Natural environment

Gove’s green guarantee: reforming the Common Agricultural Policy

On the Andrew Marr Show last weekend, the new Environment Secretary, the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, offered some succinct and unambiguous answers on the outline of agricultural subsidies post-Brexit. Of particular note, he confirmed that wealthy landowners could expect to receive less money in the form of subsidies after the current Parliament.

The Common Agricultural Policy and its problems

At present, the regulatory and funding systems which govern the British countryside are dominated by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This regime sees the UK receive over £3 billion per annum, which is allocated to farmers and landowners alike. Underpinning the CAP are two ‘pillars’, which dictate as to where public money is directed. Pillar I funding consists of measures such as income support (money awarded per hectare of land owned), and receives three quarters of the total CAP budget. Pillar II funding, which is paid out through each EU member state’s Rural Development Programme, is supposed to encourage environmentally sustainable farming practices in return for cash payments.

Unfortunately, this system has a number of perverse unintentional environmental implications. Firstly, the strict requirements for Pillar I payments mean that farmers have a fiscal incentive to avoid agri-environment practices. One instance of this playing out in reality is reports of some farmers felling trees under the justification that it will increase the amount of land on which they can farm, and thus claim subsidies for.

Secondly, by subsidising inefficient farming operations, the CAP has allowed agriculture to take place in areas it otherwise would not. Hill farming, for instance, is rarely economic, as the market price received for produce cultivated on hillsides would not cover the costs of production – it is only thanks to subsidies that the practice persists. Without subsidies, therefore, this land would go unfarmed, potentially allowing more afforestation in the uplands, and increased biodiversity as a result.

The future of agricultural subsidies after Brexit

With woodland coverage in the UK having shrunk to just 13% of the total land area, society is missing out on a wide range of benefits that trees offer. A report from the Forestry Commission cites how trees purify the air, serve as natural flood defences, and are even associated with improving mental health amongst individuals. It is for exactly these reasons that Bright Blue launched its campaign earlier this year for the Government to improve tree planting incentives for farmers after Brexit.

But what other funding priorities should the new post-Brexit agricultural policy have? The National Trust has called for taxpayer money to be paid out to farmers only where clear public benefits are delivered. They have also pointed out the fact that there are certain aspects to agriculture which degrade the natural environment, such as through the excessive use of harmful fertilisers, and which currently are actively rewarded by the CAP. Thus, a more targeted system of granting funds to farmers would allow the Government to remove or reduce payments from those who engage in such detrimental practices.

Echoing this perspective is Professor Dieter Helm of the University of Oxford, who argues that the problem is not that farmers receive public money per se, but rather the ends to which it supports. Further, he argues that farmers should be regulated to maintain the land to a certain level in a way that avoids harming the wider environment and that public funds should be earmarked to directly purchase public goods from farmers.

The consequences of Brexit on the agricultural community will be pronounced, perhaps more so than for any other sector of the economy. Many farmers are anxious that the end to subsidy payments could imperil their businesses and livelihoods. Yet such fears may be premature and unwarranted. In 1973, New Zealand’s farmers faced a comparable situation when Britain – one of its then major trading partners for foodstuffs like lamb and dairy – joined the European Economic Community and thereby adopted its external tariffs.

New Zealand responded by removing all of its agricultural subsidies in 1984 for food production and fertiliser use. These subsidies had been blamed for environmental degradation, low productivity, and inducing a lack of innovation within the sector. Once withdrawn, some smaller farmers who lacked the requisite economies of scale went out of business. But many others successfully embraced innovations in science and technology as the means to realise increasing yields, and began to utilise the differing types of land more effectively and more efficiently. Accordingly, New Zealand’s agricultural sector enjoyed average real terms growth of 4% for the next 15 years and has since established itself as a key component of the global food supply network.

In terms of the environment, the results have been mixed. With the lucrative subsidies scrapped, farmers found it less affordable to purchase artificial fertilisers and pesticides, and their use declined accordingly. Moreover, rates of afforestation increased, and the total number of hectares of land dedicated to pasture fell. However, critics of New Zealand’s approach have cited concerns about how the rate of conversion of indigenous grassland to exotic pasture increased in the South Island by 67% between the period 1990-2001 and 2001-2008. In addition, by excessively focusing on its comparative advantage in livestock production – a highly greenhouse gas-intensive activity – New Zealand has become the largest emitter of livestock emissions per capita.


