Defra ‘stakeholders’ were summoned at short notice to the majestic Nash Conservatory in Kew Gardens to hear a speech from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove: If not now, when?
It was ironic, or perhaps intentional, that a speech which was largely about the climate crisis should be held in a very hot building, with fans making a brave but futile attempt to keep it cool (and were they powered by renewable energy?).
Mr Gove’s lengthy speech (which was difficult to hear as the acoustics were poor) reviewed government action since the publication of the 25-year environment plan, and he made some useful pledges—though there is no guarantee that a new secretary of state would adhere to them, despite his fervent words that the next prime minister will do the right thing for the environment:
I am greatly encouraged that both candidates to be our next prime minister have made clear they will not dilute our environmental ambitions—indeed they would seek to raise it where possible…
It has been a pleasure for me to serve alongside both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt in Theresa May’s government and I know both care deeply about our environment. … I know that both would be great prime ministers and I want to affirm today that we can trust them both to do the right thing on every critical issue facing us all—and of course, most critically the environment.
His words on the Environment bill were encouraging, it must hold this and future governments to account, with an independent watchdog. There will be ‘a new framework of Local Nature Recovery Strategies in the Environment Bill, to help support greener communities, bring greater benefits from biodiversity net gain and create wild places that are bigger, better, and crucially, more joined up’. He would like all English public authorities not just to conserve but to enhance nature.
He mentioned the Glover review of designated landscapes:
And Julian Glover’s review of designed landscapes has already uncovered huge potential for these special places to provide more for all of us. I am, in particular, excited by his emerging proposal that the current network of National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and other designated landscapes should benefit from the additional support that could be provided by a single National Landscape Service, focused on promoting wildlife, beauty and access. I look forward to his report being published later this year. (Even as he spoke Julian Glover’s interim findings were being published, with great intentions which must be made into reality.)
But despite some words on the environmental land management schemes (ELMS), Gove did not talk about public access. There was time for questions at the end, and by jumping up from the back and grabbing a microphone, I managed to ask the final question.
No mention of access
I said that the acoustics were difficult but I did not believe he had mentioned public access and enjoyment. Yet they were an important part of the ELMS and were vital for health, well-being and the economy (and, of course, travel by foot, bike and horseback is carbon-friendly). Could he give us an assurance that the government would take public access seriously?
Gove’s response (which I couldn’t really hear) was unsatisfactory, he admitted that he hadn’t spoken about all Defra’s work, and then referred to the Glover Review which only covers a small percentage of our landscape.
There is still much to do to ensure that access, recreation, green spaces and public paths are fully embedded in government’s thinking.