Big challenges ahead for new environment secretary

A newly appointed secretary of state for the environment well regarded in the environmental community is good news, but George Eustice will face some sizeable challenges in his first cabinet role, says Matthew Farrow.

To absolutely no-one’s surprise, Theresa Villiers did not make the cut at the cabinet reshuffle, bringing the number of environment secretaries in the last ten years to eight (Benn, Spelman, Paterson, Truss, Leadsom, Gove, Villiers and now George Eustice, since you ask).  

George Eustice is well known to us at EIC. With a short break he has been a junior minister at Defra for seven years (mostly with the farming brief) and spoke at our parliamentary reception last year - one of our team also worked with him at Conservative Central Office. The new secretary of state is well regarded in the environmental community and unlike his predecessor is no rookie when it comes to environmental matters. Nonetheless, in his first cabinet role he faces some sizeable challenges.  

For a start, given the way EU rules have dominated our farming and environmental sectors in the last 40 years, Defra has one of the biggest departmental workloads in terms of unravelling domestic policy from EU law. Eustice will be very familiar with the planned agriculture bill, which will replace the infamous CAP system with a new payments system, but much less so with the environment bill.  

The latter is the biggest piece of environmental legislation for a generation, creating a new target-setting framework and the Office of Environmental Protection (the so-called ‘green watchdog’), as well as mandating biodiversity net gain and new powers for waste and resources policy. Among its many provisions the bill requires the environment secretary to set long-term targets across the main environmental areas, so Eustice will have some big decisions to make as he decides how ambitious these targets should be.

Alongside Brexit, he will face a spending review this year led by new chancellor Rishi Sunak. While government spending rules are being relaxed overall, he is still likely to be faced with Treasury demands for cuts (or at least flatlining) for the Defra budget, just as the department needs the resources to implement the environment and agriculture bills. There are suggestions that this circle may be squared by looking at the cost and structures of Defra’s arms-length bodies such as the Environment Agency, Natural England and the Marine Management Organisation. One to watch.

And then there is the more existential question for Defra. Created in 2001 from the ashes of John Prescott’s vanity project, the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, by 2006 newly appointed environment secretary David Miliband was asking officials “what is Defra for?”. Part regulator, part champion of the farming industry, part manager of the countryside, the answer has never been entirely clear and the department was further weakened in 2007 by losing responsibility for climate change mitigation. Since David Miliband, only Michael Gove since has given the department any real heft in the government machine.  

My own view is that Defra needs to see itself as an economic department, being a champion for the green economy and environmental innovation rather than just a regulator. That is a conversation I hope to be having with George Eustice very soon.

Matthew Farrow is director of the Environmental Industries Commission, the leading trade body for environmental firms.