Rivals fiddle while UK burns

It’s the driest, hottest summer in 50 years, yet the Conservative leadership candidates appear to be fiddling while Britain burns.

Rowena Mason www.theguardian.com 

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have barely been asked anything about their plans for tackling the climate emergency in all their debates and hustings so far – and nor have they made it a leading campaign issue themselves.

Their main wisdom on the subject of the drought is putting water companies “on notice” that they need to fix leaks, to avoid the necessity of households facing hosepipe bans.

Although both have committed to the net zero target, neither has talked about the crisis facing the climate with much passion or interest.

Sunak has frequently characterised his young daughters as the experts on climate in his household – surely embarrassing for a former chancellor to admit – and does not like the idea of more onshore wind turbines.

He was once thought by environmentally conscious Tories to be the biggest risk to the government’s climate aspirations, as they believed he was blocking ambitious plans to transform the UK’s energy needs on the grounds of cost.

However, the signs are that Truss, a former environment secretary, could be even less committed to net zero. Her answer to soaring energy costs, worsened by extreme winter weather conditions caused by climate breakdown, is to remove green levies from household and business bills.

It is not yet clear whether she would pay for these instead out of general taxation or scrap initiatives to insulate homes and subsidise renewables altogether. In a hustings, she suggested that net zero was a problem for business rather than government to solve.

She also cut funding for solar farms while environment secretary, calling them a “blight on the landscape”, and in a hustings vowed to remove their “paraphernalia” from fields. At the same time, she is backing fracking – popular in theory with Tory activists and MPs, but not if it is planned for their own area.

Surprisingly, Chris Skidmore, a Tory MP and the founder of the Tories Net Zero Support Group, has switched sides from Sunak to Truss in recent days, but cited the former chancellor’s U-turns as the reason.

Two Tory MPs – Vicky Ford and Simon Clarke – have also cited Truss’s support for Cop26 as a reason for backing her. But Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, recalled meeting Truss at the climate crisis summit in Glasgow and said the main thing she wanted to discuss was how she could get into Vogue.

Among Conservative MPs, those opposing net zero policies – such as Steve Baker, a Truss supporter – have scented an opportunity to win back ground. One of Truss’s high-profile supporters, Lord Frost, said last week that there was no evidence of a climate “emergency” and urged the next prime minister to move away from “medieval technology” such as wind power.

In fairness, those questioning the candidates have not given the topic much airtime. Open Democracy calculated that just two minutes out of an hour of interviews on the day of the first heatwave were dedicated to the climate.

But neither candidate has been keen to portray themselves as a keen supporter of the fight against climate breakdown. A lukewarm stance on the climate may win cheers at hustings, and even sway some Tory members, but polls tell a different story about voters across the spectrum, including many Conservatives and swing voters, with the country deeply worried that politicians are not doing enough.

Britain’s wetlands are the key to saving us from drought, wildfires and even floods

Fresh water is the lifeblood of civilisation. It makes life on land possible. But we have lost touch with how the water cycle works. As Britain runs further into serious drought, people are asking if we are prepared and if we should have planned better, by building more reservoirs or plugging leaks in the water distribution system.

Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England  www.theguardian.com 

These are hugely important subjects. What is not being discussed are the severe floods that may well arrive in a few months’ time. Climate change is leading to greater volatility in the water cycle. It’s time to stand back and examine our resilience to water extremes and start improving water quality.

One standout conclusion for me is that we need to have much more water in our environment. During the last 100 years, the UK has lost 90% of its wetlands. This has led to the drastic decline of wildlife and rendered the country more vulnerable to the effects of extreme conditions. Draining fens, desiccating peat bogs, drying floodplains and the claiming of coastal marshes has transformed how our land looks and works. Restoring some of those wetlands could deliver huge benefits.

Wetlands can help to keep rivers flowing, even when rain is scarce, thereby protecting the living, shimmering threads that bring life to the landscape. Water standing on the land also helps recharge the aquifers that underpin much of our public water supply. Holding more water in the environment through the restoration of wet ecosystems can reduce flood peaks and protect us from the misery of the flooding that periodically affects communities across the country.

During a recent visit to Norfolk, I saw a newly created beaver pond. The animals had been released by the farmer into a large wooded pen on the site of an old wartime base. A tiny stream had been impounded by the animals to create a quite substantial body of water topped up with winter rain. Since the rain stopped earlier this year, that pond has been sustaining a headwater stream of the Glaven, one of England’s precious chalk rivers. The new beaver pond has helped that wonderful watercourse remain in better shape than it would otherwise have been. When it does rain again, that stream will flow more evenly than if there were no beavers, therefore reducing the risk of floods.

Beaver ponds and wetlands in general are also excellent at catching carbon and other pollutants such as agricultural fertilisers, so they can play a role in meeting water-quality targets. That beaver pond was also a reminder of how wetlands can bring vibrant life back into otherwise degraded landscapes. Frogspawn, fish, birds and wetland plants had all found a home there.

Wetter conditions also diminish the risk and effect of major fires. For decades, many of our upland blanket bogs have been subject to drainage, rendering them more susceptible to fire. Making these bogs wetter can not only reduce that peril but also improve water quality, increase wildlife and reduce downstream flooding.

