Elizabeth Truss speech on the environment and the rural economy

Speech delivered at The Policy Exchange on the link between the natural environment and the economy.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP

Ever since I can remember, the environment has been presented as something worthy.

It’s been all about behaving yourself.

Sort out your rubbish or else.

Feel guilty about buying more stuff.

Take fewer flights.

It’s all been about having less but it can – and should – be about having more.

A clean, beautiful, healthy natural environment is about more jobs and greater prosperity, contributing to our long-term economic plan, our wellbeing and our future security. Our £100 billion food industry needs the environment to be in top condition if it is to be at its most productive. So does the whole £210 billion rural economy.

In the 21st century modern economy, we aren’t trading off between prosperity and a thriving natural environment–we are trading up.

High tech and clean air.

A growing economy and growing woodland and forests.

Great jobs and opportunities and fantastic beaches and rivers for families to enjoy.

This government is committed to being the greenest ever. To achieve that, the debate has got to get beyond experts and special interest groups, beyond targets and summits. Beyond the polarised slanging match we so often hear: you’re an alarmist or a denier, a hippy or a gas-guzzler.

The reality is different. We are making environmental and economic progress. They are not just compatible – they depend on each other.

We are addressing the challenge of climate change, while delivering the highest economic growth in Europe. We have reduced carbon emissions by 27% since 1990, and by 6% since 2010. Our water is cleaner. We are on course to cut the amount of phosphates from sewage treatment works polluting our lakes and rivers by a fifth and ammonia by a sixth during this parliament.

One of my first announcements as secretary of state, along with my cabinet colleague Eric Pickles, was to give the go-ahead to the building of the Thames Tideway Tunnel, a vital £4.2 billion, private-sector project.

It is disgraceful that in the 21st century raw sewage is put into the Thames on a weekly basis.

This new tunnel will ensure this almost all ends, benefiting everyone along the river, especially anglers. It opens the Thames for more leisure opportunities and helps our booming tourist industry.

In the early 1990s, just 28% of bathing waters hit the toughest cleanliness standards. Now that is close to 80%. Our seaside is an incomparably healthier place to swim as a result.

This means families are able to enjoy the beach with the security that the sea is clean- bringing jobs and growth to our coastal towns and villages.

Our air is getting cleaner too. Concentrations of particulates and nitrogen oxides halved in the 20 years to 2012. Since 2010, average roadside concentrations of NO2 have gone down nearly 15%. We know there is much more to do and that’s why we have invested heavily in improving air quality, spending more than £2 billion on measures to achieve this, making our cities healthier and more attractive places to live and work

Trees have a unique place in British history, landscape and culture. From the oak tree Charles II hid in to avoid Cromwell’s soldiers– to the Whomping Willow of Harry Potter fame, actually an ancient beech tree in Hertfordshire.

Over 9 million trees will be planted this Parliament. England has more woodland cover than 700 years ago. 150,000 acres of wildlife habitats are being created–wetlands, hedges and uncultivated field margins. In fact, we are reimagining and rebuilding whole lost landscapes, like the River Torridge valley in north Devon, where we are restoring a 180,000-acre landscape in one of our 12 Nature Improvement Areas. This is bringing beauty and a sense of magic to great sweeps of our countryside.

This Government has succeeded in reforming Europe’s Common Fisheries Policy – once the by-word for wastefulness and failure. This will end the appalling waste of fish being thrown back dead into the water. In the past five years, the proportion of stocks being fished inside safe scientific limits has nearly doubled. This means a sustainable long term future for our fishing industry, which contributes £720 million to the economy, as well as improving our marine environment. We know there is more to do. Every year that goes by, our knowledge about nature and the environment improves. And of course we reap the benefits in many years time of actions that we take today.

The natural environment is a life-force. A healthy environment is vital for a healthy economy - driving food and farming, the rural economy and the health of our cities.

Food and farming contributes £100 billion a year to our economy and employs 1 in 8 people. My ambition is for British food and farming to lead the world. Food is already our biggest manufacturing industry, bigger than cars and aerospace combined, and it can grow much more.

Tourism brings more than £30 billion to the £210 billion rural economy and the countryside has to stay beautiful if visitors are to keep going there.

Technology is driving business in rural areas. A quarter of all businesses in England are registered in the countryside, and they employ one in eight people. Countryside businesses are some of the most pioneering. Rootedness with a global outlook. That’s why we have signed more than 600 deals with more than 100 countries since 2010 to open new markets for food exports.

The rural future is about companies like the Ilkley Brewery in West Yorkshire, set up just five years ago. It uses the local water that’s been valued for its purity since Roman times.The brewery employs just 14 people, but sells to around 10 countries worldwide.

It’s a great thought that people in Tennessee are drinking their Mary Jane pale ale and are transported in their minds to Ilkley Moor Baht’at. The brewery are not just selling beer, they are selling a place, a landscape, a history.

Rural Britain is being wired up and fired up! Look at Cornwall. By 2015, 95% of homes there will have access to superfast broadband and we are seeing unique businesses springing up. Of course there is Ginsters, the pasty baker, which has recently started selling its products online to customers in Hong Kong, with locally produced meat, carrots and swedes.

There is also Headforwards, who make software for telecoms companies with coders from all over the world who have been attracted by the Cornish lifestyle.

We’re pushing on with getting all the countryside as well connected as Cornwall. We will be publishing a consultation tomorrow to look at how we can improve mobile phone coverage for customers in those areas where they currently have no signal from their usual provider, as well as extending high speed broadband to 95 percent of properties by 2017.

It’s not just about better connections for the countryside. Children whether they are in Hackney or Hampshire will be learning at school about how to cook food and where it comes from – not just that it’s shrink wrapped on the supermarket shelf. A million trees are being planted in our cities. Connected rural Britain linking to urban Britain – all understanding the vital importance of nature to the economy.

