There was little room for doubt about the reaction to the prime minister’s plans to scrap environmental regulations this weekend. “Make no mistake, we are angry. This government has today launched an attack on nature,” tweeted the RSPB, its most forceful political intervention in recent memory.
Liz Truss’s proposals to create investment zones, where green rules on nature protection would in effect be suspended, represented a step too far for some of Britain’s biggest environment charities. “As of today, from Cornwall to Cumbria, Norfolk to Nottingham, wildlife is facing one of the greatest threats it’s faced in decades,” the RSPB went on.
Swiftly after came the Wildlife Trust, representing another million members and also “incredibly angry … at the unprecedented attack on nature”, and the National Trust, with more than 5 million members.
For veteran green campaigners, the strength and speed of the intervention was striking. “It’s a very strong reaction,” said Tom Burke, co-founder of the green thinktank E3G, and a veteran adviser to governments. “The government cannot have been expecting this strong a reaction.”
The list of anti-green policies from a cabinet just a few weeks old is already extensive:
• New investment zones threaten a regulatory vacuum where developers can ignore rules on water quality, species conservation and space for nature.
• A bonfire of EU regulations could put paid to more than 500 rules protecting the natural world, from wildlife habitats to water quality.
• Fracking has been given the green light, and more than 100 new licences for oil and gas drilling will be granted in the North Sea.
• The environmental land management contracts for farmers are being reviewed. Championed as a “Brexit dividend”, Elms were meant to reward farmers for protecting nature, offering “public money for providing public goods”. Scrapping them would return the UK to subsidising intensive agricultural production at the expense of nature.
There has also been little engagement from the cabinet with key stakeholders, including green groups and farming leaders apart from the National Farmers’ Union, a supporter of scrapping Elms. Ranil Jayawardena, the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, has not yet met with green groups and stakeholders, a failure that Shaun Spiers, the executive director of the Green Alliance thinktank, described as “unprecedented”.
The government is still nominally committed to the UK’s legally binding net zero emissions target, and Truss had made senior appointments – including the levelling up secretary, Simon Clarke, and minister Graham Stuart – with green credentials. But green Tories are increasingly concerned.
Ben Goldsmith, the investor and chair of the Conservative Environment Network, said: “There are worrying rumours that the new Conservative ministerial team at Defra are toying with the idea of delaying or derailing the brilliant, groundbreaking new environmental land management scheme, which will link all taxpayer-funded farm payments to the stewardship and restoration of soil and nature. Losing this would of course be a disastrous backwards step, so we must hope that they are only rumours.”
Contrast this with the scene in Liverpool, where Labour opened its party conference this week with the prospect of a clean power generation system by 2030, green public procurement, a low-carbon industrial revolution, and the promise to make Britain “fairer and greener”.
On environmental policy, from fracking to farming, new “clear green water” appears to be opening up between the UK’s two main parties. Spiers warned: “We have been very proud in this country of keeping environmental issues mainstream. This should not be a culture war issue. Conservative voters in middle England don’t want to trash the countryside.”
Despite the furious reaction from mainstream green organisations, which has rattled some backbench and green Tory MPs, Truss seems prepared to double down on her liberalisation agenda even if that means antagonising them further. The Guardian understands that a mooted mollifying statement from No 10, aimed at reassuring voters and MPs in marginal seats, was ditched.
Veteran green experts warned that Truss had misjudged the public mood in her haste to forge a new rightwing radical position. “There is a giant gulf between where Liz Truss thinks the British people are, and where the British people really are,” said Burke.
But he added that green campaigners should not assume that Labour would ride to their rescue. “What parties say in opposition is not always what they do in government. There will need to be firm commitments from Labour that they will restore what the Tories are destroying.”
Doug Parr, policy director of Greenpeace, called on Truss to change course. “[Her] government has launched an indiscriminate attack on environmental rules ignoring both their own manifesto commitments and very strong public concerns about nature,” he warned.
“Voters understand that we need tougher laws to protect the living world. They see water firms getting away with pumping tonnes of raw sewage into our rivers and seas while raking in huge profits, supermarkets flooding our homes with throwaway plastic, and destructive fishing plundering our marine protected areas with impunity. They can tell the difference between so-called red tape and vital rules to stop pollution and environmental harm.”
For Labour, he added, the challenge was to match a strong slate of low-carbon policies with new proposals on nature and the countryside. “This should be a political open goal for Labour. They should get their act together, seize the opportunity and make their nature protection policy as strong as their climate ones.”