Interview: Philip Dunne MP - Natural selection

2nd October 2020


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Jamie Gordon

The green recovery, biodiversity and economic opportunities from clean technology are all priorities for the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee, its latest chair Philip Dunne MP tells Catherine Early

Ludlow MP Philip Dunne's parliamentary career has mostly been focused on defence and health, but when the post of chair came up for the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), which he has been a member of since 2018, he put himself forward. “One of the reasons was that this year would have been a fundamental year for the UK to show global leadership in improving the environment and in heading towards our climate change commitments,“ he says.

The select committee had planned work around the UN COP26 negotiations in Glasgow, to scrutinise what it was planning to achieve at the COP and the preparatory work it was conducting in the run-up. Instead, it has had to flip its focus to the green recovery from the economic crisis caused by COVID-19. It held its first evidence session on the issue in July, and has scheduled further hearings for the autumn.

“Some of the major manufacturing sectors and the aviation sector need to take this opportunity to rethink their business models“

Green strings attached

Much of the criticism around the government's reaction to the green recovery agenda is misplaced, Dunne believes. “The economic stimulus measures announced in July are an interim step to take us through this year,“ he says.

“The focus will be on the spending review, which will cover the rest of Parliament – that's the real opportunity for the government to take measures to stimulate the British economy, but to do so in a way that will try to capture some of the environmental benefits of the reduced activity and change the way we do things. That's the real prize.“

In terms of the short-term recovery measures announced so far, Dunne is particularly pleased with the £2bn for energy efficiency, an issue that he says has been a high priority for the committee. The intent is to retrofit 650,000 homes with better insulation, glazing and other energy efficiency features this fiscal year – which will be a big challenge, he says.

“The proof will be in the eating as to whether this works, but we absolutely have to do it. There are 19m properties leaking energy and we have to get as many of those as possible put right – and this is a very good start.“

He is supportive of the idea of attaching green strings to government bail-outs. “Some of the major manufacturing sectors and the aviation sector need to take this opportunity and funding from government to rethink their business models.“ Some companies are already transforming very rapidly towards net-zero, and government stimulus packages can help incentivise this further, he continues.

Dunne is also hoping that the UK can collaborate with China, which is hosting the COP15 UN negotiations under the Convention on Biological Diversity, rescheduled for May. He says he will be asking the government for evidence of co-operation.

“This is an area where we both have an interest in showing global leadership. That's a real positive at a time when the relationship is going through some bumps in other areas.“ The committee's upcoming inquiry on biodiversity will report ahead of COP15 so as to inform the government's preparations, he adds.

Habitat protections

Dunne was brought up in rural Shropshire, on a mixed arable and livestock farm that he has managed since 1987. As such, he is well aware of the responsibilities and challenges involved in maintaining viable agricultural activity while enhancing wildlife, and is working to make sure the farm plays its part. This includes, for example, working with the Environment Agency to prevent run-off into rivers through better land management, such as planting cover crops to boost water retention. He is also creating wetland areas so excess water can be held over land rather than risk flooding downstream.

Dunne is convinced that the government's Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMS) – which will reward farmers for 'public goods' such as environmental improvements – will provide adequate protection for nature, when used in conjunction with nature recovery networks and other proposals in the 25 Year Environment Plan. He dismisses campaign groups' fears that the government will abandon protections under the EU Habitats Directive once the Brexit transition period is over at the end of the year. “I think some of the NGOs are rather stuck in the past – they should be looking forward to opportunities presented by the 25 Year Plan and the new legislation, which we couldn't have done if we stayed in the EU,“ he says.

“Looking back to the Habitats Directive as the best way of preserving habitat is, in my view, old-fashioned thinking. We should be looking forward to what the ELMS and the nature recovery networks could be doing.“

These schemes will need to be coherent and well aligned. Dunne has been pressing for this through contributions on the Agriculture Bill, and plans to do so on the Environment Bill, he adds.

He also does not share concerns that the Environment Bill will not be enacted before the transition period ends. It is due to resume its passage through Parliament in September, having been delayed by COVID-19; however, the combination of an early return to Parliament after the summer break and a lack of party conferences will add a month of legislative time, he points out.

“The government certainly intends to get the act in place, and this extra time gives capacity to do so, so I'm not concerned. We need to ensure that it happens, but I'm reasonably reassured that it has every prospect of getting through.“

Arrangements for the government's new watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – which is legislated for in the bill – are proceeding on the assumption that the bill will pass, he says. Dunne expects to hold pre-appointment hearings for the OEP's chair before the end of the year.

“Select committees can raise awareness of injustice or things that can do good“

Shining a spotlight

Dunne has a personal interest in water quality, and is promoting a private members' bill on combined sewer overflows (CSOs). When large volumes of rain build up in the system, water companies are permitted to release sewage into rivers through CSOs in order to reduce the risk of sewage backing up into homes, roads and open spaces.

However, the dumping of raw sewage into watercourses has been occurring increasingly frequently – Freedom of Information requests by The Guardian revealed more than 200,000 occasions last year alone (bit.ly/34hVUfq).

Dunne's bill, which will be drafted in the autumn for debate in November, would place a duty on water companies to better manage the risks and stop untreated sewage being discharged into rivers and inland waterways.

“The Victorians were very good at introducing sewer systems across the country – but sadly we're still reliant on systems that were put in place 150 years ago, which is why they can't cope with the volumes the current population is putting through them,“ he says. “The infrastructure has not been upgraded adequately for decades.

“My bill will not be able to solve this overnight, but it's designed to raise awareness and public interest in what is otherwise a rather murky, mucky subject that people don't like to think about.“

Raising awareness of otherwise neglected topics can be one of the key strengths of select committees, Dunne believes. Though they cannot make the government act on their recommendations, they can focus minds on matters that the government would sometimes rather people were not talking about, he says.

A recent example of this is the EAC's inquiry on fast fashion, which it originally intended to highlight the amount of waste created by disposable clothing. “We also uncovered modern slavery in garment factories, particularly in Leicester, which has become topical now that they are also hotspots for COVID-19 infection.“

A previous inquiry flagged up similar issues in hand car washes, he notes. “In both cases, the government made comfortable words but has done relatively little about it. So we will be looking again in the autumn at what follow-up we can do, and I hope that this time the government will act.“

Dunne has also brought the committee a new focus on the opportunities for the UK in the transition to a net-zero economy through technology such as offshore wind and hydrogen. “That is a feature of a select committee, that we can raise awareness of injustice or things that can do good,“ he says.

Catherine Early is a freelance journalist.

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