BY BEN EAGLE
I admit it, I’m a Gove convert. However, when he was appointed to his role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the Cabinet reshuffle of June last year I took a big gulp and expected the worst. I was highly sceptical, looking back on his history in the Department for Education and his status as a Leave leader in the Brexit referendum. For most votes relating to climate change measures he has been absent and he also voted in favour of selling off England’s public forest estate back in 2011. Although, after a string of disappointing ministers, including Leadsom, Truss and Patterson, how much poorer could he really be?
Beyond anyone’s expectations, certainly mine, but probably not his, Michael Gove appears to be a somewhat unexpected best friend to anyone who favours a more radical approach to tackling environmental problems today. He is a man who likes to get on with the job, create a vision and implement it. I may well go back on all of this over the next few years if he fails to deliver but certainly, to date, the words that I am hearing are good and Gove has already taken decisive action, such as the imposition of mandatory CCTV cameras in slaughter houses and banned the sale and export of almost all ivory items in the UK. He has also suggested that future farm subsidies will require far more ‘green action’ on the ground from farmers to safeguard farm wildlife and habitats, definitely a good thing from my point of view so long as it is real action on the ground and not yet more paperwork requirement. It should also consist of more partnership with farmers and Natural England officers helping each other and carrots being offered for good work, rather than harsh words and sticks being waved.
Yes, from my point of view the prospects look good for Defra for the first time in years. Who would have thought it?
We are still a long way from understanding what ‘a green Brexit’ actually looks like, and speculation is never wise, particularly when it comes to politicians, but it could well be that Brexit is a good thing for the environment in the UK. Never did I think I would be writing that! It absolutely depends however on a huge list of what ifs. Earlier this month I attended the Oxford Real Farming Conference, during which several presentations about Brexit took place. From the precautionary principle to the Habitats Directive, there are still many question marks as to how legislation might work after we leave the European Union. Further, in all probability, by the time it actually happens, Michael Gove will have moved far away from Defra before he can actually implement any of the ideas currently coming out of Smith Square. I would like to think he will be in this job for the long haul, but this is politics. So long as we don’t end up with Liz Truss again…
Something I was particularly impressed with last year was Gove’s approach to the rural community in general and he was keen to get out there and listen to a wide spectrum of views, from farming groups to conservation NGOs and people who simply live in the countryside – this was particularly evident when I visited the Royal Welsh Show. It was evident at Oxford last week that, whilst there are clearly some things he still has to learn about, such as what agroforestry really is, he has cut to the heart of what the big challenges and opportunities are for the countryside, farming and the environment and he clearly has a vision for how he wishes the future to look, and for these three to interact. Of course, there will be things that get in the way and I will continue to remind people that there are many risks faced by the environment and by farmers in leaving the European Union. However, on the whole, I have confidence in Gove. It was with a sigh of relief that he didn’t move from his role in the recent reshuffle. For now at least, there is hope.