Speech delivered at the House of Commons
Thank you very much to Zac [Goldsmith] and to Elaine [King] for their speeches. I think there is a lot in what you said that we are working on at the moment…and in particular the delivery framework and how we actually get things done and that is something that I do want to work on with everyone in this room and beyond. Because I think the big question is how. I think we do agree on the outcomes, what we want to see. We want to see a sustainable farming industry; we want to see environmental improvements. I think in the past sometimes things have been done in silos, which has meant we haven’t got the bang for our buck in terms of the funding and resources we put in and I think we can do things better. I think we can use data, we can use modern technology and we can use the expertise that we have accumulated and also the expertise of citizens around the country.
I am struck that we have got the BTO here, which, I have to confess, is based in my constituency, and I am extremely proud of them—an organisation which uses citizens to collect data on birds and has some of the most fantastic databases and data in the whole country. How can we use that type of information better to inform what we do, whether it is in farming, whether it is in planning, whether it is with other Government departments - I think we have a massive opportunity.
The public are hugely engaged by this issue. Your groups are supported by eight million people. Judging from my postbag both as an MP and as a minister, there are many more people out there who care passionately about our environment. It is core to our country’s identity; it is core to people’s everyday life, their health, to our economy. And the countries that are successful in the future are going to be those with thriving environments where people want to live and work and be close to nature.
One of the great concerns I have is that we have as a country lost touch with nature, with the countryside, with where our food comes from and one of the things I did as an Education Minister was make sure food was on the school curriculum, and children understanding how it is grown and how it is produced. I also want children to understand nature, understand the countryside, to understand the environment in all its diversity.
Yes, reducing carbon is important, but there are many other aspects to the natural environment and we need to make sure that people understand and are well informed. And we need to give people the information so they can actually contribute to that themselves and we need to empower people, we need people to feel that they can be part of the solution.
Of course Government has to show leadership, but it is not just about Government. It is also about…how can we leverage all those people who are excited and interested in the future. It is, as Zac has commented, also vitally important to our economy. The rural economy is worth £200bn a year. We are seeing growth in all kinds of industries, whether it is IT and consultancy, whether it is food, whether it is tourism. Also our food and drink industry itself is worth £100bn to the economy.
Developing a plan for the environment
We are developing at the moment an approach to the environment, a long-term approach to the environment and what I want to do is I want to make sure everybody is engaged in building that approach in looking at how we do things, whether it is on water, whether it is on land, whether it is air quality. All of those things need to be part of this approach.
I see Andrew Sells is here, the chairman of Natural England. One of the things we are doing at Defra is making sure that Natural England, the Environment Agency and Defra have a joint plan so that we are using our resources to the max and making sure that we use the experts in Natural England and in the Environment Agency not just to get things done on the ground but to help develop our thinking in terms of the way we approach things and the framework.
I also had a meeting with Jonson Cox recently, of Ofwat. Of course they are an independent regulator, but there is an awful lot they can do with the water industry to make sure that when we are developing things like our basin management plans, we are working together on these things. I appreciate this sounds like a lot of Government machinery, but Government machinery is actually really important for getting real value on the ground. And I am spending time seriously thinking about that and sorting that out.
I can assure everyone that the invitations will shortly be going out for our first engagement event on the environment plan when we will really scope out the framework, but it is not to set expectations of a finished document. I have not created a blueprint for 25 years sitting in my office in Whitehall because I don’t think we can do that.
I think inevitably it is going to be setting out an approach which we can work on together. It will be incremental. Last year, we launched the National Pollinator Strategy. Zac has rightly mentioned that they are valued at £430m to our economy. I personally think they are a lot more important than that. I am pleased to say that pollinators are now thriving on the Defra roof after we installed our pollinator-friendly garden and new bee hive up there. That is an illustration on pollinators, there is still a lot more research we need to do. We know that loss of habitats is part of the problem but we still don’t know a lot of the science and we need to work on that.
So our blueprint is essentially going to be incremental, but what I hope it will provide is a framework that we will work within and make sure we are maximising our efforts in really achieving those outcomes. Our ambition is for the UK to have a fantastic environment combined with a sustainable economy that works for everyone and that is what I am committed to working with you on. So that is NGOs, farmers, anyone who owns or manages land, utilities, scientists, businesses, local authorities, and most importantly the people of this country and I think people do really have an excitement about the environment. I think sometimes things can appear technical and distant. What I want to make them is real and clear about how people can get involved in improving their own environment and how they understand the impact that they have on the environment and how those two things interact.
Data and technology
I think we have got a huge opportunity to use data and technology to empower people and communities. Last week I visited Holkham, which is a fantastic microcosm of the natural environment. They have an amazing nature reserve there and I was talking about how birds’ nests can be monitored using LIDAR data so they can monitor how birds are developing in the nests rather than necessarily going out to disturb them.
