Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

At the mid-way point of this Parliament, the Government has delivered half of the pledges it made in 2010 with regard to its aims for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.  This progress has been delivered against a backdrop of localised flooding, the ash tree dieback crisis, the horsemeat scandal and an increase in farm animal deaths due to cold weather.  With these crises pushing issues related to the Environment further up the political agenda, the current round of spending cuts has placed renewed pressure on the Government to ensure they get things right. 

Despite these pressures, there are a number of areas where the coalition is delivering on their pledges. These include recycling targets, launching nationwide campaigns to improve the environment, enhancing welfare standards for livestock and taking forward legislation to improve the state of our environment.

Many of the issues related to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are reactive.  Localised flooding, the ash tree dieback crisis, the horsemeat scandal and an increase in farm animal deaths due to cold weather have ensured environmental crises are dominating the political agenda like never before. These crises come at a time of severe spending cuts and, whilst criticisms have been made, it is fair to say that the Government responded to these problems and attempted to deliver workable solutions.

Budgetary pressures have undoubtedly had an effect on the results delivered by the department. Indeed, DEFRA has borne the brunt of government cuts since 2010 and the March 2013 Budget saw the department lose a further £37 million. Inevitably, the outcomes of many policies cannot go far enough. For instance, spending on flood defences was cut by 27% which made real improvements extremely difficult. After the floods of 2012 that saw over 5,000 homes flooded, the Government had to undertake a partial u-turn and commit extra funding provisions to schemes to fast-track flood defences.

The coalition aims to be the ‘Greenest Government Ever’ but whilst they are delivering on key pledges, their successes are not translating with the public and only 23% of people believe they are doing enough to protect our landscape or wildlife. The Government has focused much of its attention on pushing forward with policies that are highly unpopular, contrary to expert opinion and divisive amongst party backbenches. Indeed, whilst their successes have been impressive only 17% of people agree that the Government is the greenest ever.

Progress has have largely been overshadowed by contentious policies. The disastrous proposal to sell off national forests in the face of opposing expert advice and public opinion led to the government’s first u-turn. The badger cull was another divisive policy and it required swift and effective action. Unsurprisingly, public opinion was against a cull and, with a number of key experts advising against it, this was never going to be a popular solution. Although the cull is now due to go ahead in summer 2013, the pause last year showed a failure to get a grip of the problem.

Looking ahead, flood defences, regulation of the food industry and pushing forward with the draft Water Bill are likely to be high on the agenda for the Government. The Government will need to act quickly on these issues to assure industry and the public that they are serious about implementing change.


Progress against the Coalition Agreement

Pledge: We will introduce measures to make the import or possession of illegal timber a criminal offence.

Status: Done – In March 2013 the EU Timber Regulation and UK Timber and Timber Products (Placing on the Market) Regulations 2013 came into force, following the introduction of an EU Timber Regulation. This prohibits illegal timber being placed on the EU market and requires suppliers to ensure they do not sell illegally harvested timber.

Pledge: We will introduce measures to protect wildlife and promote green spaces and wildlife corridors in order to halt the loss of habitats and restore biodiversity.

Status: Done – The Government has introduced these measures by launching the Local Green Space Designation, publishing the National Ecosystem Assessment, the Natural Environment White Paper and the Biodiversity Strategy. The measures aim to enable local authorities and communities to protect local wildlife and green spaces.

Pledge: We will launch a national tree planting campaign.

Status: Done – In December 2010, the Big Tree Plant campaign was launched with the aim to plant one million extra trees across England by 2014. So far, nearly 240,000 trees have been planted and the Government renewed this pledge in Mid-Term Review to meet the target by 2015.

Pledge: We will review the governance arrangements of National Parks in order to increase local accountability.

Status: Done – While this target has technically been achieved, the review resulted in a disastrous policy to sell off parts of the national forest. Unsurprisingly, this short-sighted policy was politically contentious and lacked any real support. In the face of extreme public pressure and with the Government-appointed independent panel advising against the policy, the Government conceded its first u-turn.

Pledge: We will work towards full compliance with European Air Quality standards.

Status: In progress – The UK currently meets most of its limits for air pollutants as outlined in the European Air Quality standard, and £5 million of local funding has been given to projects aiming to reduce air pollution. In major urban centres where the limits are not met, the Government has stated its commitment to work towards full compliance by producing air quality action plans. Though, information on the Deregulation Bill provided in the 2013 Queen’s Speech states: ‘No longer obliging councils to produce assessments after designating air quality zones’.

Pledge: We will take forward the findings of the Pitt Review to improve our flood defences, and prevent unnecessary building in areas of high flood risk.

Status: In progress – The Government has committed to £2.3 million of investment by 2015 to protect against flooding whilst also securing external funding, which will go towards protecting up to 60,000 homes. A number of findings from the report were not taken forward but the majority are in progress. Criticisms have been raised about the speed of progress in implementing these changes, which has had a devastating effect on many communities.

