On 21 July, the day after parliament closed for the summer, the environment secretary Michael Gove gave a surprisingly good speech. He was addressing ‘stakeholders’ at the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Centre in Woking, Surrey.
He started by quoting Philip Larkin (Going, Going). He said that in the 45 years since that was written we had lost much of our natural world, here and across the globe, and that we need to take the right environmental action to curtail this loss. He spoke glowingly of environmental organisations (though only mentioned the big ones), and praised their ‘campaigning energy and idealism’.
He recognised the importance of the uplands and mentioned how he grew up ‘between the North Sea and the Cairngorms, spending weekends in the hills and weekdays with my head in Wordsworth and Hardy, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Edward Thomas’ and he avowed ‘an emotional attachment to natural beauty’.
He said that our departure from the European Union gives us a historic opportunity to review our policies on agriculture, land use, biodiversity, woodland etc—he made a long list. He wants to ensure that the £3 billion currently paid to farmers will provide environmental benefits. But here’s the rub: astonishingly he didn’t mention recreation and access in his speech. Yet public benefit must include public enjoyment and utility, and a significant proportion of that £3 billion should be invested in more paths, more freedom to roam and better-quality access where people will benefit most—close to their homes.
We have to hope that this speech wasn’t just end-of-term high spirits and that Michael Gove has opened the door to discussions on how we can ensure that public money really does provide more and better public access. The user groups will campaign to secure this.