Sam Hall: Brexit is bringing benefits to the environment. As will regulatory reform – if done well.

26 May

Sam Hall is Director of the Conservative Environment Network.

With inflation rising steeply, the Government is urgently seeking ways to ease the soaring cost of living. Increasing direct financial support for households struggling with rising energy bills will be essential. Another component of the Government’s response will be regulatory reform, which could cut costs for businesses, lowering consumer prices without adding to the deficit.

Regulatory reform needn’t come at the expense of the government’s environmental goals. In fact, outside the EU, there are numerous opportunities to improve regulation while delivering better outcomes for the environment. In particular, there is potential to simplify complex and prescriptive EU environmental regulations, moving from a rules-based approach towards a more outcome-based approach.

Supporters of EU membership wrongly assumed that Brexit would be harmful to the environment. On the contrary, we must not be afraid of reforming EU laws, nor insist on preserving them in aspic.

The phaseout of the bloc’s Common Agricultural Policy – now underway – will reduce wasteful, regressive, and environmentally harmful public spending that was forced upon us by the EU. The new farm payments system in England will instead spend taxpayers’ money on buying things the public values, but which the market doesn’t currently deliver, namely environmental benefits like cleaner rivers, while investing in the natural assets that guarantee our food security, such as healthy soils.

The Genetic Technology Bill, also announced in the Queen’s Speech, is another example of environmentally beneficial post-Brexit regulatory reform. Enabling gene-edited crops will help farmers produce more food with fewer biodiversity-harming, climate-warming, and expensive inputs. It’s a win-win for food security and the environment.

A similar approach should be taken with regards to protections for our most significant habitats. Having developed incrementally over decades, the current national and EU-derived habitat designations are confusing and incoherent. This partly explains why a mere 38 per cent of protected habitat is in good condition, alongside poor enforcement.

In a Green Paper published a few months ago, Defra proposed to modernise this system of designations to deliver their target to halt species decline by 2030. Streamlining could have a number of benefits, such as greater understanding among the public and clarity about land management objectives for landowners. But it’s vital the net effect of these reforms is positive for the natural environment.

And to continue confounding the Brexit pessimists, ministers must make sure regulatory reform promised in the Brexit Opportunities Bill enhances rather than damages the environment. Concerningly, a Government source quoted in the Times suggested that this Bill could include a weakening of environmental rules for infrastructure projects.

Without a clear green direction of travel across all these policies, there could be negative political consequences. The local election results were particularly bad for the Conservatives in so-called ‘blue wall’ seats in the South of England. Some recent polling for Unchecked UK shows that there is no majority support for weakening environmental protections in these Conservative heartland areas. Just 18 per cent of voters in the blue wall feel that reducing environmental and animal welfare standards is acceptable in order to secure post-Brexit trade deals, for example.

The polling suggests that environmental policies generally could be a good way to appeal to these voters. Environment is a top three concern in the blue wall and the third most important issue for voters when selecting which party to support, ahead of housing, immigration, and tax. Similarly, half of these voters say they are more likely to vote for the party with the most ambitious environmental plans.

These findings are reinforced by the prominence of green issues during the local election campaign and the impressive performance of the Green Party, which won 35 council seats off the Conservatives.

This dynamic is likely to be repeated in the Tiverton and Honiton by-election on 23rd June. The Liberal Democrats have been campaigning hard on sewage pollution in rivers and exploiting fears among rural communities about high UK environmental standards for food production being undermined by trade deals. They will make the environment central to their attempt to win back parliamentary seats in the South West in 2024.

Retaining blue wall seats in the South of England while consolidating progress in the red wall will be critical to keeping the Conservatives in power beyond 2024. The environment can help in both cases. By marrying strong environmental protections with a big focus on job creation and investment in new clean industries, the party can set itself up for electoral success in 2024.

Andrew Selous: The suggestion voters weren’t consulted on LTNs is wrong. Local elections suggest they approve.

30 Jul

Andrew Selous is MP for South West Bedfordshire and founded the Conservative Friends of Cycling.

One thing that Conservatives – and, through clenched teeth, our opponents – can agree on is that the Prime Minister is good at winning elections, often in quite unpromising circumstances. 

But over one subject, at least, is the PM losing his judgment of the public mood? He is about to announce more measures to boost walking and cycling – including more bike lanes and “low-traffic neighbourhoods” (LTNs), where residential side streets are closed to through motor traffic to prevent rat-running. Cars are not banned from these areas: you can still drive to or from any point, but you might have to take a longer way round.

Some in our party fear the pursuit of these policies will be damaging, saying that the measures already taken during the pandemic, including dozens of new LTNs, have caused “huge…anger across the country,” are devastating local businesses and have been “pushed through…without asking” people.   

Just under three months ago, though, people were asked what they thought – at the local elections where, in dozens of wards, a controversial LTN or cycle lane was the major local issue.

In London, our mayoral candidate, Shaun Bailey, made opposition to bike and walking schemes one of the main planks of his campaign, promising that if he won the election, he would remove them. In Manchester, Oxfordshire, and the North East, local candidates did the same.  

It didn’t work for us. It didn’t win us votes. In Conservative West London, the Bailey campaign did direct mail, leaflets, Facebook videos and personal visits against a new separated cycle track along the Chiswick High Road. Our vote went up in the borough (and in London) as a whole.

But in the three Chiswick wards with the cycle track, we went down by between 10 and 12 per cent. Similar, intensive efforts against LTNs in Ealing again saw the Conservatives underperform in most of the wards concerned, losing one, Ealing Common, that we won in 2016. In Enfield, our vote went up in most of the LTN wards, but by less than the borough average. In Oxfordshire, Manchester, and other places, we flatlined or fell in the LTN wards.  