So I think there are huge opportunities in terms of data and technology in terms of wildlife management. I also met Poul Hovesen, who some of you may know, who is on the same estate where Coke of Norfolk invented crop rotation.
He now pursues a seven-crop rotation over seven years. He has managed to reduce the levels of things like black grass through natural processes, and I think there are some really exciting developments we can learn from there as well.
What we want to do is open up the data the department has. We are committed to opening up 8,000 sets of data altogether, 2,000 of those are on the natural environment. It is under-used at the moment. It is either unavailable or shared only with a few select users and it is not just data on land. We have some fantastic marine data that can help us do things like tracking illegal fishing. We are looking at marine species as well. I also think technology has a huge role to play in farming as well. We are seeing the development of precision farming which means less wasted chemicals, it means saving farmers money and making our industry more competitive and cutting pollution.
Of course today’s subject is water and water is central to this effort. It is impossible for nature to thrive without us securing clean, healthy and plentiful water. It is vital for our wellbeing, for farming, for fishing, for tourism, for power generation, for industries in the cities and the countryside. They all depend on good water management. Now we have made some progress. Beaches and rivers are cleaner than at any time [since] before the industrial revolution.
In the early 1990s, just 28% of bathing water met the highest standards. Last year it was nearly 80% and we know the standards are being raised and we need to work to meet those even tougher standards. We have improved more than 10,000 miles of river since 2010, which is more than the Amazon and Nile combined. And water company investment of £3.5bn in the same period has brought improvements to a further 2,000 miles and dozens of bathing waters.
This means we are seeing species return so the endangered lamprey is returning to rivers it has not been in for more than 100 years like the Derwent in Yorkshire thanks to work by the Environment Agency. We also see fantastic work by bodies like the Norfolk Rivers Trust, improving chalk streams like the Nar in my constituency. So we are seeing improvements taking place.
Nearly three quarters of our land is farmland so what farmers do affects every river system and lake. We are seeing less use of chemicals and more efficient irrigation. They spread nearly a third less nitrogen and less than half the phosphate they did 30 years ago.
But I do recognise there is still a long time to go to improve the health of our water and particularly our rivers. We have to be constantly alert to the pressures on nature as our population and demand for food increase. In London, to meet the needs of a growing capital, work starts next year on the privately financed, Government supported £4.2bn Thames Tideway tunnel.
It is unacceptable that last year 62m tonnes of sewage overflowed into the Thames, at the heart of one of the world’s great cities. The tunnel and other upgrades coming into operation this year will virtually eliminate this menace.
We will always need to be vigilant about the risk of large-scale pollution and we must focus on the thousands of smaller scale threats like run-off from individual farms and other businesses.
We are supporting farmers to manage their use of water and how they get it in ways that make sense for their businesses and for nature.
Natural England work with 17,000 farmers on catchment sensitive farming with valuable help from voluntary groups, significantly reducing the amount of sediment accumulating in river beds and we will soon be announcing detailed plans for working with farmers to bear down further on runoff into streams and rivers. I am hoping to announce that very shortly. I know people in this room are waiting for that.
We have also offered nearly 1,500 water capital grants under our new Countryside Stewardship Scheme with farmers providing match funding.
These will cut pollution by separating clean and dirty water, fencing off streams and roofing over silage and manure stores. This work will improve productivity and help protect precious soils and waters.
Of course it is vital that farmers, water companies and others get the water they need so they can power economic growth while reducing harm to the environment.
We know that the abstraction system is very out of date. The rules are 50 years old and we need to modernise it. We are working on reforms at the moment and our reforms will improve the state of our waters while securing resilient supplies for the long term.
I want a far more flexible system that is fair for all users and one that is better at allowing more water to be taken while the flow is plentiful but less when it is scarce.
Ahead of these reforms the Environment Agency has already restored river levels along more than 600 miles of river and is improving abstraction licences in the highest risk places.
We will also be publishing plans for extending the licensing system to businesses that are currently exempt like many quarries.
Volunteers, businesses and people - everyone is playing a part in ensuring a healthy environment where they live.
Catchment partnerships led by Rivers Trusts, Wildlife Trusts and others are taking the lead in managing waterways, for example by restoring peatlands to improve water quality downstream and improving urban waterways.
Local organisations are taking increasing responsibility for flood management like the King’s Lynn Drainage Consortium in Norfolk.
Volunteers, the citizen scientists I was talking about earlier, are carrying out species surveys and planting trees.
We have made advances in securing a cleaner, healthier natural environment. But we are only part of the way there.
And over the next few months I look forward to working with you to find new solutions to improve what we are doing, to do what we are doing at the moment better. And I think there are ways we can do it better. And on building a truly integrated approach to the environment that will benefit us all.