Libertarian wolves in sheep’s clothing?

Just how radical is this Government? The UK has been overall a “deregulatory” environment for many years now – the previous Government was enthusiastic in its approach to reducing the regulatory burden on business with a Better Regulation agenda which applied to environmental policy as it did everywhere else. For grasslands, this meant a hopelessly inadequate approach to protecting important sites from intensive agriculture – the EIA (agriculture) regulations which, dear reader, you will now hopefully be familiar with.

In the latest plot twist, Farming Minister Jim Paice at Defra, our rather lowly environment department in Whitehall, is upset with RSPB for suggesting that intelligent Regulation might be a good thing for the environment.

Farmer and farming minister Paice commissioned a review of Red Tape (sometimes now called Green Tape) in agriculture, and placed former NFU Director Richard McDonald in the chair of the commission. Farmers, if their views are accurately reflected through the pages of the Farmers Weekly website, visibly effervesced with enthusiasm that the McDonald commission would sweep away (form into a bonfire and burn) many pesky rules which they believed were preventing them from farming properly. Rules such as the Nitrates Directive, Habitats Directive, or the rules (known collectively as cross compliance) that attempt to require farmers receiving CAP direct payments to mitigate the many well-known effects of intensive farming on the environment.

The RSPB has been working hard with Mr McDonald to ensure his commission appreciates that Regulations are often there to actually do something useful, such as protecting the environment, at least in theory. I was able to talk to him about the EIA (Agriculture) Regulation and explain that this was a Regulation that could do so much to protect wildlife, but was so poor it was worse than useless. That’s not to say that some agricultural regulations are derived directly from Wonderland: I have blogged previously about the madness that is at the heart of the Single Payment eligibility rules, and the environmental destruction they are driving.

Concerned, I would imagine, that the review might be knobbled by the NFU, RSPB published an open letter expressing in very mild terms, that the Commission should avoid recommending removal of useful environmental regulations, and generally how important Regulations are for protecting the environment. The letter sets out a series of tests which RSPB argue will need to be met for the Commission to have done its job properly. I have reproduced the letter in full at the bottom of this post, so no-one is under any illusion about its content.As you can see here the farming press report on the letter was somewhat skewed.

In fact it’s a well thought through (what else would we expect from RSPB?) argument for better regulation, reducing admin burden, while improving the protection regulation can provide for the environment.

It is no  surprise that NFU have taken umbrage – their position is clear: the world is starving, England can feed the world, if only all obstacles, placed in the farmers way by meddling bureacrats and busy bodies, were removed henceforth and forthwith. They recently laid into Defra secretary of state Caroline Spelman  for signing up to a letter, published to coincide with the launch of the new EU Biodiversity Strategy, which stated that intensive farming was one of the main causes of biodiversity loss. How can an organisation  be so deluded as to deny this fact, when the evidence has been piling up since… well Silent Spring was published in 1962 nearly 50 years ago.  Farmers Weekly reported NFU’s surprise at Spelman “in laying the blame for biodiversity damage at the door of intensive farming.” Perhaps NFU would like to suggest where the real culprit is hiding.

To show his objectivity in this matter, Minister Jim Paice hit back at RSPB criticising their open letter as “unwise and unfortunate”. Apart from anything else this begs the question of who the Government is prepared to take advice from, since it has muzzled its quangos like Natural England, preventing them from providing policy advice.

Minister Paice said

They (RSPB) always seem to want regulation, while we take the view that regulation should be the last resort if all else fails.”

Indeed – I think most people would agree with that – no-one wants unnecessary rules and regulations. Take a look at RSPB’s letter and decide for yourself whether it is arguing for more regulation, just for the sake of it – what would be the point in that?

But also ask yourself whether this is really the Government’s position? Take a look at the Red Tape Challenge: which asks you whether laws such as the Wildlife and Countryside Act  should be scrapped, merged, simplified, improved or (whisper it) left alone.

It seems to me that their view is that most Environmental Regulations and Laws are unnecessary and shouldn’t even be seen as “the last resort”.

There appears, in my personal opinion, to be a genuine libertarian streak running through this Government, and this poses a real and present danger to the environment.

Here’s the RSPB letter

Dear Richard

As the Task Force on Farming Regulation prepares to publish its recommendations, I am writing to re-cap on our interest in this review.  We very much support the principle of identifying opportunities for more efficient regulation and, as a land owner and farmer ourselves, understand the frustration felt by farmers faced with unnecessarily bureaucratic administration.

However, I feel it important to restate our strong contention that your review must not be appropriated as a cover for deregulation, which could threaten the natural environment and the essential services it provides.  We welcome your stated aspiration that there will be no reduction in environmental standards, but believe this may be difficult to ensure given the lack of environmental representation on the Task Force. 

I thought that it would be helpful at this final stage in the process to set out the headline criteria we will use to inform our public response to your work.  If the Task Force is genuinely to achieve better regulation, rather than assuaging those from the industry who are seeking a bonfire of regulations, we believe it must satisfy the following criteria: 

  • Honour the spirit of the commitment that there will be no reduction in environmental standards.
  • Clearly demonstrate the evidence base for recommendations.
  • Set out ways of regulation that are transparent, accountable, proportionate, consistent and targeted.
  • Safeguard essential regulations which protect the environment, the interests of taxpayers and the future health of the UK economy whilst identifying ways of reducing unnecessary bureaucracy.
  • Highlight the importance of proper implementation and enforcement as an integral part of improving regulation.
  • Fully consider the long-term costs of failing to prevent environmental damage or meet legal obligations under EU Directives and resist pressures to remove regulation simply because it is inconvenient for business in the short –term[1]
  • Ensure there is no weakening of the environmental conditions built into cross-compliance, which merely represent legal requirements or good practice.  Cross-compliance is the only means by which farmers can demonstrate that Single Farm Payments are linked to any public benefit (even if these benefits are small in relation to the amount of taxpayers’ money channeled into direct payments).  
  • Recognise the limitations of a voluntary approach. Voluntary initiatives can complement but not replace regulation and the challenge of securing sufficient uptake of the Campaign For the Farmed Environment demonstrates the challenge of delivering outcomes, even with well-designed voluntary schemes.
  • Acknowledge the importance of experienced and knowledgeable inspectors in the relevant field.  Enforcement must not be left solely to assurance schemes which may have vested commercial interests and will rarely have sufficient expertise across all relevant areas.

We await the recommendations of the Task Force with interest.

[1]An example would be the UK’s delay and inaction in implementing the Nitrates Directive, an approach that the National Audit Office concluded wasted money and failed to tackle the very serious impacts of diffuse pollution from agriculture on the environment, as well as the financial costs of poor water quality in England.  The consequence is reflected in the European Nitrogen Assessment published last week which highlights key threats to society from nitrogen pollution including: reduced water, soil and air quality, increased Greenhouse Gas emissions, and negative impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity. Nitrogen pollution now costs the EU up to £280 billion a year.

About grasslandstrust

The Grasslands Trust is the only national UK charity that focuses entirely on saving grasslands that are valuable because they are rich in wildlife, history, or for other reasons.
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