In leaving the EU, and by extension the constraints of the CAP, Britain has presented itself with an historic opportunity to review the relationship between the Government and the agricultural sector. The substantial sums of money which are currently sent to subsidise inefficient, and at times environmentally injurious, farming operations can be redirected to finance projects and farming practices that improve the environment.

During the debates which took place in the run up to the 23rd June 2016, there were only cursory mentions of the implications of Brexit for the environment, with the Remain side highlighting the potential loss of environmental regulation, and the Leave side promoting the opportunity to relinquish the EU’s unwieldly CAP. We now have a Government re-committed to “being the first generation to leave the environment in a better condition” than it inherited. Certainly, Gove’s comments this weekend indicate his desire to use Brexit and the UK’s departure from the CAP to further that ambition.

Eamonn Ives is a researcher at Bright Blue

More green homes: building houses and improving the environment

The UK has a housing crisis. The Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2015 General Election pledged to build one million homes over the course of the parliament, or 200,000 new houses a year. But many believe this is insufficient. For instance, an independent report by KPMG found that, owing to demographic change, 250,000 new homes a year are required. But current building rates lag well behind even the Government’s modest target, with just 140,000 new build homes completed last year.

The Prime Minister wants to rectify this. On the steps of Downing Street after becoming Prime Minister, she included in her list of burning injustices facing modern Britain the fact that young people now find it harder than ever to own a home. In her speech to the 2016 Conservative Party Conference, she named housing as a dysfunctional market that government needs to step up to correct.

But, as it is responsible for around 11% of land use in England, housing’s relation to the environment must also be considered. The most recent State of Nature report, published by RSPB and a range of conservation organisations, finds that in the UK 56% of the species they studied have declined over recent decades, with more than one in ten of all the species assessed are under threat of disappearing from our shores altogether. The Government has committed to turning this around, with its pledge to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. But it needs specific policies if it is to realise this vision.

This was the context for this month’s housing white paper. And, while many of the measures contained within it are welcome, it is a missed opportunity for both housebuilding and the environment.

Positives from the housing white paper

Let’s start with the positives. First, the Government strategy places greater emphasis on the quality of design of new developments. Under the proposals, local and neighbourhood plans must contain expectations about design standards. Local residents will be able to object to new developments on aesthetic grounds. According to government polling, 73% of people say that they would be more likely to support new homes if they look nice and are in keeping with other properties in the area. This measure will both boost numbers of homes and improve the appearance of the built environment.

Second, the Government plan supports high-density housing. The National Planning Policy Framework will be amended to advise against low-density developments in areas of high housing demand, increase scope for high-density developments in urban areas by redeveloping low-rise warehouses or extending buildings upwards, and increase flexibility over planning restrictions, such as daylight requirements. Greater density of buildings could increase the volume of new homes and improve the environment, as it frees up more land for nature and enables more sustainable transport solutions to be utilised. But this must not mean sacrificing access to urban green spaces, nor must it mean sacrificing high-quality design standards.

The negative: the Green Belt

But the white paper’s greatest shortcoming was that it maintained a very rigid approach to the Green Belt, with councils told not to allow any development except in very special circumstances. The Green Belt was first established around London in 1938, and in 1955 was extended to other cities. Its purpose was to prevent urban sprawl. The Green Belt has largely failed on its own terms.

Cities like London are characterised by low-density housing, a fact that government acknowledges in the housing white paper. For instance, Paris has a population density of 213 people per hectare, while Islington’s (London’s densest borough) is 128 people per hectare. This is because, instead of living in more densely-built homes in central London, London’s workers have just leapfrogged the Green Belt and bought homes in commuter towns throughout the South East of England. This has led to a proliferation of low-density housing developments across a much broader area, and an increase in carbon-intensive commuter journeys to work each day.

The Green Belt shouldn’t be abolished altogether. Its benefits include reducing air pollution, mitigating the impact of flooding, and providing urban residents with access to green space, which can bring positive effects on mental health. But if homes are to be built where people want to live, then some of the Green Belt will need to be built on. Many have proposed limiting these sites to ones within a certain proximity of a train station.

