The countryside is my home, my job and my life. That’s why it’s such a privilege to have been asked to take on the role of Defra Secretary and why I am delighted to be here today at the launch of your annual Nature Check report. In my short time in the post, I have been impressed by your collective and individual energy; your commitment to our wildlife and countryside. I too feel a strong personal connection to this agenda.
Upon my appointment, the Prime Minister gave me clear instructions on what he wants me and my ministerial team to do. That is to boost growth in the rural economy whilst continuing to improve our environment.
The two are not mutually exclusive. That is why we are firmly committed to delivering on the commitments in the Natural Environmental White Paper - the first White Paper on the environment for 20 years - and the Biodiversity Strategy for England, which aims to halt overall loss of England’s biodiversity by 2020.
We recognise that a healthy natural environment is the foundation of sustained economic growth, prospering communities and personal wellbeing, we recognise the need for us all to put the value of nature at the heart of our decision-making and we set out a host of commitments to take action, and we set ourselves the challenge to be the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than we inherited it.
These considerations will be of particular relevance as I seek to radically reprioritise Defra and its work, so that the Department has a laser-like focus on growing our economy, improving the environment and controlling animal and plant diseases.
We now better understand the wider value of nature. We recognise it is critically important to our economic prosperity and our well-being. The UK National Ecosystem Assessment gives us the evidence base. It also shows that many of the benefits we get from nature are vulnerable or declining. Tackling this is a challenge for us all. Government cannot succeed alone.
I would like to stress how much we value the huge contribution you, your organisations and your members make. One example of the enormous potential of a partnership approach is the joint RSPB/Crossrail project at Wallasea Island in Essex. On a recent visit I saw how this innovative partnership will improve both the environment and the economy.
4.5 million tonnes of soil from the excavations for Crossrail will be transported by rail and boat to build the biggest man-made nature reserve in Europe. The project will help restore a large part of the Essex coastline whilst mitigating against future flooding. It will also provide 1,500 acres of valuable wetland habitat and breeding grounds for fish which will help support our fisheries. This new habitat is not only expected to attract tens of thousands of migratory birds a year but up to 100,000 visitors.
The Wallasea Island scheme shows how investment in our natural capital can provide real economic benefits for years to come; how industry and environment groups can work together. It also demonstrates how we should not be afraid of major infrastructure projects that can boost the economy and the environment.
What is increasingly clear is that we need to avoid growth that erodes our natural capital and encourage growth which conserves or enhances our natural assets, ensuring that our ability to grow in the future is not undermined. Growing the economy and improving the environment go hand in hand because a healthy environment is essential to our future prosperity.
I also remain convinced that we can only improve the environment if we have a growing, prosperous economy. In China and a host of other countries, where per capita income is increasing as a result of continuous economic growth, people are taking an interest in their environment for the first time, resulting in more trees being planted.
I challenge you to come up with similar partnerships: imaginative thinking will see our economy, environment and wildlife thrive. It’s this kind of innovation that has been recognised this morning by our announcement that the South Pennine Watershed Landscape Project is the winner of the prestigious UK Landscape Award.
Today’s Nature Check report gives the Wildlife and Countryside Link’s perspective on the Government’s progress over the past year on its environmental commitments. As we continue to work together, it’s important for us to understand what we’re trying to achieve and for us to know your views.
You may not, however, be entirely surprised to hear that there are some areas covered by the report where we would dispute its conclusions. In places, the report very much seems to come from a ‘glass half empty’, rather than a ‘glass half full’ perspective. I would argue that this is particularly the case when you consider that the 16 indicators monitored last year have all moved in a positive direction.
Turning to specifics, our new National Planning Policy Framework, put in place earlier this year, fulfils central government’s actions on four of the commitments and represents a strong outcome for nature and biodiversity.
On CAP, I, like you, am determined to make the case for reform. That was and is our commitment. Let no one be in any doubt that my predecessors and I have been making the case in Europe, pushing for a greener CAP that moves towards a system where farmers are paid for producing environmental public goods, not subsidised for their food production. I will be heading to Brussels first thing tomorrow for the next round of discussions, where I will continue to make the case for reform in the strongest possible terms.
