The Blog

Seven Priorities for Liz Truss, the New Environment Secretary

So long, Owen Paterson: we won't miss you. You were truly the worst environment secretary for decades. With that act to follow, Ms Truss might be tempted to relax; hardly much to live up to. That would be a mistake. There's already a lot in her in-tray and a lot of mess to clean up from her predecessor...

Congratulations, Liz Truss, on becoming the new environment secretary. So long, Owen Paterson: we won't miss you. You were truly the worst environment secretary for decades.

With that act to follow, Ms Truss might be tempted to relax; hardly much to live up to. That would be a mistake. There's already a lot in her in-tray and a lot of mess to clean up from her predecessor. Here are some of the challenges Friends of the Earth would like to see the new Environment Secretary getting to grips with - and some recommendations.

1) Listen to the science. Owen Paterson chose to ignore modern science on a whole host of environmental issues. In his almost two years in office, he had just two cursory briefings on climate change from his civil servants; no briefings at all on the matter from his chief scientist; and studiously ignored efforts by the Met Office's chief scientist, Dame Julia Slingo, to offer him support. And he sided with the pesticide companies on neonicotinoids, despite the mounting scientific evidence showing the harm they do to bees. Liz Truss will be able to summon advice from some of the best scientists on the planet: she should listen to them.

2) Take climate change seriously. It's the job of the Environment Secretary to protect Britain from the impacts of climate change. Coming after our wettest winter ever, that job has become ever-more important. Owen Paterson notoriously visited the Somerset floods unprepared, without any wellies to wear; more importantly, he weakened the country's preparedness for climate change by cutting staff working at climate adaptation at Defra and the Environment Agency. Liz Truss needs to recognise that climate change poses a threat to the UK's national security, and improve our resilience.

3) Invest more in flood defences and natural flood management. Coming from a low-lying Norfolk constituency with 4,497 homes at flood risk (according to Environment Agency data), Liz Truss will already appreciate the threat flooding poses to households. With climate change driving worse flooding, up to a million more people in Britain could be put at risk over the next decade. This has to become a priority for her department again after Owen Paterson downgraded it; her shadow, Maria Eagle, has pledged that she "will be the Environment Secretary that reinstates flood protection as a departmental priority". It's encouraging that Ms Truss has previously pushed for greater spending on flood management. She now needs to close the £500m shortfall in flood defence spending that's emerged due to Coalition spending cuts, in order to keep pace with climate change.

4) Deliver a brilliant National Bee Action Plan. We need to urgently save Britain's declining bee populations. Defra has already approved a Bee Action Plan (or National Pollinator Strategy, in Whitehall-speak); now the new Environment Secretary needs to make it brilliant - one that's much better on boosting bee-friendly farming, reducing pesticides use, and creating habitats like wildflower meadows for our bees, than the current draft. She also needs to be a Secretary of State who doesn't simply take her policy on pesticides directly from the pesticide companies.

5) Restore nature. Our biodiversity is in shocking state: 30% of our ecosystem services are declining, and three out of five UK wildlife species are in decline. Liz Truss should work to urgently restore nature across the nation - creating re-wilded areas on farms, in towns and across the countryside - and not just in distant reserves. Current Government enthusiasm for biodiversity offsetting is misplaced - nature can't be ripped up and then transplanted elsewhere and can't to meet the need to restore nature everywhere. The Government's Natural Capital Committee has warned of significant consequences for our economy and well-being unless action to restore the environment is prioritised. Without bees for example, we'd have to spend £1.8billion billion hand pollinating crops, as some countries are already forced to.

6) Promote sustainable food and farming. It's critical that the new Environment Secretary sees Defra's role in delivering a joined up, long term strategy for UK food and farming. She should drop Owen Paterson's illogical, narrow focus on food exports at all costs - and invest in sustainable food production here for UK food security. That means protecting good farmland from development and ensuring the new farm subsidy implementation plans don't harm vital ecosystems and wildlife.

The Environment Secretary also has a key role to play in promoting healthier and more sustainable diets. Defra's Green Food Project has sadly focused too much on intensifying production and neglected some really helpful ideas, such as a new set of principles for sustainable diets. These should be revived to inform consumers and businesses, and could be the basis for food procurement standards for schools and hospitals - including encouraging people to eat less and better-quality meat, something that's also central to food security.

7) Stop attacking renewables and promoting fracking. Owen Paterson spent a great deal of time - and taxpayers' money - trying to promote an alternative energy policy from his department, bashing renewables and fantasising about shale gas. He lunched with fracking firms, and commissioned a still-unpublished (and allegedly shonky) study into the supposed impacts of windfarms on house prices. Liz Truss should instead be looking at the impacts fracking could have on our natural environment.

There's clearly much to do. We look forward to working with the new environment secretary!