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Owen Paterson: A healthy natural environment will sustain economic growth

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 22, 2013

The first question when considering development in the countryside should always be can the environmental damage be avoided or mitigated

The first question when considering development in the countryside should always be can the environmental damage be avoided or mitigated

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Setting out his vision for protecting the natural world, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson says it is possible – for Britain to grow its economy while also improving the environment.

My desire to improve, rather than just protect, the environment, while at the same time growing the economy, stems from Edmund Burke's description of us as the "temporary possessors and life-renters" of the earth who must live in a way which doesn't "leave to those who come after a ruin instead of a habitation".

I have lived in the countryside all my life. I have always been immersed in its activities. I have seen for myself the impact each of us has on the environment. That's why I believe we need to leave our natural environment in a better condition than we inherited it.

This is not only because it is the right thing to do but because it is the only way in which we will secure growth that is both environmentally and economically sustainable.

There is no doubt that our natural environment is under pressure. In the UK, populations of farmland birds have declined by 50 per cent and woodland birds by 17 per cent since the 1970s. That said, it's not all doom and gloom, and while many species have declined, others have increased, such as the red kite, otter and large blue butterfly.

The causes of this decline are loss of habitat and increasingly intense human use of the countryside. It is a complex and long-term issue that we must, as a society, work together to solve. This is especially the case as we try to deliver more with fewer resources and less taxpayers' money.

I am a practical environmentalist. Too often those who say they are doing their best to protect the environment shy away from difficult decisions. I won't do that. The environment is much too important to be left to ideologues.

Until recently the choice has often been portrayed as one of growing the economy or protecting the environment. That's not how I see it. I am convinced we can only improve the environment if we have a growing, prosperous economy. In short, we cannot have sustained economic growth without a healthy natural environment. Neither can we invest in nature without the resources generated by economic activity. That is why I want to secure growth and improve the environment in tandem.

Take the water industry, which is a prime example of economic investment as environmental investment, of improving the environment while growing the economy. The privatisation of our water industry in the 1980s secured more than £116 billion of private investment – investment that would never have come from the Exchequer. As a result, we have moved from several of our major rivers being classified as biologically dead to our waterways now being cleaner than they have been for decades.

The privatisation of the water industry shows us we should not be afraid of economic or technological innovation. In fact, we should embrace it.

If we tried to support today's population using the production methods of the 1950s, instead of farming 38 per cent of all land, we would need to use 82 per cent. Similarly, technological advances have meant that Britain now has three times as much woodland as it did a century ago. Woodland cover in England reached a nadir of five per cent at the end of the First World War. Today, it stands at over 10 per cent, around the same level as when Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales.

In a small and heavily-populated country such as ours, there will always be developments or infrastructure projects that require a trade-off between economic and social benefits and the natural environment. It could be a housing development that would cover woodland, or a road crossing a wetland area. The first question should always be can the environmental damage be avoided or mitigated. If it can't then we would look to offsetting to add an equal or greater amount of environmental value to another area.

The ideal outcome is a system that correctly values nature. We know it can work. In Australia offsetting has reduced the number of applications to develop on native grassland by 80 per cent. Such a system can provide certainty for both developers and the environment.

Our countryside is something which needs constant management and intervention. And it is against this background, that we must acknowledge that the beautiful landscapes and diverse ecosystems the countryside supports will fall into disrepair without the presence of thriving communities and businesses.

Farmers alone are responsible for managing 75 per cent of the UK's surface area. They are some of our greatest environmentalists, from whom we can learn a great deal.

That's why it's so important that the British countryside is a living, working one and why I want to make sure that people in rural areas have access to the same services and facilities as people living in urban ones.

To achieve this we all need to work together; people, environmental groups, businesses and government. What we can't do is look to government to have all the answers. That's not how nature works and that's not how the economy works, but I believe we can have long term growth and improve our environment. That is my vision.

This is an edited version of a speech delivered to the Policy Exchange this week by the Right Honorable Owen Paterson MP.

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4 comments

  • auntyapril  |  November 22 2013, 7:58PM

    http://tinyurl.com/qd5ysvs The Government is failing to deliver more than a third of its natural environment commitments, despite huge public support for action for nature, wildlife and the countryside. The Government's performance in protecting our environment has come under scrutiny in Nature Check 2013, 1 a report published today by 41 environmental organisations, under the umbrella of Wildlife and Countryside Link. 2The proportion of nature commitments on which the Government is failing has steadily worsened during its term in office. Areas in which it is falling short include protection of the Green Belt, farm animal welfare, designating the full network of Marine Conservation Zones and reversing wildlife

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  • auntyapril  |  November 22 2013, 7:48PM

    Tony Juniper's Guardian critique of Owen Paterson All this contrasts starkly with the style and approach of the other most significant environment secretary of the past three decades – John Gummer (now Lord Deben). A Conservative, market advocate and rural politician with deep roots in the countryside, he came to the brief with little direct knowledge of some of the issues that he was to grapple with. But in a short time he became a knowledgeable secretary of state; he mastered the science and worked with cabinet colleagues to meet emerging challenges, including being the first serious political actor in the UK to put climate change on the national agenda. He worked with conservation and campaign groups to craft new policies, including the pioneering idea of biodiversity action plans, an idea that took the government conservation efforts beyond legal controls and into dynamic new partnerships. He translated new european directives into UK law and worked with industry in dealing with a plethora of questions ranging from water abstraction to packaging waste targets. Rather than crush or marginalise statutory bodies, he had the intellect to work with them in finding solutions to big challenges. And also unlike Paterson, Gummer had the leadership qualities necessary for seeing the bigger picture, to rise above playing to the gallery of back-bench extremists, or fighting an outdated class-war. While remaining loyal to his party, Gummer demonstrated the capacity to do good politics through bringing others into the tent of policy-making.

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  • auntyapril  |  November 22 2013, 7:41PM

    http://tinyurl.com/nuloqqe Owen Paterson is trying to hard sell GM agriculture, but: no research has been done on whether Golden Rice actually protects vision: "It has not yet been determined whether daily consumption of Golden Rice does improve the vitamin A status of people who are vitamin A deficient and could therefore reduce related conditions such as night blindness."(http://tinyurl.com/37fetg ). Or whether weedkillers that are used in conjunction with GM would be safe for use in the UK: "Zac Goldsmith: To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what research his Department has conducted on the effect of the development of glyphosate-resistant weeds in (a) the UK, (b) the EU and (c) other countries and the effect of such developments on the costs of production. George Eustice: DEFRA has not commissioned any research on the effect of glyphosate-resistant weeds." None; apparently there isn't even an internal evaluation.

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  • Pink_Diesel  |  November 22 2013, 2:56PM

    Perhaps the worst Defra minister ever? Appointed to push through the badger cull, he is hopeless in all other areas. And not all that good on a badger cull, either.

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