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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Fiona Harvey and Helena Horton

‘Bring it on’: Labour vows to fight Tories’ ‘degradation’ of nature in race for No 10

Steve Reed
Steve Reed says protecting nature is not just essential, it is a vote winner. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Labour will take on vested interests from water companies to housebuilders and farmers in an effort to restore the UK’s degraded natural environment, the party’s environment chief has said.

Steve Reed, the shadow environment secretary, said: “If the Tories want to have an election fight over that, bring it on, because the British people care about the countryside, they care about nature. They care about living in a beautiful country. They value their access to the countryside. The Conservatives are on the wrong side of all that, and to many, many voters that will tip their votes.”

Vested interests had provoked a sewage crisis in the UK’s waterways, he said. “The government has formed a coalition between the Conservative party and rogue water bosses.

“They are allowing these companies to illegally exploit our waterways by filling them up with record levels of sewage, illegal discharges of sewage, in order to boost their profits. Then the water bosses take huge levels of bonuses as a result of these boosted profits.”

The Tory approach to housebuilders also verged on corruption, he added. Labour exposed this when the government tried to weaken nutrient neutrality rules in August, in plans that would have given housebuilders carte blanche to build without considering the impact of sewage from new houses.

“[They have] a cosy relationship with developers, who became the biggest source of donations to the Conservative party. And then, frankly some decisions … where planning permission was granted for inappropriate developments when the developer was donating to the Conservative party.”

Labour would take a firm line with all vested interests, he said. “We’re not only going to stop that from happening in future but we will go back and get some of that money [for instance from Covid contracts], as much of that money back as we can so that we can invest it. Public money should be spent for the public good, not private gain.”

Protecting nature is not just essential, it is a vote winner, Reed believes.

Keir Starmer at PMQs.
Keir Starmer at PMQs. Labour has been viewed by many political observers as quieter than the Liberal Democrats on nature issues. Photograph: Roger Harris/UK parliament/AFP/Getty

“The Conservatives have increasingly been positioning themselves against nature. They have not just tolerated but encouraged the degradation of nature,” he told the Guardian in his first high-profile interview since his appointment by Keir Starmer in September.

“They are on the wrong side of the public, as well as the wrong side of history. When it comes to nature, we are the conservers, not the Conservatives.”

Reed is acutely aware that Labour must make huge gains in rural and semi-rural constituencies if it is to win a majority at the general election, expected next year.

Tony Blair won a landslide in 1997 by taking a majority for the first time for Labour in rural, semi-rural and coastal seats, and again in 2001, but since then the party’s support in such areas has waned.

The Liberal Democrats have made big byelection gains, overturning huge Tory majorities largely through a strong focus on green issues such as the pollution of waterways.

Labour has been viewed by many political observers as quieter on nature issues, and conservation groups have been pushing the party for more action.

Reed said nature protection was the “opposite side of the same coin” as the climate crisis and net zero. Viewed in parliament as an attacking politician, his instincts are to bring the fight to the Tories. He was said to be instrumental in controversial ads attacking Rishi Sunak this year, and his appointment was widely seen as a sign that Starmer was attempting not to cede the initiative to the Lib Dems on green issues such as sewage, nature and housebuilding.

“Keir wants us to make a bigger offer on nature and coastal issues,” he said. “Labour’s path to victory runs through rural communities. We need them to win, then govern effectively. But this is not just a political case, it’s a moral one.”

He takes it personally, he makes clear. “We shouldn’t be totally dispassionate in politics, I think you’ve got a right to be angry,” he said. “You’ve got to channel it into making a better offer for how our country can meet the aspirations that the British people have for it, that these Conservatives have totally abandoned.”

Rural people face some of the worst poverty and deprivation in the country, he noted, but it is rarely considered. Rural areas frequently lack transport, broadband, access to healthcare and other basic amenities that cities take for granted, and a lack of jobs, investment and affordable housing has held people back, Reed argues.

“We must expose the horror that the Conservatives have inflicted on our rural communities. They have left working families who live in the countryside facing low pay and rising poverty, inadequate public transport and the destruction of good local jobs,” he said.

Some of Reed’s positions are likely to bring him into conflict with farmers. British rivers are dying not just because water companies fill them with sewage, but also because of pollution by farmers, who the Guardian has revealed are barely inspected owing to savage budget cuts at the Environment Agency.

Conservationists are also likely to object to Labour plans to build on the green belt, though Natural England chief Tony Juniper told the Guardian last month that it was possible to build on green belt land and improve conditions for wildlife and nature.

While Labour has announced plans to deny bonuses to water bosses over sewage, promised support for farmers and set out plans for a new Clean Air Act, important policy areas are still blank or lacking in detail. Pledges such as improving the UK’s flood defences and planting trees will need to be backed up with new cash.

Reed has also little to say yet on rewilding and species reintroduction, and has not yet taken a view on whether to restrict or ban wood-burning stoves, which are now responsible for about a third of the UK’s air pollution despite being owned by only 8% of households.

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