Looking at the ‘red’ rated areas, there are some points I would like to clarify. For example, the report’s conclusion on wild animals in circuses. The new Regulations we are putting in place will provide improved welfare protection from January 2013 until primary legislation can be enacted. The Regulations would be superseded by a ban and it is not accurate as the report suggests that they push this back for years and years. Seven years is the standard length of any Regulation laid before Parliament and bears no relation to the timeframe for enactment.
With regard to the Pitt Review, we are committed to the implementation of its recommendations by the end of 2014. Back in January, we reported that the vast majority of the recommendations have been met or are being implemented. This includes successfully running Exercise Watermark, the largest civil flood preparedness exercise ever to take place in England and Wales. Only this week, more than 50,000 properties have been protected by recently-built flood defences.
The Government’s marine agenda is given a mixed rating of red, amber and green which I think fails to reflect the ambition and scale of what we are doing. As well as leading internationally on the protection of whales, we have made the running on shark conservation with strong support from the Shark Trust.
Within the EU we have been a key player in securing provisional Council agreement to a more radical reform of the Common Fisheries Policy than many thought possible, with major commitments on ending discards and more sustainable management of fish stocks. As I first outlined in my Fisheries Green Paper in 2005, it is vital that we adopt an approach to our fisheries that acknowledges the multiple uses and benefits they provide; which improves the marine environment as a whole.
At home we are pressing ahead with pioneering work on marine plans. We have this year put forward a further set of marine sites under the Habitats Directive, including the biggest in Europe at Hatton Bank. We are also carrying through the commitment we made last November to consult on a suite of new Marine Conservation Zones around England based on sound evidence. And I make no apology for taking the time to get these right so that the first of the new sites can be designated next year.
Since the White Paper and the England Biodiversity Strategy were published in 2011 we have collectively been making good progress. We have established the Natural Capital Committee to advise us on how our natural assets contribute to economic growth and where we are using these assets unsustainably. I was pleased to see Elaine and others at its launch last night and look forward to discussing its work further.
The NCC is preparing its first annual State of Natural Capital report which will work towards an overarching view of our natural assets; a view that will enable us to build these assets into our national accounts, both public and corporate. The first report will be presented to the Chancellor and the Economic Affairs Committee in Spring 2013.
We have also established the Ecosystems Market Task Force - a business-led group whose work will not only strengthen the case that economic growth depends on a healthy natural environment and vice versa but also identify real, practical business opportunities that stem from valuing nature correctly.
England’s first twelve Nature Improvement Areas are beginning activity across hundreds of thousands of acres. These locally-led projects have a share of £7.5 million to restore habitat which will benefit wildlife and encourage more local people to engage with nature.
This relatively modest investment by Government has already attracted over £40million of additional resources from cash contributions, gifts in kind and voluntary support.
One example, in my part of the world, is the Meres and Mosses landscape partnership project. This area is a beautiful, wildlife-rich environment - the largest cluster of natural wetlands in lowland England. It is inspiring to hear how government bodies, environmental groups, farmers and others are all working together. This is good news for wildlife and good news for people.
We want to see the Nature Improvement Area approach rolled out more widely and taken forward locally - wherever the opportunities and the benefits are greatest.
I know that a lot of Link members will be involved with the 48 Local Nature Partnerships we have recently recognised. These provide a framework to work with other local partners, pooling knowledge and taking a strategic view of the local area. LNPs will be a powerful force to drive improvements in the local environment and, working with Local Enterprise Partnerships, the local economy.
This is a good start but I acknowledge more needs to be done.
Internationally, we are playing our part too, on issues such as ivory sales and whaling, as the report rightly recognises. We will continue to press for strong international action on the illegal trade in wildlife, with next March’s meeting in Thailand of the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species a crucial opportunity.
I’m pleased with the success of the recent global Conference on Biological Diversity in Hyderabad. The agreement reached there is a major milestone in this global effort - the world agreed to double by 2015 the total resources available from all sources for tackling biodiversity losses - and then sustain that level of funding. The UK played a leading part in helping secure that agreement.
Irrespective of whether I agree with all of the conclusions of the 2012 Nature Check report, the report has an important role to play in the continuing debate on how we best conserve and enhance the natural environment.
While there will always be issues on which we may not agree on every detail, I do believe that we have a large number of shared objectives and aspirations. It is crucial that we continue to work together, to find better ways of doing things, to add value to each other’s efforts and to support each other in this shared agenda.
A shared agenda which seeks to improve the environment, and all it supports, for generations to come. This is what I look forward to working with you to achieve.