Ecology and the General Election: What will be the key issues?
With the 2015 election looming, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on which ecological issues might figure highly on the political agenda over the next six months. While the environment faces a tough battle for attention with the competing demands of the economy, immigration and the NHS, the latest polls anticipate a close and unpredictable electoral race, and the UK’s political parties will be looking across the board to press home any political advantage.
In this context, last month’s evidence session of the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s inquiry into Defra’s performance in 2013-14, provided an interesting insight into the wide range of topics that the Secretary of State, Elizabeth Truss, and her predecessors over the last five years of the current government have had to address. As the Secretary of State was keen to stress in her evidence to the committee, many of these issues are necessarily long-term, and cannot be resolved within the term of one parliament.
By no means exhaustive, here are four environmental and ecological issues that may feature prominently in the lead up to the election.
On 2nd December, as part of the 2015 National Infrastructure Plan, the Government announced funding for over 1,400 flood defence projects at a total cost £2.3 billion; what has been termed “an unprecedented 6-year programme of investment”. However, the Committee on Climate Change – an independent advisory body for the UK Government – has warned that the majority of existing flood defences are not being satisfactorily maintained. With extreme weather events predicted to increase in frequency due to climate change, what would the impact be if we were to see a repeat of last winter’s flooding in the run up to the election?
Undoubtedly one of the most controversial ecological issues of this Parliament, the debate over the most effective way to tackle the serious problem of bovine TB is likely to remain a live one over the next six months. While the Secretary of State reiterated the Government’s commitment to a “comprehensive strategy to deal with bovine TB”, including improvements to cattle movement controls and vaccination, most public attention has been focused on the hotly debated badger culling trials. The second year of these trials, conducted this time without oversight from the Independent Expert Panel, is now complete, with the results expected imminently.
The Public Forest Estate
When the idea of selling off a significant portion of the public forest estate was floated by the Government in 2011, it was met with strong public and civil society resistance, resulting in a rapid rethink. Following the recommendations of the Independent Panel on Forestry, the Government’s Forestry and Woodlands Policy Statement has set out the intention of creating a new public body with the triple aim of maximising the benefits of the nation’s forests for people, nature and the economy, yet the legislation required to create this body is yet to be put before parliament. How the next administration chooses to take this forward will be a key question in the Secretary of State’s inbox following the election.
With the increasing strength of the UK Independence Party, and the real possibility of an in-out referendum in the next Parliament, Britain’s membership of the EU is likely to be a hot topic over the course of the next six months. But what impact does the EU have on the natural environment? As well as the millions of pounds directed towards environmental schemes through the Common Agricultural Policy, the UK’s strongest protection for the natural environment comes from Europe, in the form of the Birds and Habitats directives – currently subject to a review under the EU’s deregulatory REFIT programme. Any change in the UK’s relationship with the EU would have a profound effect on environmental policy.
This list is far from exhaustive. Will climate change come to the fore in the build up to the UN negotiations in Paris at the end of 2015? How much traction will the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts’ call for a Nature and Wellbeing Act gain?
If you have a priority issue that you want to raise with the UK’s politicians, then join the BES, Sibthorp Trust and CIEEM in London on 9th March 2015, for “People, Politics and the Planet – Any Questions”, a pre-election debate on the environmental policies of the UK’s major political parties, chaired by Jonathan Dimbleby. What are your burning environmental policy issues? Tickets are on sale now, or why not tweet @BESPolicy with your question suggestions using the hashtag #EnvAnyQs?
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