At Natural England, we are pleased to see lots of plans afoot to make more of wetlands. The new Environmental Land Management schemes that are replacing the EU’s common agricultural policy are a major opportunity. The new tool of biodiversity net gain, which will require developers to replace and increase habitat lost to housing and infrastructure, will add to the mix. So, too, will plans to create new wetlands to soak up nutrients from new housing developments. There is a national programme to improve peatlands and also a partnership with businesses, vigorously led by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, to create 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) of new wetlands.

There are also opportunities for water companies in the development of nature-based solutions, which harness habitat creation as a natural partner and complement to hard infrastructure. There could also be huge benefits in the careful design of engineering infrastructure such as reservoirs. One example is the Abberton reservoir in Essex, which is not only a major strategic water supply asset, it is an internationally important habitat for many bird and amphibian species.

A more natural water cycle should be a strategic national priority. Winston Churchill famously once said that we should “never let a good crisis go to waste”. The current drought, and the floods that are likely to arrive later in the year, should be an opportunity to find a new way of looking at water.

‘Local government treated worse than any other part of public sector’

Clive Betts, chair of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, talks to Mike Thatcher about lack of progress on levelling up, pork-barrel politics and why local government finance cannot be reformed until social care funding is sorted.

www.room151.co.uk 

Is levelling up yesterday’s priority? With the cost-of-living crisis dominating the political agenda and the main levelling up evangelists – Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – going or gone, there’s certainly a feeling of old news about the phrase.

Johnson described levelling up as the “defining mission” of his government, while Gove, as levelling up secretary, set out in the levelling up white paper how undervalued communities could “take back control”.

But levelling up has been discussed rarely during the Conservative leadership hustings, and it has not been a differentiator between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. If Truss does become the next prime minister, as the polls suggest, it is hard to see levelling up being the focus of her speech outside No 10 as it was for Johnson three years ago.

So will levelling up go the way of David Cameron’s Big Society – a slogan that never really had any tangible impact and was then quietly forgotten?

Who better to ask than Clive Betts, the chair of the parliamentary Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee? Betts has chaired the committee in its different guises since 2010, and has conducted inquiries most recently into the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, long-term funding of adult social care, the regulation of social housing and the planning system.

The veteran Labour MP will be discussing levelling up at the Room151 Local Authority Treasurers Investment Forum and FDs’ Summit on 13 September. He tells Room151 that the next PM might not see levelling up as their top priority, but it would be hard for the government to abandon the philosophy altogether.

Has levelling up lost its lustre?

“The cost-of-living crisis may politically have to be top of the new PM’s in-tray. But they still have to address their red-wall seats and I don’t think they will let levelling up just go,” he says.

Betts expresses disappointment at the lack of progress on the levelling up agenda. He says that Gove succeeded in raising the profile of the concept, and helped it to be seen as a key challenge for the country. But he believes that there is no evidence to demonstrate that it has made a significant difference to the experience of those in the more deprived parts of the UK.

“There are far too many disparate pots of money that councils have to bid for and no linking up of those, no overall strategy and, essentially, no fundamental change in overall government departmental budgets towards the deprived areas.”

Both Gove and Neil O’Brien, the former levelling up minister, talked about moving away from what became known in local government as the “tyranny of competitive funding” to a more formula-based approach. O’Brien told Betts’ committee that what was needed was a “balanced diet” of funding.

Betts says now that ministers talked the talk, but there has been little sign of any change of emphasis. When asked if there is political manipulation of the funding for both the levelling up and towns funds, he says “it looks like it”.

Political manipulation

Opponents of levelling up have seen it as a move to US-style “pork-barrel politics”. It is tempting to agree, given that 40 out of 45 of the towns receiving funding from the towns fund had a Conservative MP. And, of course, Sunak openly admitted, in a campaign speech, that as chancellor he had started to change the formulas so that towns like Tunbridge Wells received funding rather than “deprived urban areas”.

Betts points out that Sunak’s leafy Richmond constituency was favoured over towns like Barnsley when it came to bids for the levelling up fund. And he admits to being depressed by the level of debate between Truss and Sunak.

“Local government has been treated worse than any other part of the public sector since 2010. It has had bigger reductions in its spending and there doesn’t seem to be any recognition that if there is spare money around at the Treasury, local government, and particularly priorities like social care, ought to be at the top of the list of spending rather than corporation tax cuts.”

Both Sunak and Truss have signed up to the four pledges put forward by the Northern Research Group of Conservative MPs. The four pledges are: a minister for the north; Voxbridge (two vocational institutions in the north of England); a right to devolution for all areas of the UK; and a levelling up formula to ensure that “forgotten areas” are no longer left behind.

Spending commitments on care

But Betts says he wants more than pledges. What is really missing are spending commitments, and particularly an appreciation of the urgent need for more social care funding.

“You are only going to get levelling up if you address the fundamental inequalities of government spending currently. Until you get core departmental budgets redirected, you won’t get levelling up.

“They have got to find a way of getting money to social care on a long-term basis with a degree of certainty. When we did our inquiry, it was said over and over to us by both Conservative leaders in local government and Labour leaders, until you sort social care funding out you can’t sort local government finance out.”

Social care is vital, he says, but the focus on care means that other local government services – libraries, parks, buses, street cleaning and environmental health – have had to face cuts of up to 50%.

“There is a real danger that many members of the public who don’t receive social care, and their families don’t, which is most of the public, are paying more and more council tax every year for less and less service. That is a real challenge to local democracy and to people’s willingness to support it.”

So what is the solution to that? “Sorting out social care funding,” he says.