Green space must be for all, not a lucky few

The environmental record of this Government is bad enough but another five years doesn’t bear thinking about. If things are going to change, we need a Labour Government.

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This election is the most important in a generation. A choice not just between parties but between two competing visions of how our country can succeed. On the one hand a Tory plan that says we can succeed with just a few at the top doing well, where your ability to pay dictates access to almost everything in society, including the benefits of our natural environment. Or Labour’s plan for Britain’s future – where the many can succeed and everyone has access to clean air, clean water and protection from flood risk- regardless of wealth.

We’ve had five years of failure on the natural environment. David Cameron said that he would lead the ‘greenest Government ever’ but like so much else with this Government all we’ve had are broken promises. The Environmental Audit Committee published an environmental scorecard report at the end of last year, using a traffic light system to rate performance in each area. For its record on air pollution, biodiversity, and flooding and coastal protection, the Government received a red rating, meaning that these areas have deteriorated. In fact, in none of the ten areas assessed did the Government receive a green rating.

The record of this Government is bad enough but another five years doesn’t bear thinking about. It would be a disaster for our natural environment. The Tories’ spending plans will mean extreme cuts in the next Parliament. This would have a crushing impact on non-protected areas of spending, including the Defra budget. The truth is that you can’t protect our natural environment and preserve our green spaces on Tory spending plans.

If things are going to change, we need a Labour Government.

There is a huge difference between our common sense approach to bringing public spending under control and the extreme and risky plans set out by the Tories. Labour will cancel the ineffective and inhumane badger culls saving over £100 million in the next parliament. We will also ensure the money that we spend goes much further. That’s why the next Labour Government will put an end to the perverse approach where in some cases we spend public money twice: once to pay for damage to ecosystems and then again to pay for their repair. Our upland peatlands are a perfect example. They store carbon, reduce flood risk and help provide clean water but despite large amounts of public money going into the conservation of the English uplands only ten per cent are in good condition.

Labour will take a new approach to environmental protection focused on preventative spending and securing better value for money. We will redirect public spending towards interventions that can save future public spending on environmental protection. Labour will make better use of existing funds to reform land management with the aim of freeing up over £150 million of extra spending via the Common Agricultural Policy on environmental protection and rural development in the last two years of the next parliament. This switch spending will enable local partnerships to reduce flood risk, protect habitats for wildlife and improve water quality. We will also give the water industry regulator a new primary duty for sustainability so that water companies can play a bigger role in protecting our natural environment. This approach – big reforms and not big spending, will ensure the next Labour Government meets our fiscal goals, and our environmental priorities.

Labour has a proud record of achievement on the natural environment. It was a Labour Government in 1949 – tough times with economic challenges far greater than we’re seeing now – that took the action to create our national parks. It was a Labour Government that brought forward the landmark Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000 which opened up new land for public access. We did this because our Labour values tell us that everyone should have access to nature whoever they are and wherever they live.

The economic and social case for extending public access to nature has never been stronger than it is. The third report of the Natural Capital Committee showed that there is a strong correlation between the quality of the natural environment where people live and their health and wellbeing. The problem is that in this country we have deep inequality of access to nature. The most deprived communities are ten times less likely to live in the greenest areas. So the next Labour Government will make extending access to nature a priority.

A Tory Government will never prioritise extending the benefits of nature to all. They think we can preserve nature just for a privileged few. It was after all this Tory-led Government that tried to privatise our public forests until they were stopped by half a million people signing the petition against the sell-off plans. The next Labour Government has pledged to protect our forests, keeping them in public ownership. Labour will also secure ready access to trees and woodlands by planting them closer to the places where most people live.

Our Labour values tell us that everyone should have access to the benefits of nature whoever they are and wherever they live. Nature and the power it has to sustain economies and nourish all life should not be preserved just for a privileged few. Our economic success cannot be built by eroding our natural environment any more than it can by eroding wages or living standards. These Labour values led the post-war Labour Government to rebuild the nation in tough times whilst understanding the importance of the natural environment. Those values will lead us again in 2015.

Maria Eagle is the Shadow Environment Secretary

This article will appear in ‘New Ground’, the quarterly publication of SERA: Labour’s Environment Campaign. Find out more at: http://sera.org.uk/

Maria Eagle is the shadow secretary of state for defence and Labour MP for Garston and Halewood

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