Technology and data are driving our understanding of plants, animals and the environment – helping us create the conditions to deliver a healthy environment and a healthy economy.

Big data is a dominant feature of our age. But data from nature is almost limitless. The sheer complexity of eco-systems requires a phalanx of bioengineers, mathematicians and ecologists to begin to understand it. To achieve real system-level improvements to our environment, we are increasing the range and sophistication of our evidence on the interconnected subjects of wildlife, air, water, wild habitats, climate and farming.

This will give us the metrics to establish what conditions are now, analyse why change is happening and model the impact of future developments.

Our work in this area is being led by Defra’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Ian Boyd, a highly distinguished polar and marine scientist.

One of the most exciting programmes Ian is leading is the Copernicus system, which is a £3 billion pound project shared across Europe. Once its fleet of six satellites have been launched, they will be streaming out 8 terabytes of data a day from their cameras and synthetic aperture radar.

We’ll have far more granular, day-by-day data than we have ever seen before.

The UK is best placed to make use of this data because of this government’s far-sighted investment in Big Data storage and processing facilities at Harwell in Oxfordshire, which is also the location of our Space Applications Catapult.

The data can be used to inform some of our other world-leading science, like the work on plant pests and diseases being done at the Food and Environment Research Agency, Fera, in York. Or the research at the John Innes centre in Norfolk, which is exploring how to increase plant yields while using less water.

This all means we will be at the forefront of translating the extraordinary potential of this data into real-world environmental and economic uses.

This will enable us to, for example:

  • Watch the seasons sweep across the country as we see what days different species of tree burst into bud and shed their leaves in different counties.
  • Take the pulse of the sea as we follow the ebb and flow of currents and keep a health check on marine life around our coasts.
  • Improve monitoring and forecasting of air quality down to local level by combining satellite imagery with the ground-level data we already collect.
  • Map the different habitats across the country and how they change. We can work out from that just how healthy conditions are for birds, bees and other creatures.
  • See what crops are planted in what fields and how productive they are.

I want to see this advanced technology used to analyse the whole eco-system. One area where we need more evidence is the condition of our bees and other pollinating insects. From what we know so far, the number of wild bee and other pollinator species has fallen as their flower-rich habitat has been built over or used for intensive farming.

Today I am launching our new Bee and Pollinator strategy to analyse and reverse that trend. The Strategy includes investment in that scientific research as part of a 10-year push to improve the number of pollinators and their geographic spread.

As well as giving us much better evidence about bees and pollinators; the strategy will ensure much wider action to help boost their population and it will bring huge benefits to wildlife and the countryside –and it to our food producers.

There are at least 1,500 species of these insects: honey bees and wild bumble bees—but let’s not forget the moths, butterflies, wasps, beetles and hoverflies, all of them contribute.

They are indispensable to our food production. Without those insects, not only would our parks, gardens and countryside be much more drab places, our food could well become less varied and some of it more expensive.

Their work is valued at around £430 million – four times the salaries of the top ten players in the Premier League. Like the football players, they require excellent accommodation, training and the best diet and nutrition to make them world beating. That’s why I am ensuring across all land uses there are strong incentives to provide pollinators with habitat, forage and space.

Firstly – I am taking action on our farmland, which covers 70 percent of the country’s land mass. We have £2 billion of environmental schemes already and we are adding our £900 million new Countryside Stewardship scheme, part of the new Common Agriculture Policy.

This will have a dedicated Wild Pollinator and Farm Wildlife Package – which will be open for applications next year. That adds to environmental We’re already funding environmental schemes worth more than £2 billion.

There will be payments for farmers to maintain hedgerows and strips of wildlife-friendly ground round the edges of arable fields, providing sources of nectar and nesting sites for insects. It will also be an incentive to provide forage year round, whether that is in crops or additional planting.

Secondly – many of Britain’s biggest landowners have made commitments to support pollinators. They include the National Trust, the Defence Estates and Network Rail. The Church of England are also giving their support to our strategy. The Prince of Wales’s Coronation Meadows project aims to establish an insect-friendly wildflower meadow in all 105 UK counties. Other groups, like Buglife and the Yorkshire Dales Millennium trust to name just two, are also doing superb work to restore meadows and provide advice. They will help replace some of the 97% of meadows and similar grasslands lost since the 1930s.

Thirdly – supermarkets like Tesco and Morrisons are labelling some products as pollinator friendly. I want to see more supermarkets and other retailers doing this and extending from plant products to food.

Fourthly – we have launched our Bees Needs website that means that people can help pollinators in their garden at home or the local park or school space. Oxeye daisies, lavender, primroses, cyclamen, they are just a few of the common flowers that are bee-friendly.
I have to confess that not mowing your lawn so often is one piece of advice that I have already been following!

Fifthly – we are making sure bees have a future in urban as well as rural areas. Bristol, which will be European Green Capital 2015, is establishing three new wildflower meadows on public land as part of its pollinator strategy and volunteers will plant bee-friendly native flowers across the city.

And here in London, we are upping the ante, by installing our own hives on the roof of Defra Headquarters on Smith Square. They arrived earlier this week, complete with bees.

This pollinator strategy shows three important things.

  • It’s about how the environment is inseparable from the economy.
  • The importance of building up our world-leading science.
  • And it’s about things that directly affect the quality of our lives, the food we eat and the beauty we see.

The natural environment is intrinsically valuable. But improving it should not be about being ticked off and putting on a hair shirt. It is about what we love and it is something we can actually enjoy improving.

As we become an increasingly advanced economy that relies on knowledge and technology, our connection with nature will become more and not less important.

A healthy economy and a healthy environment go in hand in hand in securing Britain’s future.

Published 4 November 2014