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Will “environmentalist” Truss finally show her stripes?

The new prime minister claims to have green roots but those that have worked with her are not convinced. Nick Hughes reports.

When Liz Truss arrived in 10 Downing Street last Tuesday afternoon she created a little slice of history: of the 10 people who have held the post of secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs since the department was created in 2001 Truss is the first to ascend to the job of prime minister.

Could this be a positive portent for the importance placed on food and environmental issues under a Truss administration? That may be wishful thinking: Truss’s two-year tenure at Defra between 2014 and 2016 is mostly remembered for eccentric, meme-friendly speeches in which she extolled the virtues of British pork exports and decried the nation’s ‘disgraceful’ reliance on imported cheese.

Indeed, it was arguably during Truss’s more recent stint as secretary of state at the Department for International Trade that she left her most indelible mark to-date on food and environmental policy. As the driving force behind trade agreements with the likes of Australia and New Zealand, Truss united farming groups and environmentalists in anger over what they perceived as broken promises to enshrine UK food and farming standards in the deals which many believe have traded away the interests of British producers for a quick PR win. 

So what should we expect of a Truss-led government where food and the environment are concerned?

Truss has promised to deliver on the 2019 Conservative manifesto which included a commitment to deliver net-zero by 2050. She has also recommitted to the government’s 2030 goal for halting nature decline. But while her predecessor, Boris Johnson, largely embraced the green agenda including, as Green Alliance executive director Shaun Spiers wrote in a recent blog, an “unprecedented focus on the natural world at COP26”, Truss looks set to adopt a more circumspect approach. In a blog for the Conservative Environment Network (CEN), she wrote of how she intends to review policies “to ensure we are meeting our climate commitments in the most economically efficient way, which does not pile unnecessary costs onto consumers”.

Environmental credentials

Whereas Johnson was something of a political chameleon, Truss wears her plans for a low-tax, small state economy and deregulatory agenda proudly on her sleeve. Although she claimed in the CEN blog that “I was an environmentalist before it was fashionable”, those that have worked under her are not sold on Truss’s green credentials. One former civil servant who held a senior policy role while Truss was Defra secretary notes how “she wasn’t really very interested at all in environmental issues, […] she was much more interested in the food side of things”.

That’s not to say sustainable food and farming was a preoccupation. The former civil servant continues: “What we would find was that if we wanted to make a case to her for some sort of action on food, environment or agricultural issues, couching it in economic terms was the only way to have any chance of getting her attention.” Talking about green technologies, green jobs and green skills “had a little bit of traction” whereas talking about protecting the rainforest or reversing biodiversity loss didn’t, they add.

This rings true when you look back on Truss speeches from her time at Defra which would invariably focus on the commercial aspects of her brief – agricultural technologies, entrepreneurship and export performance – rather than the nuts and bolts of environmental policy.

Rory Stewart, a former Defra minister under Truss, made a similar observation in a recent episode of The Rest is Politics podcast he presents with former Labour adviser Alastair Campbell. “She’s very interested in economics,” Stewart said. “She obviously thinks about departments very much in terms of budgets [and] cuts and I think that’s very much a part of her style. It’s much less about focusing on the particular nature of the department. I never felt that in Defra she had a particular deep affection for rural affairs or landscapes.”

Cuts, cuts, cuts

During the same episode, Campbell described Truss as “an ideological cutter” – a characterisation the former civil servant concurs with. “The one thing that she was very keen on doing was cutting the size of the department. She was always interested in cutting posts, cutting budgets, removing people [and] making the place smaller.”

A recent investigation by The Guardian found that as environment secretary Truss was responsible for cutting millions of pounds of funding from the Environment Agency earmarked for surveillance of water companies to prevent the dumping of raw sewage – an issue that is now firmly back on the public’s agenda.

She also likes cutting so-called ‘red tape’. In the CEN blog, Truss wrote: “I want our farmers to spend more time growing their fantastic food rather than filling in forms. We will remove EU regulations to supercharge productivity and enhance food security as well as ensuring farmers have access to the workers they need in the short- and long-term, and delivering new plans to create the agriculture industry of the future by backing technological advances.”

