May’s green vision: don’t mention the frackers

There's no faulting its optimism, but the Environment Plan lacks bite.

The Government is keen for you to know that it loves trees and animals and clean seas. People facing the threat of fracking, however, may not be so easily persuaded.

Theresa May, not known for her green views, just delivered the first speech on the environment by any Prime Minister since 2003. It heralded the unveiling of the latest Big Document from the Government – this time, the very long awaited 25 Year Environment Plan.

The reality of Big Documents like this is that they generally trigger the same set of reactions, no matter what they’re about. Just like the Industrial and Clean Growth Strategies, there’s general consensus that it’s a good thing that they even exist at all; but due in part to their sheer breadth and the diversity of issues they probably don’t properly fully tackle, just about everyone ends up having a pop at them for not having the grit to match the headline blether. As my colleague Andrew Pendleton wrote rather more eloquently about the Industrial Strategy, the rhetoric is compelling, but the substance is lacking”.

And so it is again with the Environment Plan. On the plus side, the rhetoric is indeed compelling. It talks a very good game on the importance of the health of nature and ecosystems, not just to our economy and wellbeing, but intrinsically, as a thing in itself. And there’s no faulting its optimism: we are promised, again, a Green Brexit’, repeating previous promises that farming and fishing policy and subsidies will be revamped to better deliver on environmental outcomes. They’ll need to be: NEF’s research into fishing for example, has found that without an array of new, ambitious policy, Brexit poses huge risks to sustainable practice.

There’s a lot of very good stuff in here – like more on the genuinely exciting promised overhaul on how farms are subsidised. But sifting out the rhetoric from the reality is always the greatest challenge.

With the wonders of Blue Planet II still fresh in our eyes – together with the widespread revulsion it triggered about our impact on the health of the oceans – the Government’s majored big time on cutting plastic use. Or has it? The hugely successful plastic bag charge is to be extended in England to cover all retailers, which is better late than never – and there’ll be a consultation on using tax and pricing to discourage other plastic use. This is a good start, but can’t help to feel like drops in the ocean. 

Mrs. May promised to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste within a quarter of a century” – ie, by the year 2042. That feels like a loooong time. You’d also be within your rights to be sceptical about that word avoidable’: supermarkets, currently surfing a wave of public ridicule for covering vegetables like cauliflower steaks’ in plastic, argue that all this packaging is necessary to minimise food waste.

The truth is that lately, within these Big Documents always lurks a Big Elephant: the Government is loath to tell companies what to do. While it has recently toned down its gung-ho rhetoric on deregulation, its preference for asking companies nicely to help clean up the mess they cause, rather than bloody well making them, means one can’t help but feel that the Environmental Plan lacks teeth.

That, combined with the whole thing being part of a charm offensive to woo younger voters, means as much is left out as is shoehorned in. One glaring omission is fracking – not mentioned at all. Ask the people of Eckington in Derbyshire whether they think the Government is entitled to bask in green glory, and you’d get short shrift. They may well ask how serious a Government that is bending over backwards for the frackers can be about the environment or the climate. And they’d be right to.

This is, after all, the reality of the environment’ for most people. Not grand plans and distant targets, but the here and now: nature, landscape, animals, and the health of where they live. What matters most to people is that they feel like they have an element of control over what happens to those things. With fracking, it is increasingly evident that they don’t: it is so nightmarishly unpopular precisely because it puts corporate profits ahead of local pride, democracy, and nature.

So, as is becoming customary, it’s a plan that has a grand vision, but is full of holes. What’s in there is often ultimately lacking in real bite; and plenty of things aren’t in there that really should be. The truth is that if the Government wants to actually be a good thing for people, place and the environment – rather than just talk about it – it should start by abandoning its quest to pincushion this green and pleasant land in fracking rigs.

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