Mary Creagh MP is the shadow environment secretary
The Sustainable Development Commission held its final summit on Tuesday March 1st, just days before its abolition by the government. The previous day ministers put their new sustainable development strategy online – no press launch, no fanfare. Their strategy rings with ideological hollowness and demonstrates the lack of vision for sustainability in government. They have a plan for cuts but no plan for the environment.
Jonathan Porritt wrote that the new strategy was:
“…without a doubt the most disgraceful government document relating to sustainable development that I have ever seen.”
While Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers’ Union, criticised it for ignoring the challenges of food security completely.
The Sustainable Development Commission was set up by Labour in 2000 to link environmental progress to wider social and economic goals. Its independence was a fundamental part of its ability to test and challenge government at all levels, and Labour ministers strengthened its watchdog role in 2005.
The Tories’ ideologically driven belief in the small state is having a profound impact on environmental policy. In January the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee criticised the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for failing in its duty to promote sustainable development across government. Now DEFRA wants the Environmental Audit Committee to scrutinise its sustainable development strategy without any extra resources.
The Tories’ approach to the Sustainable Development Commission is similar to their stance on forests: they don’t think government should be involved at all. The problem for the Tories is that the public largely disagree. More than half a million people signed a petition against the forest sell-off and local groups were established across the country.
The days when sustainable development underpinned the government’s approach to the environment appear to be over. The Tory-led government (without a single Lib Dem in DEFRA) have taken an axe to the environment since coming to power last May, inflicting a 30 per cent cut in funding, the largest of any department.
In less than a year the Tories have tried to sell off our forests, cut funding by nearly a third for National Parks and tried to palm off nature reserves. We are still waiting for their waste review which was originally planned for last autumn. They have missed their own targets to “Buy British” and attracted criticism for their failure to show any leadership on food prices. Ministers appear to be on a collision course with all those who care about the countryside.
These are grim days for people who care about the environment. The reckless cuts in DEFRA matched by a drive to cut regulation threatens much of the progress Labour made over the last 13 years. The government is failing to provide the leadership or investment to protect the environment and deliver a low carbon economy Britain so badly needs.
The forests debacle has shown the public value the environment more than the government. It is up to all of us to hold ministers to account.