Matthew Farrow

Liz Truss’s agenda at DEFRA: interesting but cautious

Liz Truss will have had under a year to make a mark as Environment Secretary before the election. Environmental Industries Commission executive director Matthew Farrow says she has interesting ideas but is avoiding complex issues of changing public behaviour.

I recently attended what was billed as the new-ish Environment Secretary Liz Truss’s ‘first speech on the environment’ - her prior speech to the Conservative Party Conference having consisted  of a slightly awkward championing of the British food industry.   Such speeches are an opportunity for a new Secretary of State to set out some defining themes for their term of office – what they want to do with the portfolio the Prime Minister has granted them.

BOOK NOW: Find out about the political parties views on the environment at the EIC conference ‘Establishing a Green Agenda’ on 2 December. For details go to

In Liz Truss’s case the context in which she made the speech was not the easiest.  However successful she is, her tenure in the post is likely to be less than a year, with the last couple of months effectively taken up by election campaigning.

More significantly, the environment has not been happy terrain for the Conservatives since 2010.  Expectations had been raised very high by the ‘greenest government ever’ rhetoric, whereas the early years of the new Government in Defra were marked by severe budget cuts which eroded the department’s expertise, a Waste Policy Review which was more policy fine-tuning than the great leap forward then Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman had promised, and of course the forestry sell off debacle (caused, I’m told, by No 10 bouncing Defra into announcing what was supposed to be  innovative new policy thinking before it was ready).  The tenure of Owen Paterson, Spelman’s successor, was marked by thinly-veiled scepticism over climate change, the vexed science of the badger cull, and last winter’s floods.

Given this context, Liz Truss’s main aim is inevitably to limit any electoral risks for her party from environmental issues in the run up to the election.  In the speech she tried to do this in two ways.

First, she said she wants to anchor Defra’s activities in the drive for economic growth.  This is reasonable, and her argument that the UK’s food and rural economies are dependent on an environment in ‘top condition’ is sound although the speech sidesteped the debates about intensive farming practices and GM crops.  But I was disappointed she didn’t make more of the growth prospects of the UK’s £100bn environmental industries which the EIC represents.

Second, she said she wants to refocus public perceptions of environmental policy onto local benefits in terms of things like wildlife habitats, clean water and air and protecting local ecosystems - the speech was accompanied the launch of a new pollinator strategy to increase the bee population.  There is some sense in this as climate change has been the dominant environmental issue in the last decade and some rebalancing is needed. 

But the political benefit for the new focus is that it avoids issues where the public needs to change its behaviour to help tackle complex issues where the benefits are global not local.  Climate change is an obvious example, and it was only mentioned in passing, another is waste and recycling, which was not mentioned at all, despite a flat-lining of recycling rates in the last couple of years. 

Ms Truss is desperate to steer clear of arguments about weekly rubbish collections, the number of recycling bins, the role of incineration plants and whether people fly too much.  All these things matter though, and cannot be ignored for long.

The other component of the speech was the argument that Defra was looking at ways to apply ‘big data’ to the analysis of environmental issues.  This is an interesting idea, which echoes work we are doing at EIC on the relevance of the smart cities agenda urban environmental problems, but needs to be fleshed out more.

Liz Truss had been due to speak at next month’s EIC Annual Conference but will now be on a trade mission in China and the Defra speaker will be junior minister Lord de Mauley.  It will be interesting to see how closely his speech follows that of his boss, and how it compares to the agenda put forward at the conference by Shadow Environment Secretary Maria Eagle for Labour and the man in charge of the environmental sections of the LibDem manifesto – Duncan Brack.

The Environmental Industries Commission is the leading trade body for environmental firms.

Find out about the political parties views on the environment at the EIC conference ‘Establishing a Green Agenda’ on 2 December. For details go to