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Michael Gove is Britain’s environmental champion – no one is more surprised than me

November 16, 2017 9:22 PM
By Andy Boddington in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by South Lincolnshire Liberal Democrats

In the Sunday Telegraph, Michael Gove sets out his plans for an environmental watchdog post-Brexit. As education secretary under David Cameron, he was seen as a career hungry politician willing to risk quality education in a drive to create academies, open creationist schools and dictate what was taught in lessons. He was marginally better as Justice Secretary, but not much. Now, he is well on the road to becoming Britain's leading environmental champion.

This is not the first conversion on the environmental road to Damascus but it could be one of the most important.

It is even more surprising because Defra and its predecessors have seen a succession of environmental wreckers at the helm.

All I can remember about Peter Walker, the founding minister of the former Environment Department, is him complaining about housewives putting their washing out alongside rail lines. The environment, in his view, was meant to be tidy. Over the years, we have seen some very forgettable environment ministers. Those that made their mark did so for the worst of reasons. Michael Heseltine started the sell-off of council houses under the Right to Buy in 1979. We are still feeling the impacts of that populist move today as generation rent finds much of its income absorbed by housing costs.

Fast forwarding brings us to Caroline Spelman, whose attempt to privatise part of the public forest estate led to her downfall. Earlier, Nick Brown had fallen on his sword after shutting down most of the British countryside during the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak. Shropshire MP, Owen Paterson, who replaced Spelman, was a vocal critic of climate change science.

But there were successes, including the 2009 COP15 summit in Copenhagen. That was the first time we saw a serious commitment from British and world leaders to tackling climate change.

John Gummer was an accident prone Defra secretary. He is now mostly remembered for feeding a hamburger to his daughter to prove that meat was safe during the "mad cow disease" epidemic. But he reinvented himself as Lord Deben. He has since kept climate on the agenda under his astute stewardship as chair of the Committee on Climate Change.

Which brings us back to Michael Gove. Just a few months ago, I was deeply sceptical of Theresa May's decision to bring Gove back into the government to lead Defra. That was a view widely shared amongst environmentalists and green leaning politicians. Former energy and climate change secretary Ed Davey said: "I didn't think it could get any worse but putting Michael Gove in charge of the environment is like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. It's bad news." Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas said it was hard to "think of many politicians as ill-equipped for the role of environment secretary as Michael Gove." Their views were partly based on Gove's repeated calls to scrap EU regulations that protect the environment after Brexit.

But Gove has surprised us all. In July, he spoke to the Green Alliance, championing green thinking. Then he spoke to the WWF. Days later, his speech, "The Unfrozen Moment", was as astonishing as it was unexpected. Gove began by quoting Philip Larkin's bleak poem "Going, Going". He went on to say;

In the 45 years since [Larkin] wrote we have lost green space, cut down trees, sacrificed meadow and heath land, polluted our earth, air and water, we placed species in danger and we've run down the renewable resources - from fish to soil - on which our future depends. Farmland bird numbers have been cut in half, species have been devastated, bees and other pollinators threatened.

I was sceptical. Writing about Gove's speech at the time, I created the cartoon that illustrates this article. I am now thinking my scepticism was misplaced. Gove seems to have been converted to the environmental cause.

Although Theresa May has consistently promised that relevant EU rules would be brought into domestic law, the reality of environmental protection is that it relies on technical regulation as much as law. And it relies heavily on the European Court, a body that can bring sovereign nations into line on environmental behaviour, and ensures that domestic law meets European objectives. The court hasn't always been successful. Britain dodges around toxic air regulations and Poland continues to slay ancient forests. But the Court is the backstop for Europe's environment. Without it, here today gone tomorrow politicians would sacrifice environmental quality for party funding and a few more immoral votes.

In the Sunday Telegraph, Michael Gove has set out plans for a new environmental champion;

We have to establish a new, world-leading body to give the environment a voice and hold the powerful to account. It will be independent of government, able to speak its mind freely. And it will be placed on a statutory footing, ensuring it has clear authority. Its ambition will be to champion and uphold environmental standards, always rooted in rigorous scientific evidence… We will create a new policy statement setting out the environmental principles which will guide us. This statement will draw on the EU's current principles and it will underpin future policy-making.

I can't fault that ambition.

The government may not survive long enough for Gove's ideas to be implemented. But we should applaud positive moves to protect the environment when we see them.

Today, I find myself applauding Michael Gove. No one is more surprised than me at that.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice