A progressive test for the environment

Labour’s challenge is to ensure that we hold the government to account as well as develop new priorities for the future, writes shadow environment minister Mary Creagh MP.

Our guest writer is Mary Creagh, shadow secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs and the Labour MP for Wakefield.

I am incredibly proud to have been appointed Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary. Ed Miliband set out the challenges for Labour in his speech to Labour Party conference in September:

“…Taking the difficult steps to protect our planet for future generations is the greatest challenge our generation faces. When I think about my son, I think what he will be asking me in twenty years time is whether I was part of the last generation not to get climate change or the first generation to get it.”

Labour’s challenge is to ensure that we hold the government to account as well as develop new priorities for the future. The work of campaign groups, conservationists, the farming community and businesses will all be part of that process.

Earlier in the week Peter Ainsworth, writing on Left Foot Forward, asked if the ‘Green Red’ was dead. The answer is an emphatic “no”.  You can read the new Labour Defra team’s first parliamentary exchanges with Defra ministers hereThere is genuine concern among Labour party members and supporters about the level and speed of environmental cuts.

The recent debacle about the proposed part-privatisation of the Forestry Commission is a good example.  The government says it will consult on future options yet the leak revealed a predisposition towards selling-off precious woodland to developers. There is a bitter irony in watching Caroline Spelman distributing money for forest protection at the Nagoya conference yet planning to sell off our natural heritage at home. In little over a week 50,000 people have signed an online petition attacking the government’s plans to sell-off England’s forests. Over 6,000 have joined a facebook group providing a ready campaign force as plans unfold.

Conventional wisdom has it that in a recession, when jobs concerns are to the fore, the environment suffers.  The 2008 global downturn proved the opposite. Progressive governments across the world – in the USA, Europe and elsewhere – responded to the banking crisis by placing green jobs at the centre of the fiscal stimulus. Labour in government did the same, announcing plans to invest in clean energy sources, expanding support for electric cars and to develop new green industries.

Since the election, the Coalition government has stalled that progress.  While many people remember David Cameron’s hug-a-husky photo-call, he did not mention climate change at all in his first party conference speech as Prime Minister this year. The government faces a new progressive test: can they reduce the deficit and still meet the scale of the climate and environmental challenges facing us? Early signs are that the coalition is wavering in its approach. The scale and speed of the cuts will undermine Labour’s real progress with the Climate Change Act, the Marine Bill, our investment in flood protection and in supporting the green economy.

Caroline Spelman, the Environment Secretary was one of the first to settle her Departmental budget with the Treasury. Unlike other Ministers who held out for a better offer, Defra was offered up as an early sacrifice with a resulting cut of 30 per cent, one of the biggest cuts of any department.

The new government has also weakened or abolished the bodies which hold it to account. Before the summer, ministers announced they were scrapping funding for the Sustainable Development Commission and abolishing the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and Consumer Focus.  The Commission for Rural Communities and the Agricultural Wages Board (which ensures farm workers get paid on a higher level than the minimum wage) went in the so-called bonfire of the quangos.  Tell me Peter, how does cutting rural wages help rural communities thrive?

The Spending Review’s announcements on investment in green energy and a continued commitment to nuclear energy were simply watered down versions of policy already set out by Labour Ministers before the election. The Government have a commitment to Feed-in Tariffs but with less funding than before; investment in Carbon Capture and Storage is cut from four to one demonstration project; and the Green Investment Bank will continue but we have no details to match the rhetoric.  Oh and all of this comes from Lib Dem Chris Huhne’s department (DECC) where he hung in there and achieved a mere 5% cut compared with DEFRA’s 30% cut.  Can Peter Ainsworth explain why his Conservative colleague Caroline Spelman did so much worse than her Lib Dem counterpart?

I have been encouraged by the recent focus on food sustainability and production. Access to quality food at decent prices will be especially important given that the government’s actions will thrust many families back into poverty. There will be an important opportunity to debate these issues in Parliament on Friday 12th November when Rob Flello’s Sustainable Livestock and Joan Walley’s Sustainable Food Procurement Bills are debated. We welcome both bills, as they keep the pressure on the Government to continue Labour’s work on a sustainable, lower carbon food industry. Neither Bill is perfect but the issues are pressing and deserve further parliamentary scrutiny. They are part of an essential debate that Labour wants to have in this Parliament.

Over the coming months, along with my shadow ministerial team of Willie Bain, Peter Soulsby and Jamie Reed, we will outline Labour’s renewed commitment to environmental issues.  The landmark legislation of the last century, the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act and the 2009 Marine and Coastal Access Act all flowed from Labour’s core values of shared access, shared heritage and a shared future. Peter Ainsworth would do well to keep in mind that actions speak louder then words.

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