change on the back-burner” if she won the election, even though the UK’s climate targets are already in danger due to lack of proper, well-financed policies. Her supporter Therese Coffrey has said a Truss government would freeze green levies, which would reduce the money available for combating climate change.
“We were certainly nervous…about some of that track record,” Jennings said. “What’s come forward is worse than anything we were expecting. It’s catastrophic.”
And worse than before. Boris Johnson might not have been up to much, distracted as he was by parties, wallpaper and begging donors for money, but at least he sometimes talked the talk, possibly encouraged by his environmentalist wife, Carrie. Of course the rhetoric was not matched by enough action, but now even existing means of chasing those targets risk being swept away. These included bold recent promises on land and sea protection targets and a law introducing a legally-binding target to help declining species. There has been a sizeable fall across a range of species in the UK, including curlews, hen harriers, pollinators, fish populations and farmland birds, such skylarks, waders and lapwings.
Environmental plans were already in danger amid the war in Ukraine and the scrap for gas and other fossil fuels after Russia turned off the taps amid sanctions. The UK, which had not doubled down on renewables early enough to be cushioned, chose once again to largely ignore increasingly good value solar and wind energy and restart fracking instead — even though there is no change to the science that led to an earlier Conservative ban on the earthquake-prone extraction process. The government also promised increased extraction from the North Sea production – even though the little gas that remains would not be heating homes for nearly three decades anyway.
Besides, gas is sold on the open market, and so none of these over-egged plans would make any difference to the price in the UK. But it does fit in with the ideological direction this government was always going to choose over rational thinking and environmental sense.
This approach, blind to the reality of climate change, is also encouraging the idea that ensuring that the world is habitable for humans is some kind of luxury to be indulged in good times. These developments have the air of the environmentalist cautionary tale from the film Don’t Look Up, where the world dealt with imminent asteroid collision by ignoring the danger and carrying on as usual until they were blown to pieces. Scientists and environmentalists watching that film said it felt a bit like a documentary of their lives, and that was before the war, before the European heatwaves that brought serious drought, fires and floods to the our doorstep and before a UK government determined to behave as if that had not happened got its hands on the tiller.
The current state of affairs is embarrassing for the UK, which hosted the COP26 environmental conference in Glasgow to such fanfare last year. And it’s not just the UK losing focus. Current COP President Alok Sharma cuts a sorry figure now as he tries to be pleased about the fact that only 23 of the 200 countries that had promised in Glasgow to “revisit and strengthen” their climate plans for 2030 had submitted updated ones by the UN deadline last Friday – and these aren’t even necessarily improvements on what they had already declared.
But, as #AttackOnNature spreads the word far and wide across the UK, maybe the worm is finally turning. The RSPB and British nature groups have support beyond their membership, and even Conservative figures have joined the fray.
Several former Conservative environment ministers, including Gove and Lord Randall of Uxbridge from Theresa May’s government, farmers and centre right and free market think tanks, have signed a letter implicitly warning Truss and co over their plans. Even the Institute of Economic Affairs, which normally supports the Truss project, signed up.
“Payments should reward farmers for providing goods that are not currently valued by the market, such as cleaner rivers,” the letter said. “Environmental payments will help food security by incentivizing soil improvements, more pollinators and natural pest management. Farmers could also sell biodiversity, carbon and nutrient offset credits, improving the profitability of their businesses.”
Ordinary conservative voters, including the Shire Tories, may not be fans of what they would probably consider to be the “lefty” activism of groups such as Greenpeace, but they do like nature and landscape, and when they are angered, they can bite – look at how they voted out the Conservatives from Amersham and Chesham in Buckinghamshire, at least party because of the way the HS2 High Speed railway construction was scarring their leafy environment with mud and concrete. Even those who support the mad dash for growth a la Truss, tend to recoil when they see the environment-damaging evidence turns up on their doorstep.
Could it be that Truss and her cabinet have picked the wrong fight, as the RSPB and others put on their “battle pants” – their words — and prepare for war? They certainly face a formidable foe.
“Nature organisations across the UK are aligning behind this like nothing else,” said Jennings. “We are reaching much wider than our usual audiences with this. People love nature and they love landscape. The attack is so full on – it’s unsurprising they are responding to this.”
I ask her what the next move is. Under discussion, she said. The news only came on Friday, but they should produce a plan of action soon.
What are you going to do, I ask? Put up barricades, march on parliament? “We will look at all options,” she said, “I don’t think anything is currently off the table.”
For motivation, they might want to reread Philip Larkin’s poem “Going, Going”, which Gove himself described in a government paper championing the very reforms that stand to be scrapped, as 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.” It includes the lines: “And that will be England gone, the shadows, the meadows, the lanes….for us will be concrete and tyres.”
Truss should also note the words of her former colleague, as he outlined the reason he promised those reforms in the first place: “Indeed, ultimately, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the energy which powers enterprise, are all threatened if we do not practice proper stewardship of the planet”.