Some farmers have expressed scepticism over Truss’s vision for a high-tech, intensive, liberalised agricultural sector. In a coruscating article in the New Statesman, farmer and author James Rebanks wrote: “There are endless sound reasons that Truss isn’t fit to be the next prime minister, but high among them is her frankly ridiculous and deeply dangerous ideology surrounding food, farming and the environment.” Rebanks continued: “Truss is so historically and agriculturally illiterate that she seems to have completely missed what happened last time we pursued her methods in farming. Sterile fields. Collapses in biodiversity. Ruined soils. I could go on…”

Truss cannot be held responsible for the current dire state of the UK’s soils, rivers and marine ecosystems; the concern is that her agenda will accelerate the problems rather than reverse or even stall them. Previous government plans to torch red tape failed when ideology rubbed up against reality, however Brexit affords ministers greater flexibility than was the case as an EU member. In practice, this could mean regulations like the Habitats Directive and Water Framework Directive that have been transposed into UK law following Brexit are for the axe.

Business groups lobbying for new health and environmental laws to be paused or scrapped on account of the cost of living crisis may also find a receptive ear from a prime minister who preaches the value of personal responsibility. These include the ban on junk food promotions, elements of which have already been pushed back a year, and even aspects of the government’s waste and resources strategy. The former civil servant believes extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging is probably too far advanced to be reversed but suggests a deposit return scheme (DRS) for England “may well be under threat”.

Progress potential

Sam Hall, director of the CEN, acknowledged in a recent blog how “some environmentalists will be sceptical of Liz Truss’s strong free market, tax-cutting instincts”. But Hall argued that “private enterprise and free trade can be powerful engines of environmental progress”. He wrote that removing tariffs on environmental goods and services, for example, along the lines recommended in the green trade report commissioned by Truss when she was trade secretary, “would help more people afford the technologies we need for net-zero”. So too, Hall argued, could “tax cutting policies like a green ‘super-deduction’, where businesses could get money off their corporation tax bill if they invest in clean technologies”.

Still, reports that Truss has filled her Number 10 team with loyalist advisers who share her world view are unlikely to assuage the concerns of environmentalists. Nor will the appointment of avowed climate sceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg as secretary of state for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – a critical cabinet position as the UK responds to the energy and climate crises. And the arrival in Defra of former trade minister and free trade champion Ranil Jayawardena suggests the resistance to unfettered trade access for overseas food imports, reportedly mounted by outgoing secretary of state George Eustice, is unlikely to be a future barrier to new trade deals.

But people have the capacity to surprise. Michael Gove was widely derided when he became environment secretary in 2017 but was soon lauded as the most important green reformist of his generation after setting in motion the changes that should eventually see farm subsidies directed exclusively towards the provision of public goods.

Moreover, the political and economic climate may demand government intervention regardless of how it sits with Truss’s own ideology and that of her team of ministers and advisers. Just days into the job she unveiled a huge energy support package that includes a six-month scheme to cap prices for businesses followed by more targeted support for vulnerable sectors like hospitality.

Climate concern

If Truss is to pick up Johnson’s mantle as an unashamedly populist prime minister she would do well to take heed of public concern over the environment. A YouGov survey carried out at the end of August found climate change placed third behind the rise in the cost of living and the economy as the biggest priority for the new prime minister, ahead of issues such as health, immigration, crime and tax. “There are plenty of things you might want to do in your dark free-market heart but the public doesn’t want it,” Robert Colvile, director of the Centre for Policy Studies, a Conservative think-tank, told the Economist in February 2020.

As Green Alliance’s Spiers wrote in his blog: “This summer of drought, floods and sewage should have shown everyone that now is the time for more action on the environment, not less.” We’ll soon discover whether the new prime minister was paying attention. On the steps of Downing Street last Tuesday, it was notable how the words environment, climate change, food and farming did not pass Truss’s lips as she addressed the nation for the first time (Johnson, by contrast, mentioned three out of the four, the exception being environment).

Six years after Defra officials were left scratching their heads over her apparent green credentials, will “environmentalist” Liz Truss finally show her stripes now she is calling the shots?