What does the general election result mean for ecological issues?

As the dust settles and MPs return to the House of Commons following the general election, what does the outcome mean for ecological issues?

Much to the surprise of many, least of all the vast majority of pollsters, the UK General Election delivered a Conservative majority Government for the first time since 1992, with David Cameron returning to Downing Street with a small but decisive majority of 12 MPs. As such, rather than the expected coalition horse-trading or minority administration uncertainty, the day-to-day business of Government and Parliament is quickly resuming operation.

Where ecological issues are concerned, there is a degree of stability in the key personnel making the decisions on environmental policy, but some changes. Liz Truss has retained her position as Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, whilst George Eustice has been promoted from Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Farming, Food and Marine Environment to Minister of State. Dan Rogerson, who lost his seat as well as his Government post as part of the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote, has been replaced in the Defra team by Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Border, and previously Chair of the Defence Select Committee. Lord de Mauley, previously Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Natural Environment and Science, has lost his position, and at present, hasn’t been replaced, although Lord Gardiner, former Deputy Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance, has been appointed Defra Spokesperson in the House of Lords.

Beyond Defra, there are a number of changes to Government Ministers relevant to ecological issues. Jo Johnson, brother of Boris and previously Head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, has been appointed Minister of State for Universities and Science, but will not attend Cabinet, much to the concern of the science lobby. His predecessor, Greg Clark, takes over from Eric Pickles at the Department of Communities and Local Government, whilst Amber Rudd’s appointment as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has received a positive response from environmental groups. Over the coming weeks the composition of the key parliamentary Select Committees – such as the Science and Technology, and Environmental Audit Committee – will become clear.

Conservative Policy Priorities

A review of the Conservative Manifesto suggests that in many areas of environmental policy the move from a Coalition government to Conservative majority administration is unlikely to signal a dramatic change in direction. However, there will be a number of changes, and much more detail will emerge in the coming months.

The manifesto reiterated the promise in the Natural Environment White Paper to be “the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than that in which we found it”. The Conservatives intend to extend the life of the Natural Capital Committee, established by the Coalition, until at least 2020, and build on previous marine conservation measures by completing the UK’s network of Marine Conservation Zones and creating a “Blue Belt” around the UK’s fourteen Overseas Territories. Tackling the illegal wildlife trade remains a priority, and despite a lack of progress in implementing the recommendations of the Independent Panel on Forestry, the Conservatives have pledged to keep the UK’s forests “in trust” for the nation and plant 11 million new trees. The controversial culling of badgers to combat Bovine TB will be pursued and rolled out more widely.

Significantly, these policies will be delivered against the backdrop of significant funding cuts to Defra and other Government Departments, with the promise of £13 billion of departmental savings over the next two years. More details of the Government’s spending plans will be announced by the Chancellor on 9th July. Furthermore, the impending referendum on the UK’s EU membership could have a huge impact on environmental policy, with many of our most important environmental protections, such as the Birds and Habitats Directives,  stemming from the EU.

BES Priorities for the new Government

The BES has identified three priorities for policy-making in this Parliament, and we will be working to try and ensure that the new Government adheres to these principles over the next five years. They are:

  1. That environmental policy is informed by sound scientific evidence, and that policy-makers have access to the best available ecological science to inform decision-making.
  2. That ecological science is valued for the vital role it has to play in meeting some of the most important challenges of the 21st century.
  3. That the value of the environment to human wellbeing and prosperity – our natural capital – is recognised across government.

One of the priorities in the BES’s new strategic plan is to raise our profile and influence with policy and decision makers, and to make sure that the voice of ecology, and ecologists, is heard at the highest level. We are currently reviewing our policy priority issues and the mechanisms we use to interact with policy-makers, and in the coming months will be firming up our plans to ensure that we can be as effective as possible in making the case for policy informed by the best ecological science.

We are keen to hear from our members about what you feel should be our policy priorities for the next five years, so please get in touch with your ideas and suggestions.