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The Policy Ask with Shaun Spiers: “Grenfell is a terrible reminder of the cost of deregulation”

The executive director of the Green Alliance on retaining EU laws, funding for farmers and the benefits of being outspoken.

By Spotlight

Shaun Spiers is executive director of Green Alliance, an environment think tank based in London, and the chair of Greener UK, a coalition of 12 environmental groups, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the National Trust and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Greener UK was set up following the Brexit referendum.

He was previously chief executive of CPRE, The Countryside Charity, and led the Association of British Credit Unions Limited. He was also an MEP from 1994 to 1999, serving on the European Parliament’s Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.

How do you start your working day?

I’d like to say it’s with yoga, tai chi and one of those unspeakable green protein drinks – but I’m afraid it’s a cup of coffee, a bowl of cereal and a bit of shouting at the Today programme, followed by a mad dash for the train. When I’m working from home, I have more time to shout at the Today programme.

What has been your career high?

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At Green Alliance, I’m proud of Greener UK’s work in securing the Environment Act and a strong Office for Environmental Protection to uphold environmental law. Brexit could have been a disaster for the environment. The fact that it hasn’t been, so far, owes a good deal to Greener UK’s work. I’m also proud to have played a part in strengthening the credit union movement, another step towards the Co-operative Commonwealth.

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What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

Overseeing redundancies at CPRE was a pretty grim time. The saying goes “never waste a good crisis”, but I’d personally prefer to avoid financial crises.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

Be more confident and more decisive. It’s good to listen to all sides and recognise that you don’t have the answers, but sometimes you just have to back your judgement, particularly if you’re in a leadership position. As an MEP I certainly should have been bolder: being quietly sceptical about the single currency and quietly concerned that EU integration was running ahead of public opinion got me nowhere. Being more outspoken might also have got me nowhere, but it would have been more fun.

Which political figure inspires you?

At present, President Volodymyr Zelensky. Caroline Lucas is pretty remarkable, too.

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?

The Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme will ensure that farmers in England get public money for improving the environment and combating climate change, not just for farming. But there’s some doubt whether the new administration will continue to drive this policy forward, or revert to something more like the old Common Agricultural Policy. If the government reverses or goes slow on ELM, it’ll squander one of the few clear benefits of Brexit.

And what policy should the UK government ditch?

Its plan for a cull of hundreds of pieces of “retained EU law”. These are laws the UK helped shape for 40 years. They protect nature, the climate, food safety and much else. No one should defend unnecessary regulation, but Grenfell stands as a terrible reminder of the cost of ideologically driven deregulation.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

So many, from the Netherlands’ commitment to a circular economy by 2050 to the Well-being of Future Generations Act in Wales. But given the twin urgency of the climate crisis and a stalling economy, how about the US Inflation Reduction Act? We need a comparable commitment to a big, comprehensive and well-targeted green industrial strategy.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

An Energy Act to deliver decarbonisation of the energy sector. We were expecting a bill, but apparently it’s now on hold. But the real focus of the government should be implementing its commitment to net zero. In most cases, that doesn’t need new laws – it just needs focus and commitment.

[See also: The Policy Ask with Manny Hothi: “The world is waking up to the futility of the war on drugs”]

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