When Michael Gove was announced as the latest environment secretary it’s fair to say there was a collective groan from the environmental movement. This was the man who tried to take climate change off the school curriculum after all.
However, just weeks into the job Gove has shown that he is already more engaged with the brief than the previous three secretaries of state put together (Patterson, Truss and Leadsom).
He has stood up to cabinet colleagues over the risk to watering down environmental standards in future trade deals and has been one of the few in government to speak out against Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement.
Now Gove has grand plans for a green Brexit. Unveiled at WWF’s UK headquarters last week, he revealed that future farming and fisheries policies should ‘put the environment first’. His departure from some of the key vote leave campaigning lines before the EU referendum of cheaper food, freedom from regulatory red tape and dramatically reduced flow of overseas labour was wholly unexpected and it emerged later that the speech had not even been run past Defra colleagues.
But then Gove isn’t a traditional environment minister, for a start he isn’t from a rural constituency. He sees himself as a reformer and a moderniser, keen to make his mark. He’s unlikely to roll over to entertain his landed colleagues by taking on the vested interests in what he sees as the central failing of the Common Agricultural Policy:
‘The CAP […] all too often puts resources in the hands of the already wealthy rather than into the common good of our shared natural environment.’
This is really positive news. The CAP is an area where we could significantly improve environmental protection and create a more progressive policy. Many of us in the environment sector have been calling for Europe’s £3bn farm subsidies programme to support the delivery of environmental benefits (such as carbon sequestration, public health, ecosystem services, water quality and flood resilience) alongside sustainable food production.
And while reinventing the scheme to use public money to reward environmentally-responsible land use sounds like a no-brainer, few ministers in the past have even mentioned soil, let alone the risks to soil fertility.
It’s been a good start with some warm words. In the coming months, we will find out whether Gove, with his mixed voting record on environmental matters, will keep to his word on agriculture and environmental policy…
Gove takes an interest in science and reasons that ‘support can only be argued for against other competing public goods if the environmental benefits of that spending are clear’. But this will be no mean feat. He presides over a department that has already shown significant failings in delivering the current farm payments system.
Then there’s the possibility of the devolved nations losing some of their existing powers; the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies have extensive powers over agriculture and will be sensitive to any changes due to the greater contribution of agriculture and food production to their economies. Farming is the largest receiver of EU funds, and subsidies are by no means equal across the four nations. The Agriculture Bill will certainly be one to watch.
Sharing our seas with Europe, fisheries policy is another area where there’s likely to be a complete re-write. His father’s unfortunate loss of livelihood as a fisherman as a result of EU policy will clearly play a profound role and there is no secret that his agenda will be to ‘take back control’ of our waters. Don’t be surprised if this is resolved quickly so it can be used as a key bargaining chip in future trade negotiations with Europe.
Gove also used his speech to promise setting gold standard polices and protections post-Brexit. Outside of the EU and the jurisdiction of the ECJ there are serious implications for government accountability (valuable in forcing implementation of the requirements of the Bathing Water Directive and Ambient Air Quality Directive).
Although ruled out by others in government and his own department, Gove has committed to ‘design potentially more effective, more rigorous and more responsive institutions, new means of holding individuals and organisations to account for environmental outcomes’. Given his department is currently under threat of further legal action over failing to meet European air quality targets, this was an unexpected move.
So it’s been a good start with some warm words. In the coming months, we will find out whether Gove, with his mixed voting record on environmental matters, will keep to his word on agriculture and environmental policy, upholding standards and scrutiny and delivering public benefits. Let’s not forget this is a man who said he wouldn’t stand for prime minister.
Photo by Chatham House, London