But there is an upside for the environment in allowing building on the Green Belt, beyond merely reducing the number and distance of journeys travelled by commuters. At the moment, much Green Belt land is of poor environmental value. Just over 7% of London’s Green Belt consists of golf courses, for instance. While this isn’t an excuse in itself for scrapping the Green Belt, it demonstrates the urgent need to improve its natural capital. Therefore, in return for being allowed to build on these highly valuable plots of land, developers should have an obligation to improve the stock of natural capital elsewhere in a local authority area, for instance by planting more trees or creating nature trails. This investment should more than reverse the loss of natural capital entailed by the new development. This would deliver more homes and improve the stock of natural capital in England.


Building more homes and improving the environment are not in opposition. More homes, more densely built, should be accompanied by major investment in natural capital in the outskirts of our major cities. As it considers the consultation responses to its white paper, the Government should be bold.

Sam Hall is a researcher at Bright Blue

Can the elephant be saved for future generations?

We are facing the prospect of elephants becoming extinct in a few generations. The consigning of these beautiful and magnificent creatures to history would be a tragic loss to wildlife and to our planet.

So the announcement that China will introduce a total ban on domestic ivory trading was a welcome Christmas present for many conservationists. By the end of 2017, it will be illegal to process or sell ivory in China. This will mean the current 34 licensed ivory processing shops and 130 retail outlets will be closed.

However, China is the destination for an estimated 70% of illegal ivory, making it by far the world’s largest market. The Chinese government had already taken steps to ban ivory imports for products manufactured before 1975. The online ivory trade had also been banned, although it has proven ineffective, with the total number of ivory items auctioned online more than doubling between 2010 and 2011.

But what are the trends in elephant numbers and the ivory market worldwide, and what other policies are in place or being discussed to protect this invaluable part of our natural heritage?

The ivory trade’s link to conservation

Researchers carrying out the ‘Great elephant census’ have found that, between 2007 and 2014, 144,000 elephants across the world have been lost. This represents a fall of around 30% over just seven years. The population decrease in recent decades has been stark. Before Europe colonised Africa, elephants were thought to number 20 million. But from a population size of over one million in the 1970s, the current figure is now estimated to be 352,271. The authors warn that, without action to conserve this species, whole elephant populations will be wiped out.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has attributed this fall in numbers largely to poaching, which they believe has surged since 2007. This has partly been driven by the growth of better-organised criminal networks able to smuggle wildlife products across borders and through poorly regulated African markets. The increased prosperity of Asian countries like China and Thailand is also fuelling demand for illegal ivory products, and making the prize for poachers that much bigger. In China, for instance, the price of raw ivory tripled between 2010 and 2014. The size of the illegal wildlife market globally, of which ivory is a major part, is estimated to be between $15 billion and $20 billion each year.

The situation in the UK

Currently there is a UK ban on raw tusks, or unworked ivory, of any age. In September 2016, the Government announced its intention to ban all ivory products made after 1947. Ministers will consult on proposals later this year. But many would like the Government to go further, including Conservatives.

At the 2015 general election, the Conservative Party called for a total ban on ivory sales in their manifesto. Former Foreign Secretary Lord Hague and former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson have both argued for the manifesto pledge to be implemented in full. Jeremy Lefroy MP called a backbench business debate on the issue late last year. They argue that modern ivory can be made to look antique and that, while there are legitimate channels through which to launder illegal ivory, this demand will continue to make poaching a worthwhile risk.

The UK also plays an important role in the international trade. Between 2009 and 2014, 40% of all customs seizures of wildlife products in the UK were ivory. Last year about 110kg of ivory was stopped at Heathrow alone. This material was discovered by the UK Border Force, which has a special unit that focuses on tackling the illegal wildlife trade.

In 2014, the UK Government announced a £13 million fund to tackle the illegal wildlife trade at source. In 2016, the Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom MP announced a further £13 million of funding. This supports a range of projects, such as strengthening the judicial system in countries like Tanzania and Kenya, educating consumers about the dangers of wildlife products, and training anti-poaching rangers.

The global context

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the international ivory trade in 1989. There are 183 countries that are signatories to the overall convention, which first came into force in 1975 and which now protects a total of 35,000 species. However, even though international ivory trade has been banned, some domestic markets remain open, for instance, in Japan.

