Theresa May would later abolish the Department for Energy and Climate Change shortly after becoming Prime Minister.
Brexit gives Conservatives “a golden opportunity to push for a new approach to our environment”, prominent party members said in a report published last week.
The report is authored by activists and Tory MPs and was launched with Sajid Javid, the Local Government Secretary, in Parliament. It said Brexit was an “opportunity” that “cannot be missed”.
The report was co-published by the Conservative Environment Network. Mark Holmes, the group’s Interim Director, writes that we must involve the natural world in “every area of public life”.
A vaccuum in British law
The report comes after two Parliamentary committees warned Brexit risked degrading Britain’s environmental rules and standards. The Conservative MPs call for more strident green policies in areas such as cycling, air and water pollution, waste recycling and electric cars.
Rebecca Pow MP, the co-editor, suggests higher environmental standards could benefit the UK economy, since “sustainable, healthy food grown to the highest standards and welfare codes could pay dividends as we promote ‘Brand Britain’ in the post EU era.”
The Commons Environmental Audit Committee and Lords EU Energy and Environment Subcommittee warned Brexit risked leaving a vaccuum in British law once European institutions no longer shape UK environmental laws.
While one essay stresses that gardening can help the vulnerable or needy, the report omits key environmental issues. Most praise the government’s environmental record, which green groups have attacked.
Green spaces and gardening
The report, a series of short essays by Tory MPs, includes no chapter on climate change, energy policy or biodiversity loss, and gives no significant space to these issues. Aviation, airport expansion and fracking it omits entirely.
The report emphasises contact with nature, casting it as a solution to social ills. It stresses that green spaces and gardening can help prisoners, the homeless, unemployed and mentally ill.
Pow writes that voluntary horticulture schemes help in “tackling deprivation”, and that “having pretty gardens” in part of her constituency, “encouraged the clearing of litter”.
Matthew Offord MP links “a clean and green environment and reduced crime levels”, while Holmes writes that some communities suffer “poor health, family breakdown, housing, low educational achievement”, and that green spaces can “have a profound impact” in preventing crime and improving life chances.
A breathtaking series of attacks
The report’s authors repeatedly praise the government and defends the Conservatives’ environmental record. CEN’s co-directors quote Environment Secretary Michael Gove and praise “the positive environmental track record of conservative governments around the world.” Mark Holmes adds that the “Conservatives have a sound track record on the environment of which we can be proud.”
Pow writes that she is “pleased to say, the Conservatives are already leading the way” on sustainability, while Richard Benyon MP claims ground-breaking green policies “are being implemented and we are starting to see the benefits”.
But environmental campaigner Tony Juniper has called the Conservatives’ term in office the worst period for UK environmental policy in 30 years, after the party banned onshore wind, cut renewables subsidies and abandoned home insulation schemes. It also dumped electric car incentives along with green tax targets, reversed a ban on bee-killing pesticides and reneged on a pledge to block Heathrow expansion.
Liz Hutchins of Friends of the Earth accused the Tories of “a breathtaking series of attacks on environment policies”. Theresa May would later abolish the Department for Energy and Climate Change shortly after becoming Prime Minister. Defra figures released last month show the government cut biodiversity spending by a third since 2008-9, even as three quarters of priority species have suffered long-term decline.
Action needs to be taken
Other parts of the report do criticise the government’s record. Alex Chalk MP notes that just 2 percent of journeys were made by bike in Britain in 2015, compared with 27 percent in the Netherlands.
Banning petrol and diesel cars by 2040 is “a laudable aim,” writes Andrew Selous MP, “but this should be a baseline expectation, not a target.”
And Matthew Offord MP notes that “many of our rivers are facing unprecedented pollution for many years to come and action needs to be taken to relieve this problem now.”
Tim Holmes is an 'active bystander' and also researcher, writer and editor. He tweets at @timbird84.