WEEKEND WEB: Hoping Mr Gove’s green concerns are growing well

Michael Gove MP at the Thetford Academy South Campus.
Michael Gove MP at the Thetford Academy South Campus.
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Chairman of CPRE in Lincs, TIM MACHIN, discussed Rural Matters

Over the last few weeks, my colleagues at head office at the Campaign to Protect Rural England have been busy briefing Michael Gove following his appointment as Environment Secretary earlier in the summer.

This post has a huge influence on the future of the countryside and since the Department for the Environment was created in 1970, CPRE has had decidedly mixed experiences with its occupants.

Some have seemed actively hostile towards rural England, but John Gummer helped save thousands of acres of countryside in the nineties by supporting CPRE’s ‘brownfield first’ campaign (though he’ll always be remembered for offering his daughter that burger during the BSE crisis).

Later on, Hilary Benn worked closely with us to push through the South Downs National Park and put litter back on the Government’s agenda.

The fact that CPRE has crossed swords with Mr Gove in the past did not bode particularly well for a constructive relationship.

Last year, we raised concerns about his stated desire to get rid of EU regulations that protect important wildlife habitats from housing development.

And back in 2013, CPRE took him to task for suggesting that people who oppose housing on greenfield sites were enemies of ‘social mobility’: we pointed out that homes on open countryside are rarely affordable and often lack access to vital services.

However, we were happy to agree with his belief that the standard of housing needed to improve; referring to Stamford as an example, he argued: “We have built homes of transcendent beauty in the past. We can do so again.”

By the time of his July speech to the Green Alliance (of which CPRE is a member), the Environment Secretary seemed to have become a fully-fledged environmentalist.

He specifically mentioned the need to protect “our most fertile growing soil, in the Fens,” by reversing the “disappearance of hedges and trees”. No doubt he had heard lots of common sense at John Hayes’ Brexit anniversary party in Moulton in June: our local MP has been a fine advocate for beauty and rural concerns within the Government.

His speech agreed with our calls for future support payments to reflect farmers’ work to protect and enhance the environment – rather than the amount of land they own – and highlighted the 
vital role of small family farms in keeping countryside and rural communities healthy. This is now a matter of urgency, as I wrote in my last column, research shows that almost a third of English farms under 120 acres (50 hectares) disappeared between 2005 and 2015.

We’ll be using our dialogue with the Secretary of State to persuade him to take meaningful action to address this.

In the meantime, we’re delighted that our campaign against roadside littering has helped convince him of the need to introduce a deposit return system on drinks containers “as soon as possible”.

The Scottish government has just announced its own scheme; now, Mr Gove, it’s over to you.