Last year, to the applause of conservationists, the US tightened its restriction on ivory sales, so that only items over a hundred years old or those containing very small quantities of ivory will be legal to sell. Domestic bans can help to effectively stigmatise ivory, reducing the desirability of the product and therefore the price. Although bans can only outlaw legitimate trade of ivory, the stigma can also help to push down demand from the black market. A full ivory ban also simplifies the enforcement procedures, removing any potential loopholes for smugglers to exploit.


Elephants are majestic animals, and there are increasingly few of them left. One of the fundamental conservative insights is that each generation has a duty to pass on a preserved inheritance to the next. The Duke of Cambridge, a patron of the wildlife conservation charity Tusk, has spoken powerfully of the danger of extinction: “Let us not tell our children the sad tale of how we watched as the last elephants, rhinos and tigers died out, but the inspiring story of how we turned the tide and preserved them for all humanity.”

If elephants are to survive for future generations to marvel at and enjoy, then concerted international action is urgently required. Conservatives, who, intuitively understand the importance of nature conservation, should be in the vanguard of this movement.

Sam Hall is a researcher at Bright Blue

Why solving the global wildlife crisis could help build a stronger, healthier Britain

Data released today by WWF and the Zoological Society of London sends a shocking message about the health of our planet: global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles have declined by 58% since 1970.  The Living Planet Report shows that without urgent action to reduce humanity’s impact on species and ecosystems, vertebrate populations are projected to decline by a staggering 67% from 1970 levels by the end of this decade. 

Human activity including agriculture, pollution and hunting has eroded populations of African elephants in Tanzania, maned wolves in Brazil, leatherback turtles in the tropical Atlantic, and orcas in European waters.  We lose an area of forest equivalent to a football pitch every two seconds, we have overfished our oceans, and through over abstraction and dam building some rivers no longer reach the sea.  This is not just a faraway problem: the RSPB’s recent State of Nature report showed that almost 60% of our native species, from kingfishers to hedgehogs to turtle doves, have declined in recent decades.

We ignore the decline of other species at our peril – for they are the barometer that measures our impact on the world that sustains us.  We are entering an era where climate change, floods and health costs from pollution threaten our economic prosperity, resilience, and wellbeing. This is arguably the greatest challenge humanity has yet faced - but great challenges can be the catalyst for great progress.  By basing all future policy decisions on the understanding that a healthy natural environment is a crucial underpinning to our economy and society, Ministers could not just help save the global environment, but also markedly improve the lives of millions of people. 

Laudably, the Government says it wants this generation to be the first to leave the natural environment in an improved condition.  So as we prepare to leave the EU, Ministers must jettison any temptation to erode the environmental rules and standards their predecessors worked to shape.  Instead, they should build on these achievements.  

Post-Brexit, there is no reason why the UK should not lead the world in running a successful, low-carbon economy that respects and nurtures precious wildlife and wild places, at home and abroad.  The promised 25-year environment plan, due for publication in draft form later this year, could start this process.  It should be explicitly backed by the Prime Minister, boast strong proposals for reform, and apply to every corner of government.

What should this plan contain?

It should set ambitious goals for restoration and improvement of our natural resources - including forest cover, urban green space, air, water and soil quality - and put in place a transparent monitoring system so our natural capital can be managed as prudently as our financial resources.  

It should hold all government departments and public bodies accountable for how their policies and actions will affect nature for generations to come. For example, the impact of any new housing, transport or energy infrastructure should be assessed against rigorous environmental standards – including on carbon emissions.  

Nature doesn’t recognise borders - and our actions at home can also impact wildlife on the other side of the planet.  So the plan should set out provisions to measure and manage the UK’s impact on nature in other countries, so that unsustainable supply chains, for example in food and raw materials such as wood, palm oil and soy, become a thing of the past.  Savvy businesses – many of which already take advice from WWF in order to decrease their environmental impact – would have every reason to back sensible regulation that levels the playing field and helps preserve essential resources over the long term. 

There are precedents to build on here.  The Paris agreement on climate change (which British Ministers played an active role in shaping, and which Theresa May is committed to adopting) has been ratified by over 50 nations.  The Government is a signatory to the UN’s sustainable development goals and has a proud record in fighting the illegal wildlife trade, recently backing new restrictions on the international trade in threatened species including pangolins and African grey parrots. December’s conference of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity is a vital forum for the Government to reiterate that it is serious about helping tackle the global loss of species.  And a 25-year plan that tackles our international footprint and provides inter-generational accountability would allow the UK to show international leadership.

