Welcome to Defra and thanks very much for coming.
My parents instilled in me from an early age a passion for the environment.
They practised what they preached. Ours was a recycling, jumpers-not-heating type of family. My parents carried their shopping in cloth bags and went around on bicycles long before it was fashionable.
They only gave in and got our first family car when I was age seven and it was a Vauxhall Chevette—my brother nicknamed it the Courgette.
My parents are avid walkers and I spent many happy hours lost on the moors around Loch Lomond, although sometimes it didn’t seem like that at the time, but also getting stuck in various bogs in the Lake District.
But what I did do is I grew up believing that we can live well while at the same time always striving to take care of our resources and the world around us better.
And I think over the past few decades we’ve really seen an awakening in Britain that has now rippled around the world.
We’ve seen major international successes in tackling acid rain, against the illegal wildlife trade and against CFCs, which was spearheaded by Margaret Thatcher–and of course, we’ve seen huge progress in understanding greenhouse gases.
It has never been straightforward, but we have gradually learnt more and more about the environment and how we can help it to thrive.
We’ve stopped paying landowners to drain wetlands or grub up orchards and hedges. We control pesticide use much better than we used to.
We have cut air pollution and carbon dioxide and we’ve cleaned up our beaches and rivers.
That progress has all come with Britain still growing faster than any other major economy for two years running.
I think what we have the opportunity to do here today and over the next year is to move forward and to build a new approach for the decades ahead that will continue to improve our environment.
As the Chinese proverb says, “the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago – the next-best time is today”.
So over the next 12 months, with your help, we’ll be developing this approach that will focus on continuous improvement. And for me, this plan is not something that we are simply going to write, publish and put away in a cupboard. Like the environment, it will be a living thing—because we will always be learning.
I want us to move away from the jumble of contradictory targets and controls towards harnessing the British passion for nature and giving people the tools to achieve improvements themselves.
We are calling this approach Open Environment—and this is the hashtag which you can use about what’s happening today.
In today’s sessions you will be hearing ideas and discussing them with some of our leading pioneers in the environment. You’ll hear from Kathy Willis of Kew, one of the jewels in Defra’s crown, and I’m not sure if I’m talking about Kathy or Kew or maybe both of them, but she will be talking about the power of data.
We’ll hear from Arlin Rickard of the Rivers Trust and Martin Collison who I’ve imported from Norfolk but who also I believe taught George Eustice in Cornwall, so he’s been around the country, that’s for sure. He is going to be talking about working in partnerships.
And we have Poul Hovesen, last year’s Farmer of the Year, from the Holkham estate, on how he brings together the best environmental management with world-class farming.
Using Defra better
I am tremendously proud of the work done by dozens of Defra organisations from Kew Gardens to the Forestry Commission and the Marine Management Organisation.
The Environment Agency defends us from floods and improves rivers, achieving successes like the return of the lamprey to the Derwent in Yorkshire.
And Natural England works with over 40,000 farmers to bring system-level improvements to the health of the countryside.
But I don’t think we’re not yet getting the best out of our organisations. Currently, for example, each of those organisations has its own HR department.
They have some of the best environmental experts in the world—scientists, engineers and conservationists. I want to get to a position where we’re concentrating our resources on those front-line experts, not on duplicating functions between different parts of Defra.
We will in future work towards a shared purpose rather than follow separate or isolated strategies. And our 25-year plan for food and farming will be coordinated closely with these shared goals.
We’re also going to become smarter regulators by enabling decisions to be made at the most local level possible and by simplifying the rules so people understand them better—cutting confusion, not cutting corners.
And because nature doesn’t come in silos, I want us to be making more integrated decisions at the levels of catchments and landscapes, not single species or natural features.
Better use of voluntary organisations and citizen science
Love of nature has incredibly deep roots in British culture—you only have to look at the number and strength of our voluntary organisations.
The National Trust and the RSPB count their membership in millions—and of course they are represented here today. But there are so many other organisations. There are networks like the 47 local Wildlife Trusts and thousands of smaller groups like [Froglife], whose volunteer patrols help toads cross the road.
But we often see that the link with nature is becoming frayed, so we need to embed it for the future. That’s why my ambition is for the generation growing up now to be better connected to nature than ours is.
