A view of the City of London, from the far side of the River Thames. Photograph: Getty Images.
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A lack of trust: addressing the "trust deficit" facing UK businesses

Trust in banks and businesses has was severely hampered by the financial crisis - and has yet to recover. The mistrust cuts both ways. How can we expect a recovery without support for business from politicians and the public?

The financial crisis that seized the developed world in 2008, sending shock waves through markets and plunging the world into a prolonged recession, did more than wreak socio-economic havoc: it significantly eroded trust between politics, business and the media. By inference, the public’s trust of politics, business and the media has been negatively impacted and a series of scandals involving each of these key pillars of society has enforced this sense of mistrust and created schisms between these institutions, driving a rift between them and the public. The importance of trust cannot be underestimated: it is an essential component of a flourishing democracy and economy. Without trust, investment is severely hampered and growth is strangled before even the "green shoots" appear. The dearth of trust is one of the major issues facing society today.

A recent research report conducted by Populus, commissioned by DLA Piper, has found that multiple trust "deficits" exist in our society. Moreover, the lack of trust between the three aforementioned "estates" is not only deeper now than back in 2011, when the inaugural Trust report was published, but it is wider too, with diverging ideologies splitting political parties, the phone hacking scandal afflicting the fourth estate, and the manifold recent negative stories stemming from the business community, particular from the financial services and energy sectors, appear to have tainted the reputation of all private enterprise. It is clear that trust between business, politics and the media has now broken down completely.

"Trust in business" remains at the forefront of the political agenda. Westminster remains committed to addressing what is perceived to be widespread malpractice among businesses - from energy firms hiking prices to PPI mis-selling – all to the detriment of the consumer. There is a view that non-financial services businesses are increasingly resenting being tarnished by the same brush the media and politicians have used to smear the reputation of banks over the past few years. Businesses have not necessarily addressed this negative perception in a particularly proactive manner. While there is acknowledgement that the financial crisis has been a torrid time for businesses, there is little sign that corporate behaviour is changing in any meaningful way. In other words, it’s business as usual for most businesses, who do not see themselves as the source of the "trust deficit" problem. With one influential media commentator opining that there should be a "bankers wing" at Ford Open Prison, the lack of awareness shown by some businesses is pretty surprising.

While public outrage, manifested through politicians, media and populist movements, being directed at certain business malpractices is understandable, it has led to an unhealthy overarching anti-business mood, which is hampering a sustainable recovery in the UK. This lack of trust cuts both ways. If businesses are viewed by the majority of politicians with deep scepticism then the feeling is mutual, with a growing sense in the business community that politicians and the media simply do not understand capitalism. This is particularly the case with politicians, who can be viewed as being devoid of business experience and accused of drawing ill-informed and uphelpful conclusions, which has hampered UK growth and the international reputation of UK plc. As a corollary to this, political messages are seen by business and the media as being opaque and often contradictory.

What can businesses do to address this trust deficit? A good start would be to make more noise about the myriad ways in which British businesses should speak out more and deliver positive messages which show that they are a force for good. It is clear that businesses expect industry organisations such as the IoD and the CBI to do more in this regard, but businesses themselves should also be promoting the virtue of capitalism and the benefits it brings. Schools have a role to play in explaining the value of commercial activity and countering any cultural problem with success. Business needs to re-evaluate its social responsibility and pro bono activity accordingly. Only through a concerted effort involving all stakeholders can this critical issue be addressed and, through exploring the areas where trust has broken down, solutions for the long term formulated.

Co-CEO of DLA Piper

GETTY
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The wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.