A lot can change within just one generation.  So allow me to imagine what life could be like in only 25 years’ time. Flooding in towns and cities could be reduced with restored wetlands and rivers which, now brimming with wildlife, provide us with beautiful places to spend our free time.  Farmers will be paid a decent income to create beautiful, wildlife-rich habitats, using natural methods to improve productivity and contribute to societal benefits such as clean water and reduced flooding.  Our seas will be full of life, supporting a restored and sustainable fishing industry. Housing and infrastructure developments will be located where they will do minimal environmental damage, working with nature rather than against it. Children will be healthier both mentally and physically as they play in green space in all our cities, towns and villages, and their future will be more secure as our carbon emissions fall to almost nothing.  

And new industries – boosted by a low-carbon Industrial Strategy - will create jobs in an increasingly resource-efficient, circular economy in which materials get reused and recycled, we consume in ways that do not leave a footprint internationally, and the value of nature is incorporated into business plans and government policy.

Sensible stewardship of the natural world is not an alternative to enterprise; on the contrary, it is now a prerequisite for the economic and social health of communities and nations.  As a global green industrial revolution gets underway, the Government should not be afraid to use its power to ensure the UK leads rather than lags behind.

Mike Barrett is Director of Science and Policy at WWF-UK

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

A post-liberal approach to the natural environment

As Brexit approaches, too many public figures seem determined to stress what divides rather than what unites us; yet the great majority of people outside Westminster simply want to get on with building a country we can be proud of, with a fairer economy and healthier environment. 

Luckily, the further away from SW1 you travel, the more possible it is to imagine a politics that could make this happen.  From Brixham to Birmingham, Sutherland to Stoke, people tell us that they value relationships and the bonds within communities, as much as individual rights and freedoms.  They are sceptical about allowing the state to dominate their lives, but recognise its role in making things better.  They don’t think of people or nature as commodities; but embrace the role of businesses in building economies that flourish.

Theresa May seems instinctively to understand this politics, which has loosely been called post-liberalism. If she were to put it to work to restore Britain’s natural environment, she could begin a project of remarkable national renewal. 

Our wildlife has suffered horribly since the war; our soils are in poor health; and we are facing the impacts of climate change without the resilience we need.  The last Government showed what can be done, by securing wide-reaching reforms to European fisheries policies, and creating a magnificent over-seas network of marine nature reserves; but we need more of that ambition, if we are to turn Brexit into a moment of opportunity for the natural world.

The first step will be to re-think the role of the state in protecting and restoring our environment.

As the Government has already shown through its welcome ban on microbeads, emphatic state action is sometimes simply the right thing to do. But truly effective regulation should act as a spur to innovation, creating dividends for those able to produce cleaner, more efficient and safer products.  At its best, regulation is dynamic. Its job is specifically to render itself redundant.

A similar story can be told about public funding.  State support can help drive down the costs of new products or practices, and in doing so, become an agent for change.  Governments around the world have helped reduce the costs of solar power, for example. The trick is to taper such support in a way that works for consumers and builds markets, rather than demanding an open ended commitment to subsidy.

In an ideal world, the active state would be an environmental problem-solver, not a nanny.  But in many cases the best solutions don’t come from the centre, but from local people working to improve the places where they live.  Their ‘ask’ from Government is to be given more power to do better. 

This is certainly the case for many farmers trying to do the right thing for their businesses and for nature.  A staggering proportion of today’s farmers say they aren’t profitable without the under-pinning support of the single farm payment.  Yet many also acknowledge that this payment, and the rules that come with it, have done little to incentivise innovation; and that they feel trapped in unsustainable patterns of business that demoralise them and their families. 

The remarkable thing is that in many cases, the route to a more profitable farm is also the route to a better environment. I recently met a farm owner and his young manager in Devon who have dedicated years to developing a machine to turn sea-food waste into high-grade fertiliser. Outside Banbury, I met a young business man who is turning his farm around by matching inputs to outputs with passion and precision.  Producers of the highest quality food tell me that they could sell at prices lower than those of the supermarkets, if they could build shorter supply chains. 

