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As an off the cuff remark in a speech made by David Cameron as he rode the wave of election victory last year, the promise to be the ‘greenest government ever’ was a great soundbite

But did the newly crowned prime minister really grasp what he was signing up to?

He followed those now infamous words by adding, “[It is] a very simple ambition, and one that I’m absolutely committed to achieving”. After the furore over selling off public forestry and the ongoing debate over the future of the planning system, he must be reconsidering how simple that ambition actually is.

Wildlife and countryside groups put their heads together this month to assess the Government’s progress towards its commitments to the natural environment. The Nature Check report ( was compiled by 29 conservation charities including the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England and it will have made difficult reading for our Prime Minister.

Of the 16 commitments the Government has made to the natural environment, only two have been fully met. They have made some progress on seven of the commitments and have failed to meet the remaining seven.

These failures include botched proposals to reform the planning system and introduce a robust definition of sustainable development, a lack of direction on the future of our forests and a refusal to take on board the scientific concerns behind shooting badgers to control bovine TB. There is also concern over preventing inappropriate development in flood plains and a failure to properly consider protection for seabirds in the new Marine and Coastal Access Act.

These are the finer points, but they are symptoms of a wider political failing when it comes to the environment.

Defra, the department charged with tackling the threats faced by wildlife and the countryside, has been busy this year. In June they published the first National Ecosystems Assessment – a groundbreaking and fascinating piece of work which looked at the value of nature to society from clean air, water and soil, to flood defences, crop pollination and our own wellbeing. It concluded that we currently fail to properly value the environment in decision-making.

Closely following this was the Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP) and the England Biodiversity Strategy which set out laudable ambitions for halting loss of biodiversity and protecting the natural environment. The NEWP featured some great ideas including Nature Improvement Areas which take a landscape scale approach to conservation, a series of Local Nature Partnerships and a new Green Area Designation.

Running in the background to these impressive political set pieces was the department’s negotiations on the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy which ought to lead to a greater environmental focus in the agricultural subsidies system.

Defra secretary Caroline Spelman has acquitted herself well, it seems. But her high ambitions for the environment only serve to highlight tensions running across Whitehall about the relationship between economic growth and environmental protection.  Mrs Spelman quite rightly talks of going green being both a moral and an economic imperative, but the Chancellor George Osborne bemoaned bitterly in his party conference speech recently that there had been
“A decade of environmental laws and regulations are piling costs on the energy bills of households and companies,”.

The pressures on our environment are too complicated to solve with a few well meaning conservation schemes. And we must guard against short term action for our economy which comes at a long term cost to the environment.  

Now, more than ever, we need a Government that is prepared to tackle both the economic and ecological crises that we are facing.  Get it right and yes, this could be the first government that passes on the environment in a better state to the next generation.


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Written by Martin Harper   
Wednesday, 26 October 2011 09:11
Last Updated on Wednesday, 26 October 2011 09:16

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