Environmental politics and devolution – notes from the Guardian debate
This was the introduction to the handout:
Professor Ian Rotherham is a leading authority on environmental issues in relation to regional development, tourism, and local communities. He works with a wide range of conservation organisations and community groups, as well as chairing national and international networks and committees. Ian writes regular columns for newspapers and broadcasts with the BBC, ITV, and others. An ecological scientist by training, his recent book ‘Eco-history: An Introduction to Biodiversity and Conservation’, and forthcoming ‘The Rise & Fall of Countryside Management’, address the necessarily political nature of the issues. In dealing with environmental policies for example, science and history inform, but decisions are political. Sadly, today, very few politicians have much idea or even passion about real environmental issues or concerns and so the basis of much decision-making is fundamentally flawed.
Some key issues:
We know the huge importance of the natural word & a good environment to:
- The economy
- To health and wellbeing
- To the desire to live somewhere
- To inward investment in the regions
Yet ENVIRONMENT HARDLY FIGURES IN POLICIES, POLITICS, MANIFESTOS etc – instead it is the same old, same old ……… short-term, myopic, populist headlines. All puff and no substance.
Environment is about long-term investment in all our futures – and it more than pays for itself. It is only short-term, self-interested, market forces which serve to erode and destroy environmental quality.
MARKET FORCES can and should be REGULATED to maintain the COMMON GOOD & SUSTAINABLE RESOURCES
Ignorance: Lack of recognition or understanding of environmental issues beyond some minimal concerns about climate and carbon
De-skilling the public sector: Removal of regional and local skills bases to address conservation and countryside management issues – especially by local government and by governmental agencies – to deliver major benefits – to engage, inform, enhance & empower at the local level
Impoverished policy: Lack of effective joined-up policy or thinking on environmental issues
No Triple Bottom Line: Limited awareness of regional economic and health impacts of a good quality environment at a local level – economy, environment, community
Environmental democracy & accountability: Assets sold or passed off without local community awareness, support, or accountability
Lack of support: Absence of strong, national environmental policies or guidance and inability to deliver on the ground at local and regional levels – descent into short-term parochial policies based on misguided planning driven by market-based economic forces for short-term gain at the expanse of long-term community, environmental assets
Too much ‘eco-twaddle’ & ‘greenwash’ – rather than genuine commitment to long-term economic and environmental sustainability and community well-being. Big headlines but little substance.
Covered in my two books – ‘Eco-history: An Introduction to Biodiversity and Conservation’, and forthcoming ‘The Rise & Fall of Countryside Management’
Historically moves away from this – County Councils & metropolitan districts – with real authority, skills and resources
Central government does not like to relinquish power and responsibility
Moves away from regional authority to slimmed down and privatised local and regional government – education, planning, social services, environmental services, COUNTRYSIDE services particularly eroded in many areas
Moves away from democratic committees structures and their bureaucracy – ‘cabinet’ style of local government – with decisions made by a few people in darkened corners … LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY
Resources – MONEY & AUTHORITY
With DEVOLUTION – issues of national policy & enforcement vs PAROCHIAL economics and self-interested politicians – e.g. Donald Trump and Alex Salmond in Scotland
So need clear, powerful, fair environmental legislation and guidance at national level – with resources to enforce and apply in the regions
Disempowered & disempowered – many people are so disaffected and disappointed by politics that they have switched off, and undoubtedly, the debate over Scottish devolution for example, re-energised politics north of the border. The question then, is whether varying degrees of devolution, and for example, proportional representation at national and regional levels, can be fair and can work.
Northern England and the regions:
I find it very interesting how in fact, in northern England especially over the last fifty years we have lost power, lost skills, lost resources to centralised Westminster-based government. Big, well-resourced County Councils like South Yorkshire County Council had considerable power and autonomy – which of course central government resented. Big metropolitan districts like Sheffield City Council once had significant local and regional autonomy and resources. These have been whittled away and also, the cabinet style of local government, with slimmed down government at a local level, means most ward councillors have little influence or event access to basic policy information. Basic democratic processes have been taken away and local or regional power and authority removed from locally-based councillors representing ordinary local people.
This can all be reversed but it will require investment and a release of resources and authority by Westminster. Devolution to the regions has great potential but is has to be underpinned by knowledge, expertise, vision, skills and resources that today simply do not exist. It will take time to reconstruct regional government if that is what we want. Local government ‘lite’, will devolve power to develop short-term economic interests at the expense of local communities, the environment, and long-term benefits. Take the Donald Trump affair as a dire warning.
The public perception of ‘austerity’ was also raised and is interesting. However, the media must take a big share of responsibility for the paranoia about any alternative approaches to short-term and long-term economic visions and futures. Currently the major political parties seem to offer limited visions and more of the same, but with the Conservatives we get the same but far worse, and with Labour we get similar but applied with kid gloves and less relish. There is little understanding of the need for society to invest in people, communities, and the environment, in health, in education and in skills. Investment triggers economic recovery and grows the tax revenue and the circle closes. Endless cuts reduce tax revenue, deepen the deficit, de-skill the workforce and reduce the long-term, skills-based, international competitiveness of the British economy.
With, for example, university education, many of us received ‘free’ higher education and still believe in this principle. Furthermore, like many social benefits and common goods, society cross-fertilises investment and tax income; if we believe that a good education leads to better jobs, and then young people grow into vibrant careers and are better paid. This means they pay more taxes and again the circle closes. This may sound naïve but the basic principle is incontrovertible and yet rarely presented in the mainstream media. [Of course, education was not actually free, but our parents paid for it via the tax system – which is, of course, our money].
Similarly, invest in a good quality environment for local people, in access and physical exercise for local communities, and they are happier, fitter and healthier. They are then more productive and less demanding on health service provision and resources; society’s income rises and its expenditure falls, but only if we cross-fertilise between tax incomes and social investment. Leave local and regional development to market forces and remove environmental protection, [viewed as ‘environmental red tape’ by the Conservatives], then short-term economic gain for individuals and corporations will take away the long-term common resources and common goods. Without effective environmental regulation, short-term economic gain will always outflank the common good. Again, this is all pretty obvious but the newspapers and other seem blinkered to the arguments. Why?? Who owns and controls the main media outlets? Where are champions for the environment, for the local, grassroots communities, for the disenfranchised and the disadvantaged
In all the main party political manifestos there is almost nothing of substance about anything environmental, and much less about the natural world – we do actually share the planet with quite a few other species – I WONDER IF ANY OF OUR CURRENT POLITICIANS EVER PAUSE TO THINK ABOUT THAT.