Tuesday 15 March 2016

Costing the Earth: The Environment after Exit

This week's Costing the Earth on Radio 4 was called The Environment after Exit.

It looked in turn at four key EU policies: the Habitats Directive, the Common Fisheries Policy, the Common Agricultural Policy and the European Renewables Directive.

Was it biased? And if so in which direction? 

Let's take it section by section.

1. Habitats

This section (which took up the first eight and a half minutes of the programme) looked at the EU's Habitats Directive.

Presenter Tom Heap talked to three people: Andrew Blenkiron, estate director of the Euston Estate; former EU Commission official (and father of Boris) Stanley Johnson; and Matt Shardlow of Buglife. (Stanley Johnson is, of course, famously on the opposite side to his son over the EU referendum.)

First we heard from Andrew Blenkiron on the steps he's had to take to look after the great crested newts on the estate. 

Then Mr Johnson stood up for the Habitats Directive, saying "Why is it important? In practical terms it means there is an extra layer of protection to this precious landscape provided by Brussels"...

...and not just for great crested newts... 

Thus, following Tom Heap's question "Now what has Europe done for the Roman snail?", Matt Shardlow of Buglife said that the EU directive had helped protect these remarkable snails.
Tom Heap: And how confident are you it need Europe to deliver that? It couldn't be delivered by national governments?
Matt Shardlow: Well, it potentially could have been done by national governments but it wasn't done by the national governments.
Mr Shardlow said organisations like his have used the European Court of Justice and the Habitats Directive to help keep the environment protected. He said he didn't have much faith in the (UK) government to step up and take up this EU "moral urge". 

Mr Blenkiron discussed the hurdles he had to leap over to build a reservoir on the estate because of those great crested newts. It added £65,000 to his costs and only ten newts were found. Like other landowners, the estate has been "irritated" by the legislation - though, Tom added, Mr Blenkiron is "rather proud" of the newt habitat he's built in recompense for the reservoir. 

This segued into Matt Shardlow of Buglife, who "sympathises" with Andrew Blenkiron (according to Tom Heap) but "blames national interpretation of the law rather than the EU".

And that's where that topic was left, with the Habitats Directive's virtues strongly praised and the blame for Mr Blenkiron's newt problem shifted onto the UK government.  

All in all, Stanley Johnson and Matt Shardlow were strongly defending the EU there and, allthough he was cast as a possible critics of the EU, you may have noticed that Mr Blenkiron didn't directly criticise the EU. 

By coincidence, I'd Googled Mr Blenkiron the other day after hearing him on another BBC programme and knew something Costing the Earth listeners probably didn't know about him (as they weren't told): that he's also pro-Remain. 

His Farmers Weekly article Leaving the EU would be a leap in the dark makes his views very clear on the subject....

which, of course, makes it a clean sweep of anti-Brexit speakers here. 

This was the most strongly pro-Remain-biased section of the programme.

2. Fishing

This section (occupying six minutes of the programme) looked at the Common Fisheries Policy.

Tom Heap began by framing it in this way:
The Marine Conservation Society credits EU legislation with cleaning our beaches and creating marine protected areas. However, there's no avoiding the association between the EU and those pictures we've seen so often of fishermen throwing perfectly good fish, dead, back in the sea from which they've just been caught.
Then BBC reporter/producer Robin Markwell went to a fish market in Plymouth to canvas views there. We heard getting on for four minutes from them. 

All three 'vox pops' - fisherman Andy Giles, harbourmaster Keith Bromley and Pam from Pam's Snacks - were firmly against the Common Fisheries Policy and in favour of Brexit. ("I'm not sure the Common Fisheries Policy is working"; "It's not really much good for us at the moment but, who knows, if we came out of Europe maybe it would change"; "There's a lot of bad feeling towards it - and quite rightly so, because it's a pretty flawed policy"; "I think we should come out of Europe...It's killing the fishing industry.")