The best food needn’t cost the earth – for nature or customers.  But we desperately need an agricultural policy that supports positive change, rather than underpinning the status quo – through capital grants, advice, and backing for smaller farms (the core of our rural communities and our biggest pool of innovators); rather than static payments and moribund rules.

Once we have this foundation, we can encourage farmers to form partnerships locally to deliver more ambitious projects of environmental renewal.  This might include restoring endangered species and habitats, reducing flood risk or cutting the cost of clean drinking water.  It might even see rural communities offering new ways for children from towns and cities to spend time in the countryside – making a real difference to their development and mental health.

Let us imagine that by the end of this parliament, the Government had committed itself to making the UK a world leader in environmental recovery, with bold plans for restoring nature, reducing pollution, and rebuilding sustainable farm and fishing businesses up and down the country.  And let us imagine too, that the engines for this project were local communities and thriving businesses committed to making great places - with the support of an active but enabling state.  Who would care then, which of us (or them) had voted leave or remain?

Ruth Davis is a senior associate at E3G

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

Creating a buzz about pesticides

Earlier this week, the Centre for Hydrology and Ecology provided the latest twist in the ongoing debate about the impact of pesticides on bees. Their study concluded that half of the decline in the bee populations they observed over 18 years could be attributable to the use of a controversial type of pesticide, neonicotinoids (neonics).

Campaigning organisations like 38 degrees and Friends of the Earth have mobilised significant public support for an outright ban on neonicotinoids. In 2013, a YouGov poll found that 71% of the population would support an outright ban on neonicotinoids.

Given the importance of bees for sustaining our natural environment and our domestic farming industry, the concern is well-placed. The stakes are high for the agriculture sector, as 30% of crops globally depend on natural pollinators such as bees, which are worth an estimated $360 billion to the industry.

The decline of bees

There is a widespread perception that bees are in decline. There has been an observable loss of wild bumblebee species, with two out of 26 species from 80 years ago no longer present in the UK and a further six now found in much smaller areas of the country. Similarly, since the Second World War, the number of honeybee colonies has fallen from 400,000 to around 130,000 in 2013.

However, thankfully, there does seem to have been a very recent recovery in bee numbers: between 2008 and 2012, government figures show an increase in the number of honeybee colonies.

The decline in honeybees has been observed around the world, and is often referred to as ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’. A range of causes have been adduced for this: the Varroa mite, poor nutrition, urbanisation, agricultural intensification, habitat degradation, and climate change.

But some have attributed part of the loss of bees to the use of certain pesticides and, in particular, neonics. First used in the 1990s, neonics are coated on to the seed of crops, such as oilseed rape. The pesticide is then absorbed and transported throughout the plant. This prevents pests, like flea beetle larvae, from destroying the crop.

There is now a significant body of academic evidence showing harmful effects of neonicotinoids on bees. A 2015 study found that the bumblebees’ pollinating services are reduced by exposure to neonics. Another 2015 study, which carried out a large field trial of honeybees that came into contact with neonics, found a correlation between honeybee colony losses and the use of neonics. A 2016 study observed a decline in brood production in colonies exposed to neonics. 

Government response

The regulation of pesticides is currently an EU competency. Depending on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, the responsibility for pesticides may be returned to the UK government. In 2013, the EU imposed a moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids, on the grounds that they posed a threat to bees. An EU review on whether to lift the ban on neonicotinoids will be concluded by January 2017.

The UK Government is opposed to the EU ban of neonics. It has published two literature reviews, one from 2012 and the other from 2013, assessing the link between pesticides and the decline in the bee population. They found no unequivocal evidence of ‘sub-lethal’ effects on pollinators. They criticised some of the studies as failing to accurately recreate real-life conditions in the field with laboratory experiments.

In 2013, the UK Government was forced to implement the ban on the use of neonics. But, while they have no choice but to enforce the EU regulation, UK ministers have the powers to grant emergency authorisation for the use of neonics in limited circumstances. They did so in 2015 for around 5% of the UK’s oilseed rape crop, following the advice of their scientific advisory body, UK Expert Committee on Pesticides.

The Government, nevertheless, has shown concern about the bee population, with the publication of a ‘National Pollinator Strategy’ in 2014. The strategy does acknowledge potential adverse effects of unregulated pesticides on pollinators. But its response is only to keep the scientific evidence on pesticides under review. The majority of the proposals involve government working in partnership with farmers, landowners, and beekeepers to improve land management and husbandry practices on a voluntary basis.


