Environmental politics and devolution – notes from the Guardian debate

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.


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’

Devolution issues

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


With DEVOLUTIONissues 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.

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4 Responses to Environmental politics and devolution – notes from the Guardian debate

  1. Native Lad says:

    There are some strong national environmental policies, and guidance, but they are just not being implemented at a local level in an appropriate and adequate manner, in my opinion. You hit the nail on the head with your comment “So need… resources to enforce and apply in the regions”. I take that to include adequate and appropriate continued professional development for all policy makers and decision makers.
    I agree there is a lack of accountability. I think political correctness has something to do with that: critics appear to get accused of conducting a “witch hunt”, or “having an axe to grind” (as if the latter is necessarily a bad thing). “Rocking the boat” is seen as being divisive and against the common good. Let us not forget though that each one of us, particularly professionals, such as managers and policy makers has a Duty of Care toward others and that we all can be held accountable – by law – for our acts and omissions if they result in harm to others or damage to their property. This duty is long established and pre-dates the dawn of political correctness.
    I’m not convinced that locally-based councilors are the best choice for wielding local or regional power and authority, not least because most appear to have little in-depth knowledge, understandingor experience of the issues presented before them, so are not in any position to make informed assessments, criticism and recommendations. Consequently, they are unlikely to identify harmful or damaging acts and omissions and are not best placed to review or revise policies. Of course, that’s not to say that they do not have a very good understanding of the political system and how best to use it. 😉
    I disagree that “There is little understanding of the need for society to invest in people, communities, and the environment, in health, in education and in skills”. Policies indicate that there is good understanding, but evidence suggests there is a lack of “… resources to enforce and apply…”, to use your words. There is, perhaps also a lack of desire/drive amongst decision makers.
    With regard the circle of betterment – for want of a better way of putting it – that you claim represents an incontrovertible, basic principle, “…rarely presented in the mainstream media”, I think it is rarely presented because it is blindingly obvious that it is common knowledge. It appears to be sound in theory; it is the model peddled to many a school leaver, but does it work in reality? Is it fit for purpose? Shouldn’t we be looking at the model at appropriate intervals and be looking at whether it requires amendment or substitution? Does higher education really lead to a significant increase in the number of “better jobs”? …Locally? The Labour government pushed to get 50% of young people in to higher education, and certainly went some way toward meeting that target, but where are those young people now? I doubt most are in well paid jobs within the UK.
    There will always be a far greater number of relatively poorly paid jobs. Further education has been woefully neglected for decades, yet for the poorest in society it is likely to be their only route out of poverty. Perhaps monies would be better spent improving availability and access to further education. After all, a degree is really not necessary, from a practical perspective, to undertake the duties involved with the majority of employment opportunities available within the UK. A sound further education with an appropriate apprenticeship would produce a highly competent workforce suitable for the vast majority of available employment opportunities within the UK, in my opinion. I think many employers that insist on applicants having a higher education qualification do so not because it is really necessary or because they require the skill set of a graduate, but because they feel more comfortable that by employing a graduate they have done as much as can be reasonably expected of them to ensure that the person they employ will be sufficiently competent to shoulder the burden of responsibility and accountability that comes with fulfilment of the Duty of Care. In short, employing a graduate is an ass covering exercise, in most cases, in my opinion. In the majority of available employment situations, the same work could be competently executed, and the Duty of Care shouldered every bit as well, by someone with a lesser level of academic attainment.
    With regard to your final comment “…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”, perhaps our politicians would give more thought to it if the media and voters were more active about the issues, as they were in the early 1990s. 😉

    • Absolutely agree, although whilst there is a wider ‘understanding of the issues and needs’, I don’t see this amongst or by many politicians as individuals. Mostly, and there are a few big exceptions, they have little interest, understanding, or knowledge of environmental matters. Additionally, because of punitive cuts to both local authorities and to specialist agencies, there are few advisors to provide necessary support and steer. Many of the few officers who remain are primarily ‘policy’ / ‘management’ people, themselves with limited understanding of environmental reality.


      • Native Lad says:

        “…I don’t see this amongst or by many politicians as individuals. Mostly, and there are a few big exceptions, they have little interest, understanding, or knowledge of environmental matters.”

        I don’t think they have the time or desire for such things. For these reasons, I don’t believe they will listen, hear and act either. I think that if positive change is going to happen, it will have to be the hard way: by charities and community groups making real change locally, showing just what can be achieved and presenting their examples as case studies to win over local government and thereby gain their support and partnership.

        This is mutually beneficial because, if done in a competent manner, such partnerships would help local government reduce resource deficits and aid fulfilment of statutory duties, and local policy aims and objectives. 😉

  2. Native Lad says:

    I just thought I’d bring this extract to people’s attention, from “Biodiversity 2020: A strategy for England’s wildlife and ecosystem services”, published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA):

    “Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets

    At the NAGOYA UN BIODIVERSITY SUMMIT in October 2010, 192 countries and the European Union agreed to an ambitious conservation plan to protect global biodiversity. This new ‘Strategic Plan’ provides a flexible framework for all 193 Parties to the Convention of Biological Diversity to drive action on biodiversity by all Parties. It established a new global vision for biodiversity – a world of “living in harmony with nature” where:

    • ‘By 2050, biodiversity is VALUED, conserved, restored and wisely used, MAINTAINING ECOSYSTEM SERVICES, sustaining a healthy planet and delivering benefits essential for all people.’

    Parties also agreed a shorter term ambition to:

    • ‘ TAKE EFFECTIVE AND URGENT ACTION to halt the loss of biodiversity in order to ensure that by 2020 ecosystems are resilient and continue to provide essential services, thereby securing the planet‘s variety of life, and contributing to human wellbeing, and poverty eradication..‘

    To deliver this ambition, Parties agreed on a set of strategic goals and targets (THE ‘AICHI’ TARGETS) to drive action on biodiversity. These are set out in Annex B.”


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