Liz Truss is facing a rural revolt against her plans to prioritise a “dash for economic growth” over nature protection and the environment.
Senior party figures, including ministers under Boris Johnson’s premiership and former Tory leader William Hague, have joined the National Trust, the RSPB, the Angling Trust and Wildlife Trusts in criticising what they see as environmental vandalism.
It follows concerns Truss is treating the leading nature charities as part of a so-called “anti-growth coalition” that she claims to be confronting.
As MPs return to parliament, Truss is facing Tory revolts on several fronts in the wake of a chaotic party conference. Senior MPs believe she is now a “prisoner of the parliamentary party”, unable to force through controversial policies on tax, welfare and immigration. The environment has become the latest flashpoint.
Former nature minister Rebecca Pow, who resigned over Partygate, spoke out against the attack on nature organisations. Former environment secretary George Eustice is said to be dismayed at the way policies he championed are being dismantled.
Pow told the Observer: “The government must engage the full range of stakeholders when developing agricultural and environmental policies, including farmers and NGOs. They bring valuable evidence and are practitioners who deliver nature recovery and food production on the ground.
“As environment minister, I consulted them regularly when developing the Environment Act’s targets to improve and restore the environment. Similarly, their views were crucial in helping design ELMs to achieve those targets and set us on a trajectory for healthy ecosystems and sustainable food production.”
Nature groups are now working together to mobilise their millions of members against Conservative policies. With Tory support collapsing in the polls, the prospect of rural Conservatives deserting en masse will further alarm Tory MPs as they return to Westminster this week.
The latest Opinium poll for the Observer, taken after the disastrous Tory conference in Birmingham last week, shows the biggest Labour lead ever recorded by the company. Keir Starmer’s party holds a 21-point lead, while Truss’s personal approval rating is the worst the company has recorded for a prime minister.
Truss used her conference speech to attack an “anti-growth coalition” that included the green lobby.
Wildlife groups are concerned rare animals and plants could lose their protections when the promised “bonfire” of EU red tape happens later this year. Species are also at risk from the government’s plans to set up new investment zones. Truss’s growth plan says environmental legislation could be slashed to make development in these areas easier.
Though No 10 has promised to protect the environment, it has given no specific assurances for areas of outstanding natural beauty, sites of special scientific interest or national nature reserves. Nor has it stated that rare animals will be protected from development in investment zones.
Martin Salter at the Angling Trust said: “Given the government’s current problems it beggars belief that they have chosen this time to pick a fight with the public and groups concerned with protecting wildlife and the natural environment. The RSPB, Rivers Trust, National Trust, Wildlife Trusts between them represent in excess of 10 million voters. Add in a couple of million anglers and countless others who are appalled at seeing rivers polluted and green spaces destroyed for ever and you have created a massive ‘coalition of concern’. Liz Truss would do well to listen again to the advice of former Environment Secretary Michael Gove who has warned of the dangers of reneging on promises made to protect our rivers and natural environment.”
Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, said: “Restoring nature and creating a greener, healthier and more prosperous future must go hand in hand. To pit the economy and environment against each other is a retreat to the kind of outdated, failed ideological thinking that got us into this mess, not what’s needed to get us out of it. The Conservative Party was elected into Government on a promise to leave the environment in a better state for the next generation. It has no electoral mandate to do the opposite.”
Meanwhile, Hague wrote recently: “The idea that we can choose faster growth at the expense of our environment shows an inadequate understanding of those trends – that we are biological creatures that need a thriving ecosystem around us, not gods who can dispense with it if we wish.
“Crucially, it also reveals a misunderstanding of the future of growth. The great prizes for growth in the coming decades will go to cities that can breathe, with the trees that help that and the wildlife that proves it.” The Truss government has also prompted anger and confusion in rural Britain by deciding to review its post-Brexit farming payments scheme, the Environment Land Management scheme.
This was to pay farmers to farm sustainably, and also create habitats for wildlife. The scheme took six years to create, with wildlife organisations and farmers contributing. Many farmers signed up to pilot schemes having changed the way they work in order to be eligible for funds.
While some in the agricultural industry complained about elements of the scheme, such as little reward for upland farmers, that the paperwork was difficult to fill in and that the government has been low on detail for how to be eligible for future elements, the rural world was getting ready for the change.
Many were shocked and angered to find out that the government plans to review six years of work in six weeks, without warning.
The Labour party is now drawing up a list of rural and nature policies and making a point of defending the nature organisations attacked by the government.
Jim McMahon, the shadow environment secretary, said: “Instead of dismissing the opinions of experts, who represent millions of people’s views, the Conservatives should be listening to well-respected nature organisations’ concerns about the impact of their planned bonfire of environment regulations.
“Labour believes in protecting and enhancing our natural environment, not just because it’s the right thing to do for our planet, but because our nature and our coastal hotspots are a driver of jobs, economic growth and wellbeing in our great country.”
Commenting on the government’s attitude to nature, Sarah McMonagle, acting director of campaigns and policy at CPRE, the countryside charity, said: “Antagonising people who care about nature and the countryside is completely counterproductive.
“Over many years, Defra has engaged constructively with the environment sector and it’s important that continues.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The environment, farming and economic growth go hand-in-hand and we want to support our farmers to produce high-quality food and enhance our natural environment. We are not scrapping our farming reforms, including the Environmental Land Management schemes. We are committed to halting the decline of nature by 2030 and will not undermine our obligations to the environment in pursuit of growth.”