The last word here though was given to a pro-Remain speaker (an 'authority figure' in contrast to these 'vox pops'), who Tom Heap introduced in this fashion:
You won't find many people willing to defend the Common Fisheries Policy. It's largely failed to protect the fishermen and the fish. But Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermans Federation says that in his personal opinion - and he stresses this isn't the view of his organisation - exit from the EU could actually make things worse.
Mr Armstong said that collective action is better than individual action. The negotiations following Brexit would be "very complicated" and "full of hazard". Fishing is less than half a per cent of GDP. Fishing is unlikely to be a 'pressure point' for UK negotiators seeking to strike a new deal with the EU, he argued. 

Obviously this section gave more time to the pro-Leave side than the pro-Remain side and the failings of the Common Fisheries Policy were made clear - though Robin Markwell did challenge the anti-CFP 'vox pops' and pushed the point that the CFP was being reformed and improved. The highly articulate closing speaker's point (a variant of the 'hold on to nurse for fear of something worse' argument) also counterbalanced that time imbalance somewhat.

3. Farming

The Common Agricultural Policy was up next (taking up some five minutes of the programme). We heard from two people - an expert and a farmer. The expert - Brian Gardner, policy analyst at Agra Europe - was the bread in the section's sandwich-like structure and the farmer - Colin Tyler - the filling. Mr Gardner argued the anti-Brexit case and Mr Tyler the pro-Brexit case. 

Mr Gardner began by saying that a pro-Brexit government wasn't guaranteed to match the income subsidies and other subsidies from the EU which support farmers now. "In fact I'm quite sure they would not," he said. He reckons British farmers could two £2 billion a year in subsidies, post-Brexit. 

He wasn't challenged. 

Then came the interview with Colin Tyler, who Tom Heap introduced by saying:
He doesn't deny the British farmer's dependency on money from Europe but he thinks it's time for his industry to kick away its own subsidy crutch.
Mr Tyler was challenged - and undermined.

"How many people shared your view?" asked Tom. Mr Tyler admitted he was the only one out of a hundred in the bar in favour of exit at a farmers' conference. "And what did that tell you?", Tom then asked. 

Mr Tyler says he doesn't think it's that "black and white". He thinks we produce the best of a lot of food and livestock and could export it elsewhere. Tom challenged him by saying: 
Maybe that's easier for you to say here in the South East, relatively close to markets, a few opportunities for making money outside conventional farming. If you were a hill farmer a long way away you really need those subsidies. They make up a big proportion of your income.
Colin Tyler replied:
I would have to agree with that. It's easier for me to make the decision, but let's look: We're in Europe, ten years time. have we made any changes? The subsidy will the lower, the regulations will be higher. Would they allow us still to graze sheep on mountains, because they say we are destroying the environment?
(I have to say I really hope this conversation wasn't edited to make it seem as if Mr Tyler was  undermining himself.)

Tom then turned to another question: "Would lower subsides affect the landscape?" 

The expert Mr Gardner returned to answer that one. He said lower subsidies (of the kind he predicts post-Brexit) would tend to push out small family farms, especially diary farms, which, he said, are essential to the current structure of rural areas. 
There would be a tendency towards larger farms, fewer farmers - a move towards the countryside being dominated by large farms would tend, without government intervention, would tend to be not good for the environment in my view.
And, undermining Mr Tyler one last time, Tom Heap then said that that Mr Gardner thought that any UK government would keep funding highland farms, so sheep wouldn't disappear from the mountains. 

As you can see, I'm not accepting that this was a balanced section for one moment. The whole thing was tilted against the Brexit side here.

4. Renewable energy

The final section (taking up the final seven minutes of the programme) looked at the European Renewables Directive.

Tom Heap described renewable energy as "a recent money spinner for farmers" and the section began with Tom Clothier, the renewable energy business manager at Wyke Farms. 

A spot more Googling shows that the farm's owner Richard Clothier was one of those who signed that pro-Remain letter to the FT at couple of weeks or so back. No mention was made of that on Costing the Earth

Tom continued:
This anaerobic digester here at the Wyke Farms Cheese factory is part of an extraordinarily swift energy revolution led from Brussels.
An expert voice, Andrew Whitehead, energy analyst with the lawyers Shakespeare Martineau, was next. 