Of course there were many reasons why this might have happened. I’m not claiming it proves that all cycle schemes work – or that the same approach is right for everywhere. What works for London and other cities might not work the same way for a smaller town. In my own constituency I have been lobbied to complete the cycling green wheel in Leighton Buzzard and to increase safe cycling routes in Dunstable.

But most schemes have been in cities and larger towns. In those places, cycle schemes do make some people angry, but the election results appear to back up something already found by every professional opinion poll – that more people support them.  

Why would this be? Cycling went up by 46 per cent last year, more than in the previous 20 years put together – but it is still not a majority pursuit. I think these schemes attract support because they benefit far more people than simply those who cycle: local residents, pedestrians, and indeed also businesses.

Streets not dominated by cars are more pleasant places to shop; people visit and spend more. Cafes and restaurants that fought to keep parking or motor traffic have discovered that they can make more money by putting tables in that space instead. It is often Conservative councils, such as Westminster and Wandsworth, that have led the way here.   

But if things are better within the LTNs themselves, what about outside them? Don’t they just push more traffic or pollution on to surrounding roads? Surprisingly, perhaps, early monitoring results show that on most, though not all, surrounding roads this does not seem to be happening, once traffic patterns have settled down.

The people living in the LTNs appear to be changing the way they travel – taking fewer short local journeys by car and walking or cycling more. In most cases, though not in every case, this takes local traffic away from the surrounding roads too. And the longer a scheme is in, the more travel habits change.

As that happens, even schemes which are highly controversial at the beginning become much more widely accepted. Over time, by switching more journeys to vehicles which take up less roadspace, we free up that space for the many people who still need to drive. Cycling means fewer cars in front of yours at the lights.

We have a traffic problem, an obesity problem, a pollution problem, and a climate problem. Schemes that get more people cycling and walking can be part of the answer to all those problems. That is why I’m glad the Government is acting to make cycling a pursuit for the many, not just for the brave.

Henry Smith: Why marine protection can’t wait

8 Jun

Henry Smith is MP for Crawley. This is a sponsored post by Greenpeace.

Our environment is being degraded at an concerning rate, both on land and at sea. In the waters around our islands, destructive industrial fishing vessels spend thousands of hours each year operating in protected areas, damaging habitats, decimating fish populations and polluting our marine environment.

This is having a devastating, cumulative effect. Vital marine habitats like seagrass meadows, kelp forests and coral reefs are being damaged by bottom trawlers, while supertrawlers regularly descend onto UK waters to scoop up unimaginably vast quantities of marine life, harming the target fish populations, and undermining the entire marine ecosystem.

All of this is not only harming our oceans, it’s also harming our coastal communities and worsening the climate emergency facing all of us.

When bottom trawlers rip up patches of protected seabed, they aren’t only destroying important habitats, they’re also disturbing vast amounts of carbon which would otherwise be safely stored away in the seabed.

A recent landmark study in the journal Nature found that globally, carbon emissions from bottom trawling are equivalent to the carbon emissions of the entire global aviation industry. That’s a staggering statistic which gives you an idea of just how much carbon is potentially being released by bottom trawling. Estimated emissions from bottom trawling in UK waters are the fourth highest globally.

By delaying ocean protection, the UK government is jeopardising climate protection, but it’s not too late to change course. If we can properly protect our oceans from industrial fishing practices which are disturbing the vast carbon sinks that surround our islands, the oceans could become our best ally in the battle against climate change.

By properly protecting the waters around our islands, we can ensure that tens of millions of tonnes of carbon remain stored away safely in the seabed, and we can protect the natural processes which mean the oceans absorb excess carbon from the atmosphere remain intact and healthy, long into the future.

That’s why marine protection can’t wait. Every day that we delay, industrial fishing vessels continue to damage habitats and our “blue” carbon sinks.

Thankfully, our government has recognised that there is a problem, and has made a start towards remedying it. Plans are in motion to completely ban bottom trawling in two important protected areas, including the Dogger Bank, and partially ban bottom trawling in two further protected areas.

This is a good start, but the process has moved at too slow a pace. It’s been more than six months since the Government announced that it was considering new restrictions on bottom trawling in these protected areas, and still nothing has become a reality.

If the Government decides to follow this model across the entire network of protected areas, it could quite literally take years, if not decades, before all of the UK’s protected areas have adequate levels of protection from industrial fishing vessels. This would be fundamentally incompatible with the UK government’s own commitment to 30×30, 30 per cent of the world’s oceans being fully protected by 2030.

We simply cannot afford to wait that long.

However, there is a solution at hand, and one which this government has already used, but now seems to be ignoring – vessel licensing restrictions.

This power, provided for by the new post-Brexit Fisheries Act 2020, would allow us to outlaw the most destructive fishing vessels from our protected areas, by placing licence restrictions on them so they cannot operate in parts of UK waters that are supposed to be protected. This could also be used to ban fishing boats over a certain size, or over a certain capacity, from operating in protected areas, meaning it could also apply to supertrawlers.

This would speed up action significantly, and avoid the painfully slow process which the Dogger Bank bottom trawling restrictions are currently undergoing.

The scale of the problem is vast, almost all of our protected areas in offshore waters have no fishing restrictions in place, when they all should.

The good news is the Government is finally starting to recognise the problem. The next, and perhaps most important, step is to act with a sense of urgency that reflects the nature and climate emergencies now facing all of us, before it’s too late.