“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members,” Mahatma Gandhi said. Many will be measuring last week’s mini-Budget through that lens. Perhaps, in this period of climate emergency and biodiversity collapse, we should be expanding the quotation to include vulnerable species of flora and fauna. Recent government announcements have put the UK’s nature (and, owing to migration, the bird, fish, and whale species that traverse the globe) in grave danger.
The evidence is clear. Nature is vital for human flourishing. It provides our food, delivers clean water, produces clean air, improves our mental well-being, and is there when we simply need awe, wonder, and comfort. Our economies are embedded in nature, not external to it. As the 2021 Dasgupta report affirmed, “Our economies and livelihoods also depend upon our most precious asset: Nature.” The report identified that an “unsustainable engagement with Nature is endangering the prosperity of current and future generations”.
The triple set of nature-slashing proposals last week — investment zones, ending EU nature laws, and the possibility of scrapping the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) — threaten to rip up not only the recommendations of the Dasgupta HM Treasury commissioned report, but also our long-established (and fought-for) environmental protections.
The Government’s rhetoric of pitting nature and climate action against investment and growth, and calling internationally agreed environmental protections “burdens”, needs to be challenged urgently.
No wonder the RSPB, the National Trust, and local Wildlife Trusts are up in arms. The RSPB doesn’t usually say, “Make no mistake, we are angry. This Government has today launched an attack on nature.” It is, however, being true to its founding principles in taking up this fight.
The proposed creation of 38 tax-cutting Investment Zones in England to drive growth and unlock housing development will be achieved by making development much easier. The Government’s mantra of “cutting red tape” will simply result in more pollution pouring into our rivers, the extinction of threatened species, the scrubbing up of habitats with rare flora and fauna, and development running roughshod over landscapes that should be treasured. Profit wins over protecting the planet.
The UK helped develop many of the EU nature laws that are now under threat in the new Retained EU Laws Bill. If it becomes an Act, this will see an end to the basic protections, known as Habitats Regulations, that protect 18.8 million hectares of precious landscape, such as the New Forest and the Norfolk Broads. Because of these Regulations, swallowtail butterflies, hazel dormice, and harbour porpoises have a chance of surviving, and millions of people enjoy the well-being benefits of being out in nature.
The Government’s proposals will be challenged in the courts. The recent landmark case brought by the Norfolk Broads landowners Tim and Geli Harris should be a warning. The High Court confirmed that European nature laws remained enforceable post-Brexit, and that the Environment Agency must reduce water abstraction from rare wetland habitats.
Thus, there is hope, but this would cost millions of pounds of charitable money that could be spent on direct conservation measures. It would be far better for the British Government to stand tall on the world stage by showing moral leadership in environmental protection. Wouldn’t that make us proud to be British when we are still looking for our place post-Brexit?
ELMS was a significant post-Brexit proposal to help agriculture meet Net Zero and restore nature, besides supporting the UK’s agreed targets under the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity. It promised to deliver public goods from public money. Nature, water, and soil would have all been enhanced. It was a scheme based on the science and solid public policy. The Government’s own 2021 Food Security Report is clear: ‘‘The biggest medium to long term risk to the UK’s domestic production comes from climate change and other environmental pressures like soil degradation, water quality and biodiversity.”
If ELMS is scrapped, the Government is not only ignoring its own advice, but it is breaking a clear 2019 manifesto promise. The return to an EU-style land subsidy will do nothing to bring about large-scale landscape improvements and whole-river restoration; nor will it reverse the decline in nature, as a result of which one in ten species is on the brink of extinction in England. To secure a sustainable future for UK food and farming, we need more nature, not less.
There are plenty of examples where nature and farming can exist in a healthy relationship for the benefit of all. It isn’t either/or. Jake Fiennes’s recent book, Land Healer: How farming can save Britain’s countryside (BBC Books), demonstrates the evidence from the Holkham Estate in Norfolk, where healthy soil and hedgerows, field edges with nectar plants, minimal tillage, and continuous crop cover, have led to significantly improved biodiversity in just a few years.
The Government’s recklessness with nature is a travesty. The Government fails to understand that healthy nature underpins a healthy society and a healthy economy. The proposals must be resisted. Now is the time for us to be the voice to protect God’s creation.
The Rt Revd Graham Usher is the Bishop of Norwich and the Church of England’s lead bishop for the environment.
This article was published by The Church Times and is reproduced with permission. You can view it here.