Truss Government's 'attack on nature'

Green peer Natalie Bennett outlines and analyses the 'tranche of announcements – and leaks – emanating from the new Government' in recent days.

Keep out endangered species sign
Natalie Bennett

That the wildlife charities and campaign groups have been horrified by a tranche of announcements – and leaks – emanating from the new Truss government in recent days has been evident, even in the midst of such national fear and confusion about the economic and social impacts of its decisions.

The RSPB, not normally known as an outspoken organisation, for all that it represents a million more people than chose Liz Truss as our prime minister, called out the Government’s “attack on nature”. The Wildlife Trusts and Plantlife were among the many other non-party-political groups issuing similarly strong responses.

But in the midst of what’s now pretty much a permanently trending hashtag on Twitter – #ToryChaos – it is not easy to keep track of just what is going on. It’s worth spelling out just how many ways in which the Truss government is on the attack, against owls and orchids, hares and hairstreaks, beeches and badgers.

The attack has at least four fronts.

Perhaps the most explosive is the announcement of a new Planning and Infrastructure Bill intended “to accelerate major infrastructure projects across England”. The Government says it will “minimise the burden of environmental assessments”, “make consultation requirements more proportionate” “reform habitats and species regulation” and accelerate “road delivery”, including changes to the Judicial Review system “to avoid claims which cause unnecessary delays to delivery”.

The italics in “reform” are my own, because it is really time we started to challenge the way that word is used. When I was a young journalist, we were told never to use that word in our own text – rather to say “change” – because using it implied an unarguably positive direction, and that is a value judgement. 

Well, I’ve got a very clear value judgement about changes to habitats and species regulation. They could and should be far stronger than what we have now, in this, one of the most nature-deprived corners of this planet, where National Parks and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) are actually no better for nature than the rest. But it is clear the Government intends to head 180 degrees in the opposite direction, to take away the inadequate protections our depleted wildlife now “enjoy”.

Second, there are plans for “investment zones”, a boosted version of the former government’s freeports plan. In them, there’ll be even more “planning liberalisation”. This, after it emerged that maps for freeport zones extend far beyond the actual ports and factories, into the countryside and national parks, where apparently the same open slather that will be applied to the pay and conditions of workers and the (non) payment of tax will also be extended to the treatment of nature. 

Those two huge assaults – little examined as they have been, with Parliament not sitting until 10 October – have just been fired out into our countryside, and are sitting there, producing a heavy cloud of fear for all who care about our natural world and the people who rely on it i.e., all of us. The old phrase “no jobs on a dead planet” might be adapted here to “no jobs in a bare earth investment zone”.

But it’s interesting that the other two major announcements, which have been really examined and challenged in the public realm, the Government is already showing signs of backpedalling.

One was the announcement of an all-out run for oil and gas, including through fracking. (Yes, in case this is lingering in the back of your mind, we are still technically chair of the COP international climate process, until COP27 starts in Egypt – and it is worth noting that the International Energy Agency says “no new oil and gas”.) Not much of an example being set there.

But this morning – and all credit to Lancashire BBC – Liz Truss was challenged on apparently contradictory statements from the Government on fracking, and confirmed that – still without clarity – this can only happen with “local consent”. Now, the Government was talking in fantasyland on its fracking plans anyway – “gas in six months” has been totally dismissed by the industry, and as one geologist put it, they are 280 million years too late – but if there does have to be local consent, well, our last round of fracking protests showed how unlikely that is.

The other was on the long-planned, still chaotic but progressing, Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS), the means by which the Environment and Agriculture Acts are supposed to deliver “public money for public good” – carbon storage, wildlife restoration and cleaner air and water – through payments to farmers to gradually replace the acreage-based system of the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

This is quite a tale. Experienced, knowledgeable journalists reported that the Government was going to drop ELMS, and replace it with EU-style acreage payments. Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union, went on the Radio 4 Today programme to proclaim her pleasure. (She’s been a real leader on the climate emergency, so this came as a surprise to many, but given farmers fears about continuing uncertainty with government schemes and soaring costs, I can understand the pressures she was under to do that.) 

Then the new Department (DEFRA) minister – a man with no discernible previous interest in the issues for which he is now the secretary of state – came out with a social media video (not an interview) to say “no, no, no”, this was not the Government’s plan. ELMS was continuing on, DEFRA said.

This now has all the look of a classic “trial balloon”. Typically floated in the Sunday papers, these involve apparently credible, if thinly sourced reports, that the Government plans to do “X”. Should the Sunday television shows and the Monday papers be filled with horror, then the Tuesday denials are already in train. “No, the Government never planned to do this. It was just a report, or a suggestion, or a proposal that has not been accepted. Sorry, clearly a misunderstanding. Nothing to see here.”

That’s what it looks like, but with this government, who can know? But it certainly looks like these are two of four absolutely disastrous bombshells that the Government is wavering on. 

What’s crucial is that we keep up the pressure – keep talking about, challenging, highlighting the dangers of all of the Government’s attack on nature. Campaigning works. And I thank BBC Radio Sheffield today for enabling a really informative discussion that I was delighted to take part in with Liz Truss from the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust (about 12.10pm).

This government is under enormous pressure on economic issues. Let’s make sure it hears an equal level of pressure on environmental concerns – hear that the public is just as concerned about a liveable, healthy environment as the economy. More, that the public understands the economy is a complete subset of the environment: there are no jobs on a dead planet.