And the Response for Nature report launched yesterday underlined the vital importance of linking children to the natural world.
Our rigorous new national curriculum means children are learning about where food comes from and being instructed with a solid foundation of knowledge about trees and animals.
It’s great that Aldi are teaming up with the RSPB and giving £2m a year from the new plastic bag charge for programmes to enthuse children about nature.
We are unleashing the people power of Britain’s army of citizen scientists. We don’t always have to send out professionals to gather the latest data on the environment–we can make use of people’s enthusiasm.
The Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum are showing how this can be done, training citizen scientists in rigorous ways of observing nature and gathering samples so they can feed the museum’s own research.
Better use of data and technology
Better use of data and technology is going to power future improvement.
We can already see things like precision farming cutting both pollution and costs for farmers –more than a fifth now have computer-controlled fertiliser spreaders.
Technology is going to help us with every aspect of the environment. Natural England now DNA-test water to detect the presence of great-crested newts more accurately and efficiently than ever before.
And today Professor Kate Jones will explain how she tracks bats through mobile phone apps.
Technology will enable us to leapfrog environmental challenges and power new industries. If we seize the opportunity of electric cars, we can put Britain at the forefront of a high-tech industry of the future. In Norway, almost a quarter of new cars are already electric.
In government, we are not nearly as linked to the outside world as we should be. We are still at Defra grappling with the antiquated IT and not yet exploiting our wealth of data to the full.
That will change. The treasure trove of 8,000 datasets we’ll open up by next summer includes at least 2,000 on the natural environment, which I think will be hugely helpful to all of the people in this room, but also for us in developing our plan.
We’re whetting people’s appetites with events like a six-month challenge series on water, using Defra data in conjunction with the Environment Agency and Geovation – who are the innovation team at Ordnance Survey.
We want to equip people and businesses to exploit data in their decision-making and enable developers to design powerful new applications.
And once we have a much more data-led, interlinked Defra, we can drive positive change outwards, developing new tools and incentives.
We are learning to understand and quantify the benefits we get from nature, to treat rivers, trees and bees as national assets just as much as infrastructure like the M25, Manchester Airport or the Forth Rail Bridge.
The Natural Capital Committee has made us a world pioneer in this area, giving us the tools to value nature systematically for all the benefits it gives us. For example, by quantifying what trees do to provide enjoyment for people, filter pollution and store carbon, we can see that they are worth at least 15 times their value as timber.
And Britain’s overall stock of natural capital is estimated at £1.6 trillion.
In this parliament, I’ll be asking the NCC to move into a new phase of its work, turning to the practicalities of how people can value nature fully when they are making decisions on the ground.
I want to embed this approach in the DNA of every decision we make –from a business planning a new housing development to deciding what we plant in our gardens or what furniture we buy.
In the age of Airbnb and Uber, people are able to take decisions in real time, underpinned by vast amounts of data. Applying this to the availability of natural resources, we could transform the environment by enabling individuals rather than governments to take those decisions.
I don’t underestimate the scale of the action we must take to secure our future.
Our air needs to be even cleaner. We are currently asking for people’s views on our proposals for local action.
This will mean measures in cities like London, Birmingham and Leeds– introducing low-emission buses and taxis for example.
We need to do more to prevent and cut waste, and reduce the pollution in rivers from thousands of smaller scale sources like farm run-off.
We need to address the decline of bird species, taking lessons where we can from success stories like the stone curlew and the cirl bunting.
And we will be planting plant 11m trees this parliament. We’ll complete the network of Marine Conservation Zones around the coast and with local support, we’ll create a Blue Belt surrounding our overseas territories.
And we are preparing Britain to adapt to the challenge of climate change.
My ambition is for Britain to have the best natural environment anywhere – and to be the healthiest and the most beautiful place in the world to live, to work and to bring up a family.
I firmly believe that every part of our natural environment from our coasts to our marine life, to our great landscapes and urban parks is a vital part of the success of our country.
If we put them at risk, we won’t just be losing out in the global race, we’ll be losing part of who we are.
To be the best, we need to be measuring ourselves not just against UK and European standards, but against all leading countries.
I’ve invited you here today because I want you to help us work out how we can achieve ourthese goals. I see this as the starting point of a very exciting year ahead as we develop this approach together. Thank you very much.