9 July 2019

A simple green policy that can unite Britain


I know how we can unite the Tories, Labour, Lib Dems and UKIP. David Cameron does too.

He did it once before. Remember?

It was his first U-turn. Back in the heady days of 2010. The Coalition’s proposal to privatise forests led to a surge of activism and anger across social classes, geographies and political camps.

I thought back then that a winning manifesto proposal would capture this widespread connection with the natural environment. I would have made it bold and easy to understand – a doubling of tree coverage for England.  The same target as Denmark made in 1989.

I researched the numbers and mapped out the feasibility. It was all doable in a short time scale, at least the planting. Although there have been major productivity gains for arable farming in the south, the hilly areas of the North have seen little change over the decades and are heavily dependent on subsidies.

If 20 per cent of the (heavily subsidised) ‘less favoured’ and ‘severely disadvantaged’ land was planted with trees, it would bring England to the same total number of trees as Scotland and 50 per cent coverage just of this unproductive area would double England’s overall tree numbers.

But why stop there? We could also create green rings around all of our towns and cities,  focusing particularly on the unattractive ones. Greentrification, if you like.

This kind of thing has been done elsewhere. Just look at pictures of New England from 100 years ago when it was being deforested. Legislators pushed agriculture to the productive prairies and just left the hills to re-wild, to produce the splendid foliage now beloved of the leaf peepers.

Sadly, no party has so far shown this kind of ambition, or captured voters’ passion for the environment, although the new Northern Forest planting is a step in the right direction. Instead, it is activists such as Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg who are tapping into and perpetuating a mass green movement.  A wise manifesto writer would be taking heed.

There is an opportunity here not only to be green, but to empower people by devolving decision-making. With fields, for instance, local people, probably via Parish Councils, should be able to influence how subsidies are used for their local area. Some may want sheep, others woodland, others meadows. They may want paths to be joined up for recreation, improving mental wellbeing and fitness.

But doesn’t this happen already through DEFRA and natural England? Unfortunately not.

Although existing legislation and the Local Access Forum (and Paths for Communities before this) allow for creation of new public rights of way, for example to establish a link, overall the process is complex and highly bureaucratic and because the degree of compensation to be awarded to a landowner is unknown at the outset, most councils will not embark on such an exercise because of financial risk.

Indeed, even if only 20 metres was necessary to link two paths, even after demonstrating this is necessary for public use and legal tests fulfilled, a landowner knows that if they object, the council will have to call a public inquiry and the council will be liable for all hosting and legal costs. Assuming the council wins, the landowner can then submit a high compensation claim which then requires challenge and referral to a land tribunal. This uncertainty of outcome means councils rarely embark on this in the first place.

And while the Rural Development Regulations stipulate rewards for farmers for environmental stewardship, it does not happen effectively. Nor have recent reforms to the CAP and the Basic Payments Scheme significantly improve matters.

Thankfully a combination of Brexit planning and a concerted effort from Environment Secretary Michael Gove mean things are now starting to move in the right direction.

Mr Gove and his colleagues may have paid lip service to the environmental movement, but they would do well to go further and properly incorporate environmental stewardship into the next Tory manifesto.

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Dr Paul Goldsmith is President of Closed Loop Medicine, a clinician and a fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies