The Cabinet re-shuffle and the environment

Yesterday saw a ruthless day of high politics in Westminster as Theresa May appointed her new Cabinet. David Cameron’s Cabinet has been routed and replaced. The new Cabinet consists of 13 ‘Remainers’ and 7 ‘Brexiters’. May has astutely appointed the Brexiters to Departments which will play the key role in negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU.

Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 15.45.39This tweet effectively sums up the strategy.

The key Brexit appointments are David Davies who becomes the new Secretary of State (SoS) for Brexit; Liam Fox, SoS for Overseas Trade; Boris Johnson, The Foreign Secretary; Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary; Priti Patel, International Development Secretary; Baroness Evans, Leader of the Lords and Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary at DEFRA

There are some very tough jobs in this list, Davies, Fox and Johnson have entered entirely new territory and will have to all work closely together and work out who is doing what – this will be the area where Britain’s relationships and trade agreements with the EU and the world are negotiated. Grayling as Transport Secretary will have to sort out ‘Heathrow’ and HS2, two hugely controversial infrastructure / environmental battlegrounds. Priti Patel has already stated her desire to scale back international aid and abolish the Department she has now been appointed Secretary of State at! Baroness Evans is the new Leader in the Lords – a chamber where there is not a Brexit majority. Finally Andrea Leadsom’s role is to phase out the Birds and Habitat’s Directives as well as working out what is to replace the current agricultural subsidy system.

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This was fellow Tory MP Nicholas Soames’ tweet regarding Leadsom’s appointment!

The Leadsom appointment was correctly predicted by John Rentoul, the Independent’s Chief Political Correspondent, he suggested that Leadsom would be offered a ‘humiliating junior post’ as a result of her Brexit views and her ‘motherhood’ comments – see here. The DEFRA posting has always been seen as a lesser role (look how little the environment featured in the Brexit campaign for example), but nevertheless it is a Department which will be massively affected by leaving the EU and will in the future be the subject of a great deal of lobbying from  environmental and agricultural interests. Add on top of that the fact that Leadsom has publicly stated that she would go about repealing the ban on fox hunting and that DEFRA is about to roll out a full blown badger cull campaign (of which she is a supporter) the Department will become a lightning conductor of protest and anxiety.

If it is true that she pulled out of the Tory Leadership campaign because of the criticism and ‘black ops’ surrounding her ill-judged and politically naive ‘motherhood’ comments, then that does not bode well for the future, that was a walk in the park compared to what is to come.

To be honest I know very little about Andrea Leadsom, I had never heard of her until she emerged during the Brexit campaign and the Tory Leadership battle but we all know a bit more about her now as a result of the debate around her CV. The only other thing I could find about her environmental views is this, which she said during the Brexit campaign.

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It is worth reading this several times, it contains a lot.

A lot of what though is difficult to understand.

Firstly, the ‘50% back of the money that they paid in the first place‘ implies that farmers are getting back their money – it is in fact tax payers money.
Secondly ‘will absolutely continue in the short term to provide these subsidies‘ will send a shock wave through many farming communities especially those in the uplands who need long term support.
Thirdly ‘those with the big fields do the sheep and those with the hill farms do the butterflies‘ – is this a rewilding agenda or does it mean a better environmental farmed future for the uplands? No doubt the NFU and the Upland Alliance are now in overdrive!

On the positive side the Brexit campaign also said this  ‘in the event of a Brexit vote, £2bn would be earmarked for conservation spending out of the money it expects to recoup from payments to Brussels“. Will this promise be kept or will it go the way of all the other ones?

Today and tomorrow will see the appointment of the Junior Ministers. What will happen to George Eustice, the Farming Minister and vocal Brexiter?  Eustice  said the following during the Brexit campaign “The birds and habitats directives would go….”   and “a lot of the national directives they instructed us to put in place would stay. But the directives’ framework is so rigid that it is spirit-crushing….” and “if we had more flexibility, we could focus our scientists’ energies on coming up with new, interesting ways to protect the environment, rather than just producing voluminous documents from Brussels.”

If we follow the motto ‘You Brexit, you own it’ I would put my money on Eustice staying on in DEFRA and joining Leadsom.

And what of Rory Stewart, the DEFRA minister who dealt with the floods? His fate is perhaps more complicated (he was a low profile ‘Remainer’) because of what has happened to Oliver Letwin who was the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and was leading the government National Flood Resilience Review: Government action to tackle floods see here. He has now been sacked by May and has been replaced by Patrick McLoughlin. With Liz Truss having left DEFRA and with Letwin sacked it only leaves Rory Stewart standing re. the floods. He has done well regarding his brief around flooding so it would make sense if he stayed within DEFRA.

And finally we get to climate change …… The Department for Energy and Climate Change was disbanded yesterday.

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This is what former Liberal Democrat MP and DECC Minister Ed Davey had to say about that

On the surface this looks very depressing – no Government Department dealing with the most pressing issue of our age. However the 2008 Climate Change Act set the plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in place and also set up the Committee on Climate Change which is chaired by Lord Deben (John Selwyn Gummer, the former Tory Secretary of State for the Environment). Lord Deben has yet to comment publicly on the demise of DECC but the legislation to take action remains.

Finally we should remind ourselves of Theresa May’s comments on climate change as they should give us some comfort perhaps? Perhaps also something Chris Grayling should note too regarding Heathrow (a project he supports).

“I am thrilled to see that after years of Conservative pressure, we have finally passed a necessary and ambitious piece of legislation on Climate Change. Britain is the first country in the world to formally bind itself to cut greenhouse emissions and I strongly believe this will improve our national and economic security. To stay reliant on fossil fuels would mean tying ourselves to increasingly unstable supplies which could endanger our energy security and the Climate Change and Energy Bills mark an important step for both the health of our economy and the health of our nation. It is now vital that we stick to these targets. I will continue to put pressure on the Government over the third runway at Heathrow as an extra 222,000 flights a year would undermine our national targets and seriously damage the health of the local community.”

 

Some progress on the maize front

Avid readers of my blog will know I have been campaigning about the detrimental impacts of maize cultivation in Devon, in particular its implication in local flooding – see here for blogs on that topic. Well, some progress appears to have been made. Last week the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) published a consultation document entitled “Review of support for Anaerobic Digestion (AD) and micro-Combined Heat and Power under the Feed-in Tariffs scheme” – you can download it and read it here. Be warned – it is mighty hard work …. Much of the document relates to proposals to reduce the ‘Feed in tariff’ payments but part of it relates to maize.

Maize

The document states “It is also Government policy that the primary purpose of agricultural land should be for growing food. Data published at the end of 2015 suggests maize is increasingly being grown for AD installations.”. This conclusion mirrors exactly what I have been saying!

As a result the following two options have been put forward:-

  • Option 1 – Restrict FITs payments to electricity generated from biogas derived only from wastes and residues
    If implemented, only electricity generated from biogas derived from wastes and residues will be eligible for generation and export tariff payments.
  • Option 2 – Limit FITs payments in relation to electricity generated from biogas not derived from wastes and residues to 50% of the total biogas yield
    If implemented, electricity generated from biogas derived from wastes and residues will be eligible for generation and export tariff payments. Electricity generated from biogas derived from other feedstocks will be eligible for generation and export tariff payments but only up to a maximum proportion of 50% of the total biogas yield produced in that quarter.
    The maximum is set at 50% because crops such as maize tend to have a higher biogas yield compared to typical farm waste feedstocks such as manures, resulting in a relatively low ratio of crop to waste per tonne of feedstock.

Option 2 is currently the preferred option because it provides for payments for electricity generated from biogas with high carbon abatement costs, but offsets some of the risks associated with investments and feedstock support from only using waste and residues.

What this means is that DECC intend to cut the subsidy paid to maize farmers by probably 50% (i.e. option 2) in an attempt to discourage them from growing maize as a source of biogas in Anaerobic Digestion (AD) plants. The question is therefore, will a 50% cut be enough to change land use? Will this mean that the amount of maize grown in Devon will reduce and therefore will the amount of flooding experienced by local communities reduce?

