Thank you inviting me here today. I am very pleased to have been asked recently to take on the ministerial portfolio for the natural environment. This is an incredibly important and interesting area of work and one which touches all our lives.
Speaking personally, I am delighted to have this responsibility. I am passionate about trees and wildlife – tree health has been in my portfolio since a year ago and I have thrown myself into it enthusiastically, working extensively, for example, on the Chalara Management Plan.
Our environment and wildlife are important for many reasons. They are loved by us for their intrinsic value and, of course, nature is also important because of the huge range of benefits and services which it provides. For example, helping clean our water and air, providing us with food, and contributing to our wellbeing.
Ground breaking work such as the National Ecosystem Assessment and the State of Nature report are helping us to understand the wider value of nature and the scale of the collective challenge better.
Some will say that there is a conflict between some of Defra’s responsibilities and the growth agenda. But growing the economy and improving the environment are not mutually exclusive. In many cases the two can, and do, go hand in hand because a flourishing environment is essential to our future survival and prosperity. And because we need the resources provided by the economy to be able to invest in the natural world.
To reinforce this connection, we set up the business-led Ecosystem Markets Task Force to examine opportunities for UK business from expanding green goods, services, and markets which value and protect the natural environment. And follow-up work is now underway for example looking at the potential for biodiversity offsetting and incorporating natural capital into business decision-making.
We also set up the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) which reports directly to the Economic Affairs Committee chaired by the Chancellor, in order to help us improve our understanding of how the state of the natural environment affects the performance of the economy and individual well-being. We have asked the NCC to advise us on how to ensure England’s ‘natural wealth’ is managed efficiently and sustainably, in order to unlock opportunities for sustained prosperity and wellbeing.
The NCC’s first State of Natural Capital report set out a framework for their future work and we are now looking forward to their second, which will build on this initial framework and provide details on which assets are at risk. This second report is due to be published early next year.
Turning to Nature Check, I want to start by saying I strongly welcome the engagement of Link members and others in the environmental agenda. While I don’t agree with every element of Link’s analysis in the Nature Check report, I do think it is important the organisations represented by Link are engaging constructively in a dialogue with government.
It was good to see recognition in the report of some of government’s achievements. For example, the leading role played by the UK in securing a historic deal on reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), expected to come into force in January.
The deal, which will benefit fishermen across the UK, includes provisions: progressively to eliminate discards, decentralise decision making away from Brussels, and to fish more sustainably, with legally binding requirements to set fishing rates at sustainable levels. But there are other areas of the report where the Government clearly takes a different perspective, and some where we frankly disagree with the report’s analysis.
This is certainly true in the comments on leadership. The truth is that this Government has shown, and continues to show, considerable commitment and leadership on the natural environment agenda. This is demonstrated by our bringing forward the first White Paper on the natural environment in 20 years, and our accompanying Biodiversity strategy for England. The White Paper is the cornerstone of our approach to the natural environment, and we remain committed to this.
In the White Paper, we set ourselves really challenging and ambitious goals. This established a huge programme of work and we are making good progress on a wide front.
There are some 92 commitments in the White Paper; we have now completed 54 of these. These include actions from the competition to award funding to twelve Nature Improvement Areas, insisting upon maintaining the international moratorium on whaling, through to action supporting Payment for Ecosystem Services schemes.
We have provided regular update reports on this on our website and have published a consolidated report online on the state of play on implementation of these commitments.
Secondly, only recently we’ve set out very ambitious proposals for spending on the natural environment in the CAP consultation document agreed across Government, pushing for the use of the maximum permitted level of transfer from subsidy through Direct Payments to the Rural Development Programme budget.
Our objective is to ensure resources continue to be available for agri-environment programmes, which will remain the most significant Government policy to support environmental protection and improvement across the farmed landscape.
Thirdly, we expect to make an announcement shortly on designating the first tranche of Marine Conservation Zones and our plans for further designations.
In all these cases, this progress has required collective agreement from across Government and it is why we simply reject the assertion that there is a lack of joined up leadership across Government.
Specifically on the England Biodiversity Strategy, we are seeing signs of encouraging progress. This year’s update of the UK and England biodiversity indicators shows, for example, increases in the extent of protected areas, on land and at sea, and in the area of farmed-land, managed under environmental schemes such as Environmental Stewardship. Nature Improvement Areas are already starting to deliver on the ground – for example 350ha of habitat restored in North Devon.
