My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
Week two of party conference season and we're now in sunny Brighton with the Labour Party. Last night, it was my pleasure to introduce Rt Hon Hilary Benn at a reception organised by WWF, The Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB. Mr Benn is now Shadow Foreign Secretary but was, of course, Environment Secretary during the last Labour Government.
The Coalition Government inherited and respected much of Mr Benn’s legacy...
...it was Hilary Benn who commissioned Professor Sir John Lawton to produce his seminal Making Space for Nature which was published during Caroline Spelman’s time as Secretary of State. This argued for more, bigger, better, more joined protected areas and helped provide the impetus for the establishment of Nature Improvement Areas. Today, the conservation community is united around the desire to think big and restore landscapes for people and wildlife.
...it was Hilary Benn who, in concert with the devolved administrations, commissioned the UK National Ecosystem Assessment which outlined the value that nature gives us, but concluded that a third of the free services that nature provides have been degraded. The UKNEA not only paved the way for the NEWP, but also provided the framework for the establishment of the National Capital Committee.
...it was Mr Benn that had a role in the Climate Change Act (2008) and then took the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2008) through parliament. The coalition Government established an ambitious fourth carbon budget to drive down greenhouse gas emissions and slowly (many would say too slowly) took steps towards establishing an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas.
So, Mr Benn is well placed to determine whether the current Government will continue to respect his legacy, for example, as it begins to set out its stall for a 25 year plan for nature and map out a future for the Natural Capital Committee.
He is also in a key position to shape the Labour Party’s contribution to the forthcoming referendum on the European Union. Anyone that has ever worked for Defra will have experienced the best and worst of the EU. The best, to my mind is the high standards of environmental protection that the EU demands most notably through Directives such as the Birds and Habitats & Species Directives. The worst is the lack of public benefit secured through the c€400 billion of European taxpayers’ money that will be spent on the Common Agriculture Policy over the next six years.
A positive reform agenda for the European Union would be one that upheld high environmental standards thereby respecting the principle that no Member State should gain competitive advantage through trashing their environment whilst also demanding greater value for European taxpayers’ money through the CAP to support those farmers that provide things that the public want and need such as an attractive countryside rich in wildlife accessible to all.
Yet, Mr Benn of course, along with the new Shadow Environment Secretary Kerry McCarthy, are in opposition. The first job of opposition is to oppose, the second job is to seek renewal and a vision for the country and a policy programme which attracts sufficient votes at the next election to win them power.
Last night both politicians spoke with passion and commitment and were warmly received in a packed (and very hot) Grand Hotel meeting room. My hope is that the Labour Party opposes anything that undermines Mr Benn’s legacy, supports measures that build on it and challenges the Government to a healthy competition for the best policy agenda to help us recover our threatened wildlife and help us live in harmony with nature.
As ever, our role is to propose, based on our evidence, experience and expertise, what we think nature needs and share our ideas with each of the parties. We shall continue to do that in Brighton this week before heading north to the Conservatives in Manchester next week.