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.