This is undoubtedly progress and is to be welcomed.

Maize field mud

DECC must have been privy to the report of the Environmental Audit Committee on Soil Health which was published today because there is much mention in that report of this very topic. You can download that report from here. The problems caused by maize are mentioned on pages 26-28 and pages 34 and 37. The recommendation of the EAC is that subsidies should be removed from maize cultivation when it is grown for AD biogas production.

The EAC took evidence from a number of specialists in the field (who are quoted in the report) including the Soil Association, Rothamstead Research, the Committee on Climate Change and the National Trust, all spoke about the problems related to maize cultivation, soil health and flooding.

However this single recommendation relating to maize and AD plants will not be enough on its own to safeguard soils and reduce flooding risk. Maize cultivation has grown from 8000 hectares in the UK in 1973 to 183,000 hectares in 2014. In Devon maize cultivation has rocketed 89% between 2000 and 2013. The vast majority (80%+) of maize is grown as feed stock for cattle and not for AD plants. The DECC proposals will therefore only apply to 20% of the maize grown in the UK.

Rory Stewart, the DEFRA minister responsible for the other 80% of maize grown in the UK also gave evidence to the EAC Committee and said “maize planted incorrectly, harvested at the wrong time of year or in the wrong climatic conditions can contribute to soil erosion” and “If your maize processes are contributing to soil erosion, that is in breach of your cross-compliance regulations and the RPA can then fine you for doing that.

He then went on to say this “That is really an issue for the Department of Energy and Climate Change. It is predominantly about energy policy, renewable energy policy and the different types of renewable energy policy, but we certainly within the Department are looking closely from our point of view at the costs and benefits of that kind of activity“.

In effect Rory Stewart said that controlling soil degradation and flooding as a result of maize cultivation needed action from DECC regarding subsidy levels. The problem is that 80% of the maize in the UK is regulated via his Department’s cross compliance rules which are clearly not working effectively.

To be generous to Rory Stewart one might say that Government works in a highly choreographed fashion. We are awaiting the publication of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee Report on the recent winter floods (where maize again was much discussed) along with the Government’s report on flooding and DEFRA’s 25 year Environment Plan – all expected this summer. Let’s hope that the impact of the ‘80%’ of maize is covered in those reports and changes are made as a result.

Exton maize

My friend and co-maize campaigner Miles King has also blogged on this topic today – see here. He also kindly alerted me to the DECC consultation which I otherwise would have missed.

The harvest mouse and the tale of Beatrix Potter

DEFRA recently issued a press release announcing that the harvest mouse had returned to Hampshire in the villages around Selbourne after it went extinct 25 years ago thanks to ‘an innovative new farming method’ which involved a group of individual farmers working together on a landscape scale. This is excellent news and has added poignancy as in 1767 the famous naturalist Gilbert White actually discovered the species for the first time in the Parish of Selbourne.

The press release has been picked up by many media outlets including one in China and this is perhaps due to the strap line of the press release “Iconic harvest mouse immortalised by Beatrix Potter returns to Hampshire village where it was first discovered“.

Harvest_mouse
Harvest Mouse
By Reg Mckenna [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

This got me thinking – which Beatrix Potter character was a harvest mouse? I have looked at all her books again in search of the harvest mouse but to be honest I can’t find one. I’m happy to be corrected but the mice in the books are either house mice, wood mice or dormice.

The nearest fit superficially is Timmy Willie – ‘the little country mouse’ in the Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse.

Timmy Willie 1-2
This picture shows Timmy Willie (on the left) and Johnny Town Mouse (on the right) holding and eating some ears of wheat – a favourite food of harvest mice.

The fable is basically a satire of town and country life – Johnny Town-Mouse is different from Timmy Willie Country Mouse – in fact Potter has made the difference even greater by painting Timmy Willie as a field vole and not a mouse at all! He has a short tail which the mice are too polite to comment on.

Timmy Willie 2
Would be rather amusing if Timmy Willie was DEFRA’s harvest mouse!

If not who is?