Pledge: We will examine the conclusions of the Cave and Walker Reviews, and reform the water industry to ensure more efficient use of water and the protection of poorer households.

Status: In progress – The Cave and Walker Reviews have been examined and a draft Water Bill has been introduced but reform of the water industry is on-going. The Water Industry (Financial Assistance) Act 2012 took forward two measures to meet this pledge: reducing household water bills in the South West of England; and committing contingent financial support for large construction projects. The Draft Water Bill has come under scrutiny for not going far enough and there are concerns about whether the Government will find time on the legislative calendar to push forward with the Bill.

Pledge: We will work towards a ‘zero waste’ economy, encourage councils to pay people to recycle, and work to reduce littering.

Status: Done – A number of initiatives have been launched to meet this pledge: an anaerobic digestion plan to encourage ‘zero waste’ was published in 2011; hospitality and food-service sectors have been encouraged to recycle and reduce waste; local authorities have been given grants to encourage and reward recycling; and fly-tipping and littering schemes have been introduced. Although this pledge has technically been met, the UK still sends half its waste to landfill and England has the lowest recycling targets in the UK.

Pledge: We will reduce the regulatory burden on farmers by moving to a risk-based system of regulation, and will develop a system of extra support for hill farmers.

Status: In progress – The Farming Regulation Taskforce report was published in 2012 outlining the Government’s plans to implement a risk-based system. Many recommendations have been implemented but results are not yet being seen on the ground and farmers continue to express frustration at the system.  Following the Uplands Review, measures worth £26 million to support hill farmers were announced.

Pledge: We will investigate ways to share with livestock keepers the responsibility for preparing for and dealing with outbreaks of disease.

Status: Done – The Animal Health and Welfare Board for England was established in 2011 to give a farmers a voice and allow them to work with other stakeholders to make policy recommendations on animal health issues. Criticisms have been made of the lack of involvement from grassroots farmers but the Government has nevertheless acted on this pledge.

Pledge: We will take forward the Marine and Coastal Access Act and ensure that its conservation measures are implemented effectively.

Status: In progress – The Government has begun to take forward this Act and there is a commitment to designate the chosen Marine Conservation Zones by September 2013. However, progress has been much slower than was first anticipated with only 31 of the initial 127 Marine Conservation Zones being consulted on in December 2012 and no definite timetable for consultation on the other zones being announced.

Pledge: As part of a package of measures, we will introduce a carefully managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of bovine tuberculosis.

Status: In progress – The Government is pushing forward with plans to pilot two badger culls during summer 2013. Delivery of this policy has been extremely disjointed, with plans being postponed in 2012 due to criticisms from the National Farmers Union. Public opinion remains vehemently opposed to this contentious proposal and official advice suggested that such a cull would cost more than it would save.

Pledge: We will promote high standards of farm animal welfare. We will end the testing of household products on animals and work to reduce the use of animals in scientific research. We will promote responsible pet ownership by introducing effective codes of practice under the Animal Welfare Act, and will ensure that enforcement agencies target irresponsible owners of dangerous dogs.

Status: In progress – A number of measures have been put in place to meet this pledge including: meeting an EU ban on conditions for laying hens; improving farm animal husbandry best practice; and consulting on measures to tackle irresponsible dog ownership. While the Government has stated how it intends to ban testing of household products on animals, no further progress has been made. Furthermore, no progress is likely to be made on reducing animals in scientific research when the Government maintains its confidence in the method.

Pledge: We will ensure that food procured by government departments, and eventually the whole public sector, meets British standards of production wherever this can be achieved without increasing overall cost.

Status: Done – The Government Buying Standards for food and catering services became mandatory for central government’s new contracts in September 2011. Guidance has also been published for schools and hospitals to facilitate the wider application of this standard.

Pledge: We will investigate measures to help with fuel costs in remote rural areas, starting with pilot schemes.

Status: Done – A scheme to reduce fuel costs for people in remote island communities has been piloted and the Government will now consider extending this to remote mainland communities.

Pledge: We will create a presumption in favour of sustainable development in the planning system.

Status: Done – This was achieved by publishing the National Planning Policy Framework in March 2012.

Pledge: We oppose the resumption of commercial whaling, will press for a ban on ivory sales, and will tackle the smuggling and illegal trade on wildlife through our new Border Police Force.

Status: In progress – The Government has delivered two of these pledges by working with the international community to oppose commercial whaling and call for a ban on ivory sales. Smuggling and illegal trade of wildlife is an on-going problem, which the Government will tackle with the proposed Border Police Command, which should be introduced by the end of 2013.

Pledge: We will bring forward a motion on a free vote enabling the House of Commons to express its view on the repeal of the Hunting Act.

Status: Not achieved – No action has been taken to introduce this motion and whilst the Government insist that it will go ahead, they have made no commitment on timing. Without a Conservative majority in Parliament, the vote is unlikely to be successful and therefore it is doubtful that a motion will be brought forward in this Parliament.