I’M sure that Michael Gove is delighted to be back at the heart of the Government. However, his appointment as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs might appear something of an odd choice.
The urbane MP for Surrey Heath is not known for his love of green wellies. Indeed, he has been lambasted by many – including the co-leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas – as being entirely unequipped for the task ahead, sartorially or otherwise.
His record in the House of Commons suggests that he had no qualms about selling off ancient forests to housebuilders, and he was in favour of removing the issue of climate change from the geography curriculum in schools.
He replaces Andrea Leadsom, whose brief tenure in charge of Defra hardly set the world alight. At first glance, his appointment looks like a kind of desperate compromise by the Prime Minister to recruit as many experienced senior ministers to her side as possible for the tricky weeks ahead. She did, after all, sack him from his role heading up the Ministry of Justice in the previous administration.
She’s not daft. It’s better to have Gove onside than on the backbenches. The environment brief though? It’s not one of the big-hitters like Foreign Secretary or Chancellor of the Exchequer. We might be forgiven for regarding it as a little less than exciting. That is where we would be wrong.
It has never been more vital to have the environment right at the forefront of the political agenda. Indeed, today is the very first National Clean Air Day, organised by the environmental change charity, Global Action Plan.
Across the UK’s city centres, air pollution is having a major impact on our health, with dirty public air contributing to 40,000 deaths every year in the UK. This inaugural day of action aims to reinforce awareness of the legal limits for vehicle emissions and to help schools, hospital and community organisations with information and advice on protecting our health.
Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable. My own 11-year-old daughter suffers from awful breathing difficulties in the summer months and has been prescribed an inhaler to help.
I’ll say that again. 40,000 people are known to die from the effects of air pollution every year. If this number of individuals lost their lives for any other reason, there would be a national outcry.
Concern for such environmental matters is particularly important as we enter the Brexit negotiations. Wherever we end up with Brussels, it is crucial that Britain has its own clear policies and legislation on every aspect. And this includes everything from those lethal vehicle emissions to farming, fishing, protection of rare species and preventing illegal fly-tippers from desecrating our beautiful countryside.
There isn’t space here to list every single thing that would come under this remit, but don’t be fooled. Leave campaigners might have attacked the EU for “bureaucracy” but it’s likely that every single one of the rules it has laid down under the very broad banner of the environment will need amending or replacing with our own home-grown version. Somebody has to be in charge. It’s a bigger brief than you might think.
And whatever you might also think of Gove’s record at Education, where he caused political mayhem, you can’t deny that he gets things done. Earlier this week he took to Radio 4’s Today programme to set out his stall, telling listeners that he intends to listen to farmers. I hope that he does. If he upsets the farmers, they will make an irate NUT conference look like a teddy bears’ picnic.
However, what this appointment will do is to bring the concerns of the countryside right into the heart of Westminster.
This is good. For too long now in Britain there has been a disconnect between town and country. It is a prime example of how divided we have become as a nation. And it has to be said there is a lot of ignorance on both sides. If Gove causes thorny shibboleths to be torn apart, at least we will be debating them amongst ourselves.
And in wider global terms, we all need to think about the future of the planet and the precious resources it provides to sustain human life. Food shortages. New ways of extracting energy from the earth and the skies. International accords on reducing carbon emissions falling down like dominoes. All of these form a serious, potentially life-threatening situation which should not be on the political back-burner for a moment longer.
I hope that this controversial appointment puts the environment on everybody’s agenda. Like the very air that we breathe, we take it for granted. We shouldn’t.