No Time For Party Politics
The Environment Bill is in the very last stages of a long and painful labour. Its final amendments - including on the independence of the new environment regulator - have gone back to the Lords.
In fairness, this is a mammoth piece of complex legislation which has involved a huge amount of work, and it's all too easy to forget that and just snipe. And there seem to be some good things in it, like the nature recovery network.
I'm left with some negative impressions, though.
Firstly, all this has been incredibly difficult to follow. I haven't felt able to trust what Defra have been saying about the Bill (see below), so I've found myself listening to speeches and reading pieces of legislation which make no sense to me at all. I'm still not sure I've got the right end of the stick on some elements, so I've a lot of sympathy for MPs with much less background knowledge on this who have been considering them too.
This complexity might partly explain why all the votes on the Bill have been whipped. They have all followed party lines, even the ones on the contentious issue of sewage. Surely, when MPs consider the environment they should have a free vote? It would focus their minds, and we're not going to be able to tackle biodiversity or climate crises along traditional political lines - these are issues which have to transcend party politics. As Barack Obama said - "saving the planet isn't a partisan issue".
I've been disappointed by the way the government has dealt with opposition to its plans. As I've written before, I think it has sometimes been taken aback by the extent of it. Politicians are being incredibly slow to understand what the polls are telling them - that voters are increasingly worried about the environment.
Perhaps as a result HMG has run an aggressive and sometimes badly informed PR campaign. It has been very alienating, particularly so as it has often been conducted through Defra channels. When last I looked, Defra was a department of the civil service and not a political party. Repeatedly referring to the Bill as "our world leading Environment Bill" on social media is as disturbing as it is laughable.
While on the subject of Defra, incidentally, I have no idea how some of the government's key environmental policies are going to be actioned. I'm not sure they do either. How on earth can the Environmental Land Management scheme work, for example, without massive extra funding? Regardless of what you might think about biodiversity net gain philosophically, it seems to be a damaging and impossibly complicated car crash in the real world. How on earth can any metrics based system possibly evaluate the relative values of natural habitats? You can't ask the Environment Agency to dramatically expand its monitoring and enforcement programmes without dramatically expanding its budget.
I've been disappointed throughout by the quality of our elected representatives. This stuff is complicated and there have been some impressive contributions to the debate, but most backbench MPs have been pretty underwhelming. I'm confident most of them haven't understood what they've been voting on. By the way, the Lords debates have often seemed a great deal more satisfactory and have made a great deal more sense.
I've also found some of the government's positions pretty problematic. They seem to be built on a combination of naivety and successful lobbying. Sewage discharge is a high profile example, but there are others we will pay for, including the burning of grouse moors, and pesticide use. It has sometimes been hard to see how the interests of the majority are being best served by the decisions reached.
We must urgently work out a way to improve the quality and transparency of the decision making needed to tackle the environmental problems we're facing. Government has to lead and unite, not fudge, prevaricate and divide.