There is growing evidence of a causal link between neonicotinoids and bee decline. This week’s study by the Centre for Hydrology and Ecology further strengthens the case. But whether the harm is yet sufficient to merit a ban, or whether the trade-off is acceptable in order to improve crop yields, is a matter of judgement. It is also hard to assess whether it is primarily neonics driving the decline in bee numbers.

Oilseed rape cannot be grown without some kind of pest control mechanism. A vital issue that policymakers must consider is whether the risks of neonicotinoids outweigh the risks of the alternative pesticides. For this reason, the best hope of a solution lies in further research and development of alternative, more sustainable pesticides.

Sam Hall is researcher at Bright Blue

Britain’s forests: not seeing the wood for the trees

Forests are an essential component of our natural environment. They provide eco-systems for wildlife to flourish, beautify landscapes, and provide green spaces for recreation and leisure. Matt Browne, an associate at Bright Blue, has already written for this site about how the National Forest in the Midlands, planted under John Major’s government, is an exemplar of green conservatism in action.

Yet further action is required to improve the state of the UK’s forestry. England has one of the lowest levels of forest coverage in the Europe. Just 11% of its land surface is covered with trees, compared to an EU average of over 44%. Across the whole UK, the figure is not much higher – just 13%.

The pendulum has now started to swing the other way, as forestry’s share of UK land has started to tick up. The nadir came after the First World War, when forest coverage fell to just 5%. The Government now boasts that woodland cover is back to the levels of the fourteenth century.

Policy framework

The twin challenges for government in improving forest coverage are maintaining existing forests and planting new trees.

Ancient woodlands are defined as forests planted over 400 years ago and make up approximately a third of England’s total woodland. They are particularly important habitats for wildlife. They enjoy special protection from development, although organisations like the Woodland Trust claim that many are under threat from a loophole in the planning guidelines. In 2014, the Communities and Local Government select committee recommended strengthening the wording of the National Planning Policy Framework, adapting the clause that allows ancient trees to be cut down if the benefits of development outweigh the loss.

Forests are a sensitive and potent political issue. One of the biggest policy reversals in the last Parliament came when plans were announced to privatise the state-owned Forestry Commission, which administers the 18% of the UK’s forests that are in public ownership.

Following the u-turn, the Government set up the Independent Panel on Forestry to advise on the future of public woodlands in the UK. In response to the Panel’s report, the Government in 2013 announced its target to increase tree coverage in England from 10% to 12% by 2060.

The Government has maintained this commitment, by pledging to plant more trees in the UK in this Parliament. In the Spending Review last year, £350 million was ring-fenced for spending on public forests, with the aim of planting an additional 11 million trees over the course of the Parliament.

Yet analysis last week by the Woodland Trust found that the rate of new tree planting had slowed, and was insufficient to meet the planting rates required to meet the 2060 target. The goal requires the planting of 5000 hectares of trees annually on average, but last year just 700 hectares were added.

Benefits of woodland

The maintenance of forests falls within the Government’s natural capital policy agenda, which provides a framework for ascribing value to and enhancing natural assets. In their latest report, the Natural Capital Committee, set up by the Coalition government, called for more trees to be planted on the periphery of major cities and towns. They argued that this would bring greater recreational benefits and carbon savings than continuing to plant new forests in peatlands. They quantified the net economic benefits of this approach as being worth £550 million per year.

Planting more forests will have a number of important benefits for the UK’s natural environment. First, trees lock up carbon, allowing warming emissions to be removed from the atmosphere and helping to mitigate climate change. The Committee on Climate Change has recommended that an additional 10,000 hectares of trees are planted annually in order to cost-effectively meet the emission reductions in the Climate Change Act 2008. It’s worth noting that the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation for additional tree planting is twice the level implied by the Government’s 2060 target.

Second, trees can make catchment areas more resilient to flooding. They slow the flow of flood water, by evaporating more water, increasing water absorption by the soil, roughening up land surfaces, and decreasing soil erosion. This helps the environment adapt to the effects of climate change. In her statement to Parliament following the flooding in December 2015, the Environment Secretary Liz Truss MP identified tree planting as part of a long-term approach to flood risk management.

