Something happened this weekend. A blast of sun and suddenly spring had sprung. In my garden, at the Lodge, wherever I go at the moment, places are coming to life with signs of competition everywhere. Birds, of course, have found their voice again. Some are singing so hard they barely have energy left, all to prove to others that they're the fittest, the finest choice. For some, nest building has begun in earnest.
At Westminster, the politicians are starting to 'sing' too and, I'm pleased to say, some sound pretty good. With just over a year to go until the General Election, this is the time when political parties traditionally set out their environmental plans looking for competitive advantage.
But tonight, something else happened which could trigger competition or perhaps even cooperation between the political parties.
Dieter Helm's Natural Capital Committee produced its second report. You can read it here.
In this excellent report, there is a recommendation to produce a plan to restore our (England's) natural capital within a generation, by 2040. The Committee intends to produce this plan before the Mary 2015 General Election.
I applaud the intent. Take any assessment of the state of nature (species, sites, ecosystems) and it is clear that we are not doing enough to maintain what we have, let alone put back what we have lost. This is bad news for nature and bad news for us, given all the free services that nature gives us.
I do not see this as a lack of ambition - successive governments, including this one, have had laudable goals to improve the natural environment. And we have had plans before to do something about it - the 1994 UK Biodiversity Action Plan established by John Major's Government perhaps the most comprehensive.
Too often, however, there has been a mismatch between ambition and available resources and political will. I see that today as the current Government seeks to implement the Natural Environment White Paper and the 2020 Biodiversity Strategy for England. Too often, objectives are undermined by conflicting policies (that lead to habitat destruction or pollution), a failure to enforce to the law (for example to tackle wildlife crime) and a lack of accountability across government. It has not been clear what happens if we fail. With whom does the buck stop and what is the price of failure?
So we need a step change in the way we organise ourselves to achieve the big political aims for nature.
This is why I was delighted to read the Green Manifesto also published today by a green pressure group of Liberal Democrats.
In it, there is a proposal for a Nature Act, establishing statutory targets for biodiversity, clean air and water. I like this idea. I can see how a Nature Act could potentially do for wildlife what the Climate Change Act has done to legally underpin the move to a low Carbon economy and drive down greenhouse gas emissions.
The Green Manifesto isn’t official party policy, but I hope Nick Clegg takes note. Indeed, I hope all the parties take note. While I am keen to see competition for ideas, I think there is also real merit in cross-party consensus for action on the environment. Long term policy objectives will only be achieved if there is continuity even if government changes hands.
The other main parties at Westminster have also started to sing a bit.
The Conservative Environment Network and the Conservative 2020 Group have recently made valuable green contributions. Laura Sandys MP set out the importance of waste-reduction and energy efficiency for a viable modern economy, while Education Secretary Michael Gove underlined that nature is an integral part of school life, both through theory and experience.
The Labour Party has just launched its Your Britain policy consultation. It has some strong indications about climate change policy, but its discussion of the natural environment is restricted to just two paragraphs. The Fabian Society has helped, with a useful contribution on Green Europe, for example, but a coherent Labour environmental story has yet to take shape.
The current Government will respond to the Natural Capital Committee report in the summer and if given the green light, then the Committee will get on and produce the plan by spring 2015. We and others will of course be delighted to help and contribute our ideas.
But here's another thought. Between now and the next General Election, we should be encouraging a debate across the political spectrum to cooperate on the formation and adoption of the proposed 25 year plan. It would be a disaster if a good 25 year plan is developed only for it to be binned by a future government. Cooperation may be the only way to deliver the step change nature needs.
Competition or cooperation? Which do you think will deliver more for nature?
It would be great to hear your views.
More than that, synergy - I'm increasingly concerned by nature conservationists measuring success by how much money they spend. The Lawton report - not entirely through its own fault - must have been one of the worst timed interventions ever, demanding lots of money just as the bank went pop and through this sort of thinking conservation itself may unwittingly contributed to the economy vs nature stance of this Government.
The other issue is the focus on Government: it isn't the only player and just at the moment being backed by government in an environmentally dubious enterprise isn't something I'd invest in - rather than wildlife losing and the economy gaining, isn't it more a case that current Government policies are generating lose-lose scenarios all over the place: onshore wind stalled, fracking a political liability, forest sales beaten, biodiversity offsetting on the rocks and a serious political standoff between the insurance industry and government over flooding - a problem generated not just be cuts but by government going against its expert advice and allowing thousands of vulnerable homes to be built.
This government is all about cuts, not efficiency. I'd ask again how much we can save by stopping, thinking and co-operating not between political parties but between man and nature ? How much money could a go with the flow approach to flooding in the Somerset levels save, using the land to absorb the water, not putting town against country, but paying farmers to hold the water to save people's houses ? Now we've got a price: an unaffordable £100m for the 'conventional' smash the environment approach - that could buy an awful lot of farmland to store water on !
I agree cooperation to produce a 25 year plan for the recovery of nature and biodiversity and to which all political parties sign up, would be ideal. The plan would need to be budgeted at least on a yearly basis with achievable milestones each year.
The key factor would be the Prime Minister of the day and the leaders of the oppositions all having the will to see the plan through. (a bit of a tall order but worth a try). The prime minister would need to appoint a Minister who is also genuinely committed to implementing the plan, one that can overcome opposition from other Government Departments and one who does not look for excuses not to progress the plan.
I am afraid to say this current Government, which was to be the "Greenest Government Ever" is not so far, at least, the best example of what would be needed for the implementation of an agreed 25 year plan.
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