09. 05. 2016

Quitting the EU would be a weird way of Protecting the English Countryside!

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It felt like a little bit of a Lion’s Den challenge, but addressing the AGM of Gloucestershire CPRE turned out to be a very pleasant occasion – not least because I couldn’t help but be charmed by the full-on energy of a beautiful Spring day, the delights of a wonderful venue (Stowell Park), and the unfailing politeness of CPRE’s members.

My principal task was to make the case for staying IN the EU from the perspective of what is needed to protect the English countryside. The rational case for that position is actually very strong (as I’ve argued here before), in terms of cleaner beaches and rivers, landmark international agreements such as the Habitats Directive, the Birds Directive, strong EU-wide positions on recycling and waste, leadership on renewable energy and climate change, and a whole host of less visible contributions to environmental planning and decision-making such as strategic environmental assessments, and so on.

It’s the overwhelming obviousness of that case that led me to berate the estimable Shaun Spiers (and the collectively CPRE leadership) for failing to come out with a suitably trenchant CPRE-wide case for us staying in the EU – rather than leaving it to individual members to weigh up the pros and cons without any organisational steer.

My advocacy was made a great deal easier by the fact that Shaun Spiers has written an impressive personal blog, as someone ‘passionately in favour of remaining within the EU’.

What’s more, almost every single person who’s had any serious experience of negotiating within the EU to help protect the UK environment has emphatically endorsed the benefits of that engagement. (With the obvious exception of Owen Paterson!) There’s John Gummer, former Tory Secretary of State in the 1990s:

“What I learned when I was Secretary of State for the Environment, even though we were within the EU, was that there was considerable unwillingness in the UK Government to make the necessary environmental changes. Without our membership, the changes we now take for granted could not have happened. If we’d been outside the EU, I don’t believe we would have cleaned up our water or our beaches, or protected our wildlife to the extent that we have done. Indeed, some of the pressure for Brexit from the right is precisely because people want to rid us of what they see as unnecessary environmental protection.”

And here’s Ed Davey, Secretary of State in DECC under the Coalition Government, from the energy perspective:

“Losing Britain’s international influence on issues as key as energy security and climate change can only be bad for Britain’s green businesses. Perhaps a greener government than the current Conservative majority could offset the damage – but who’s to say a Brexit vote won’t unleash even stronger anti-green forces in the Tory Party and across the right of British politics? You don’t have to take a party political position, as I do. You only have to contemplate the years of uncertainty that would follow a Brexit vote. Energy investment thrives on political certainty because of the huge amounts of cash involved and because the financial returns come over such a long period.”

Like everyone else, however, CPRE members will be voting for a whole host of reasons on June 23rd, not just on a CPRE agenda. And uppermost in their minds may well be concerns about immigration – most CPRE members are, after all, on the centre-right of British politics. Our inability to protect our own borders (in terms of the freedom of movement for all EU citizens), seen as a critical part of the EU’s inability to protect its borders, could easily become the biggest single issue in the Referendum campaign.

But there’s such a deep deception at work here. If we vote Out, it’s impossible to believe we won’t then seek to become a member of the European Economic Area – in which all countries (including the much-praised Norway) are subject to exactly the same rules on the free movement of workers.

(I know this is a deeply heretical view, but I believe that more and more countries in the EU will soon want to revisit that commitment to the ‘free movement of workers’ – and I personally would welcome that. But as with all these things, we have a better chance of making our case if we’re still ‘In’ than if we’re ‘Out’.)

We didn’t actually get too deeply into the immigration story at the CPRE AGM. But I did invite them to think through one further (and largely unexplored) ‘deep issue’.

It’s very noticeable that most of the leading Brexiteers are exponents of ‘small state politics’: cut back on the size of the state relative to GDP, at every level, and allow the market to take up the slack. You only have to look at what’s happening in the NHS, Social Services, prisons, the Probation Service, education and so on to see what I mean.

I’m sure that many CPRE members are inclined to that kind of ideological positioning – except when it comes to planning. CPRE is one of the most effective and outspoken defenders of the planning system here in the UK, arguing that it is now on unprecedented attack on every side from government ministers and right-wing think tanks such as Policy Exchange, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute.

Shaun Spiers continues to warn his members that the motives of these think tanks (and, I would say, those Tory ministers too, though he couldn’t possibly!) will almost inevitably be pro-development and anti-Green Belt – still the jewel in our complex system of protected areas here in the UK as far as CPRE sees it. And the fact that these think tanks never declare where their money comes from should encourage all CPRE members to be very nervous indeed about this particular aspect of small-state politics here in the UK. As Shaun Spiers put it: “I would not believe a word they say until they say who’s paying them to say it.”

I doubt if I won many over to a more enthusiastically pro-European point of view, but at least we had a good discussion.
 

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