I acknowledge that some aspects of the strategy’s objectives are indeed challenging – that was always the intention. It was also always the intention that it be an England strategy, not solely a government one, so there is a challenge to Link members here too. The contribution that you and your supporters can make to protecting and enhancing our biodiversity, for example, creating and restoring habitats, is critical and I would ask you to work with us.
The report also highlights the role and funding of our Statutory Nature Conservation Bodies. I’ll focus on Natural England as the key public body in this area. Let me assure you that I consider the role of NE, to be more important and challenging than ever.
I also believe that NE is now much closer to and better engaged in supporting policy development. We rely on its expertise and advice to help support central government to develop effective, robust and deliverable policies. Our experience over the last few years has shown how effectively we can work together to develop good policies, for example, the England biodiversity strategy.
This ‘inside track’ is a far better and more influential way of working than spending our valuable public resources on lobbying or independent competing policy making.
Of course, we are all facing challenging financial times. There is no escaping the reality that public bodies must accept their share of the financial squeeze. As a nation we are currently servicing a huge public debt, with annual interest payments alone amounting to £45bn, or 20 times Defra’s total annual budget. In the case of Natural England they have worked hard to achieve efficiencies and protect front line delivery. We have had to make tough choices but we must ensure funding is focussed on delivering our top priorities.
So it is vital that our public bodies work effectively. This was the backdrop to our work over the last year reviewing Defra’s key public bodies - looking at their roles and functions and considering whether they were fit for purpose. The Joint Triennial Review of NE and EA looked at these important bodies in detail – and many of you contributed your thoughts to the exercise helping to shape the conclusions.
NE is now working with the EA to develop their ambitious Triennial Review Action Plan. This will map out new ways-of-working in key areas and drive transformational improvements to the customer experience and the way the bodies will work. It will be published before Christmas and set out the measures-being-taken to ensure a resilient and successful future for the two bodies.
The Plan will allow them to fulfil the ambitions we have for them - and for the natural environment. I hope you will work with NE supporting them in delivering their Action Plan.
NE must continue to perform as effectively and as efficiently as possible, so that it maximises the contribution it makes – focussing its efforts - and funding - on the most important priorities. This will require NE to consider the implications of its activities on growth, but will not override its specific statutory duties.
Let me reassure you that the proposed Growth Duty, which the Nature Check report mentions in somewhat alarmist terms, will not change or dilute NE’s current role. It will not, for example, override NE’s general purpose as set out in the founding legislation or its existing statutory obligations but will encourage it to consider the implications of its decisions on growth. It is vital that NE continues to carry out its statutory and advisory functions with scientific integrity and impartiality. The duty will help support growth without weakening environmental protection.
On enforcing rules and regulations, Defra and its delivery bodies are committed to fair and proportionate enforcement of the regulations for which we are responsible, operating in line with the Regulators Code. Interventions are risk based, supporting generally compliant businesses and targeting serious and persistent offenders.
It is simply wrong to characterise this approach as “removing regulation…because it is not convenient for business interests”. Let me give you an example.
The work following up on the Habitats and Birds Directive Implementation Review will continue to ensure that developments comply with the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives – we simply want to ensure compliance does not lead to unnecessary costs and delays to development. We have set up the Major Infrastructure and Environment Unit to help developers plan to meet their Habitats responsibilities in a timely and effective way.
We are also simplifying wildlife guidance to make it clearer and easier to understand. We are not changing wildlife protection law or policy, but you can’t comply with something you can’t understand. There are currently over 400 user-facing guidance documents on wildlife totalling over 6000 pages and Defra will simplify this existing guidance and reduce its volume by 85%.
On nitrates, the Environment Agency and the Rural Payments Agency are sharpening up their enforcement activity and have recently published a policy statement to make this clear to farmers.
I’ve focussed mainly on what government is doing. Before I finish, I also want to acknowledge the hugely important role played by others – including Link members - in delivering our broadly shared environmental objectives. Historically civil society has led the way on many aspects of Defra’s agenda. Its practical contribution continues to be vitally important.
I am very well aware that your organisations have great expertise and passion for the environment. In many cases, you understand local issues and people trust you to take action. You have a vital role to play and are potentially the most powerful ally we have to deliver growth while improving the environment.
It is crucial that we continue to work together on both policy and delivery, to find better ways of doing things, to add value to each other’s efforts and to support each other where we have common interests.
While I recognise that there are areas where we disagree there are also a number of areas where we are in agreement. I am pleased to see recognition, for example, of our work to protect endangered animals, our continuing opposition to commercial whaling, the historic reform of the Common Fisheries Policy reform as well as taking forward the findings of the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce.
I look forward to working with you and your organisations on my new ministerial portfolio.