It is also claimed that there are economic benefits of woodland. By quantifying the monetary value of a hectare of woodland in terms of health, climate, business, recreational, and water management benefits, the Woodland Trust has estimated the total value of £270 billion of Britain’s forests.

The Government’s 25-year environmental plan is due before the end of the year. Ministers have indicated already that forests are going to be one of its focuses. It’s clear that greater afforestation offers many public benefits. The challenge is now to increase the rate of planting to match the ambition. The forests planted under this Government could rival the Major government’s National Forest as a demonstration of green conservatism in action.

Why conservatives should welcome the circular economy

Not many people have heard about the ‘circular economy’, and even fewer know what it means. But, among environmentalists, it’s increasingly talked of as a major new economic trend.

It’s a term that means different things to different people. But the core of the idea is resource efficiency, the idea of reusing and recycling materials, and maximising the economic value of the things that we produce. It is a move away from the linear economic model of ‘make-use-dispose’, and a way to promote sustainable growth in a future of resource scarcity and a growing global population.

Making the circular economy a tangible concept can be hard. In the Green Alliance’s 2015 report on the circular economy, they outlined some of the different examples of circular economy activities. These include:

·      Reusing. Using the finished product for the same purpose as it was originally manufactured (e.g. using a second-hand iPhone)

·      Servitisation. Using assets more efficiently, such as through leasing or short-term service provision (e.g. renting a room via AirBnB)

·      Recycling. Using recovered materials to create new products

·      Biorefining. Extracting useful, valuable material from biowaste

Domestically, ministers at Defra are supportive of the circular economy. In December 2015, the EU Commission published a new action plan on the circular economy, which includes new common targets for EU Member States on waste and landfill use. It’s something that will increase in importance, therefore, in the coming years. This blog will look at some of the evidence around the economic and environmental impact of the circular economy.


There are significant economic benefits for businesses of cutting waste and being more efficient in their consumption of resources. A circular economy approach can help firms reduce their costs and make them more competitive globally.

Last year, the Green Alliance analysed the impact of the circular economy on employment. They studied the performance of the waste and recycling industry between 2000 and 2010, a period in which landfill declined and recycling rates rose. During that time, employment in the sector increased from 75,000 to 130,000 people, and sales turnover nearly tripled, up from £6.5 billion to £19 billion. They also examined the potential for the whole circular economy up to 2030. They found that there’s the potential for between 54,000 and 102,000 net jobs to be created in that time.

As more resources are consumed and they become scarcer, businesses that rely on natural resources will become more susceptible to price volatility. The circular economy reduces businesses’ exposure to these price risks. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an organisation set up to promote the circular economy, has worked with McKinsey to quantify the benefits to businesses of being more resource efficient. They have found that, by reducing the amount of raw materials businesses need, the net material savings across the whole EU could be between $340-630 billion per year.


As well as offering economic benefits to businesses, there are advantages to the environment of a circular economy approach. The circular economy recognises that some natural resources are limited. To achieve sustainable economic growth, countries cannot rely on infinite consumption of finite resources.

Many activities associated with the circular economy reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore support efforts to mitigate climate change. For instance, recycling food waste rather than sending it to landfill reduces harmful methane emissions. Through the process of anaerobic digestion, food waste creates biogas, a low-carbon energy source that displaces fossil fuels.

Circular economy approaches can also reduce pollution that is harmful to the natural environment. For example, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has produced a report on plastics and the circular economy. Eight million tonnes of plastic leaks into the ocean every year, adding to the total of 150 million tonnes of plastic that is in the ocean today. Plastics also represent about 6% of global oil consumption, and is thus a major driver of fossil fuels use. In a circular economy, these environmental impacts could be mitigated through greater recycling, greater use of reusable packaging, and the use of compostable packaging.  


The more the circular economy approach is adopted, the greater the scale of economic transformation is required. For instance, the Chatham House has argued that a circular economy implies the decoupling of rising prosperity with growth in resource consumption. This talk of economic revolution can make conservatives anxious.

The idea of a circular economy, however, shouldn’t be seen in such stark terms. Organisations like WRAP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation partner with businesses to develop circular economy approaches that increase their profits. It can be a very practical way of reducing inefficient economic activity and improving the natural environment. Conservatives should ignore the hyperbole, and embrace the opportunity that it offers.