George Osborne and David Cameron speak to business leaders at the AQL centre on February 5, 2015 in Leeds. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Osborne's dramatic Manchester NHS plan is a dangerous distraction

The Chancellor's politically-motivated project undermines the goal of the national integration of health and social care. 

The most significant political story today is George Osborne's confirmation that he intends to hand Greater Manchester control of the region's £6bn health and social care budget (a quarter of total government spending in the area). Never in the history of the NHS has there been such devolution in England. The announcement was due to be made on Friday, during a visit by Osborne to the area, but the Chancellor's plans were foiled after the Manchester Evening News got hold of a draft "memorandum of understanding" between the region's councils and the Treasury. 

This being Osborne, who remains the Conservatives' chief electoral strategist, the politics are crucial. He has framed the move, which would take effect from April 2016, as part of his drive to create a "northern powerhouse", a project with the political aim of decontaminating the Conservative brand in that region (one inspired by Osborne's special adviser Neil O'Brien, the former director of Policy Exchange). The Tories are also hailing the proposed integration of health and social care spending as evidence that they are making the running on a cause that Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, has long championed. 

But if the politics are clear, the policy is not. By promising Greater Manchester control of health spending, the Conservatives have set a precedent that several other areas will want to follow (Tessa Jowell, the Labour London mayoral candidate, was swift to demand equivalent powers for the capital). In so doing, they have driven a coach and horses through Labour's proposed national integration of health and social care. As Burnham noted in his response, the resultant danger is the creation of a "two-tier" NHS which destroys the principle of a universal and comprehensive service. In the middle of the greatest funding squeeze in the NHS's history, Osborne's "devo Manc" project, which would likely necessitate another reorganisation, risks being a dangerous distraction. Under Burnham's alternative vision, health and social care would be nationally integrated (producing up to £6bn in savings) with individual local authorities and GP commissioning bodies working in harness to build new services. 

Osborne's proposal of stand-alone devolution to Manchester resembles an answer in search of a problem. Worse, it threatens to create new dysfunctions. At the last count, the region's hospitals were running a deficit of £40m. Who will pick up the bill in the event of a crisis? Though the Conservatives will protest otherwise, the move risks being the first step in the ultimate unravelling of a truly national health service. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

GETTY
Show Hide image

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.