Mr Whitehead talked about the different climate change targets - the UK's and the EU's targets. The binding EU target has been "influential", he said. Has it "handcuffed" policy?  asked Tom. To a certain extent, Mr Whitehead replied, but he thinks the UK has persuaded the rest of the EU to make the targets for 2030 "less prescriptive".

It's not only farmers for whom renewables are a "money spinner. Tom Heap continued: 
Those European targets have been great for those subsidised to produce renewables and for an electricity company like Good Energy that buys that power and sells it on to consumers.
Juliet Davenport from Good Energy duly appeared to say the European Renewables Directive has been "strong" and describe how the sector's success has "very much been driven by legislation as well as by technological change."

Then it was back to a BBC reporter with some 'vox pops' - or this time a BBC reporter with one 'vox pop'. We heard two female voices, one complaining about onshore wind turbines. The BBC reporter was  Nancy Nicolson and the 'vox pop' was Linda Holt. As you will see Tom Heap, in contrast to some of the other voices on this programme, made it very clear which campaign group she's associated with:
In Fife, Linda Holt agrees that the EU has encouraged renewable energy, such as the wind turbines that provide Good Energy will half its electricity, but she's not keen on the consequences. Linda belongs to the campaign group Scotland Against Spin.
She wants Britain to leave the EU and blames the wind farms ruining the local landscape on the European Renewables Directive. Again (in contrast to the pro-Remain speakers in the programme), her views were directly challenged - as with this question/statement from Nancy Nicolson. 
But this is a very industrial landscape. Yes, we're looking at windmills, but we're also looking just over the hill at Mossmorran. We can see the big chimneys, and I don't know if it's steam or smoke that's coming up from there. The point is surely that if we didn't have renewables we would have more of these - more coal-fired power stations - and that would mean more climate change and worse air quality.
 Again, this section, to my mind, had a marked anti-Brexit tilt to it.

Tom Heap's concluding remarks
That, perhaps, is the nub of the debate over Britain's exit from the European Union. The future of the environment would depend upon the UK governments that follow Exit. Each of these enormous issues will need to be reassessed and weighed in the list of national priorities. Exit would just be the start of a debate on what's best for our environment. Should landowners be subsidised to manage the landscape? How do we protect our fish stocks? Where should we get our low-carbon energy? They are all question we have, to some degree, allowed politicians and officials in Brussels to take the lead on. Are we happy to start each debate afresh? 
That makes it sound rather is if we'd have to return to Year Zero, doesn't it? 

My thoughts on hearing this were: 

Would we really need to "start each debate afresh?" 

Would we really be leaping from the 'nurse' (Brussels) to 'something worse' (the possibly less dependable post-Brexit UK governments? 

Would the environment's future really be at risk from a Brexit? 


This edition of Costing the Earth did seem to me to have a pronounced anti-Brexit, pro-EU bias. 

It did offer some variety of views, especially as the progtamme proceeded, but it didn't treat those voices equally. The pro-Leave voices were challenged much more strongly, even though they were 'ordinary people'. In contrast. the 'experts' and 'influential people' featured for the Remain side, who you would have expected to have been challenged more strongly, weren't challenged as strongly. 

This was only part of the programme's weighting problem. We were clearly steered towards the beneficial effects of the EU's Habitats Directive, and were strongly guided towards seeing the economic boons for farming and business which have (allegedly) flowed from the European Renewables Directive. Plus the section on the possible effects of a Brexit on farmers was made lopsided (towards the negative effects). Only the section on the Common Fisheries Policy placed a key European initiative in a strongly negative light - and even that was balanced by talk of reforms and a dark, closing warning of worse things to come if we left the EU.

So, yes, I think this edition of Costing the Earth was heavily biased. 

Please listen to it for yourself and see if you agree.


  1. This is just more of the same insulting narrative from Europhiles that only the enlightened Eurocrat mandarins are all that stand between you and a Dickensian dystopia. It's the same as the BS about how only the EU protects human rights and civil rights and workers rights. Now without the EU, Britain would descend into some sort of post-apocalyptic chaos.

    The BBC has been leading the charge with Project Fear.

  2. Excellent analysis!

    For me this is the key phrase from the programme:

    "The future of the environment would depend upon the UK governments that follow Exit."

    They seem to have studiously avoided looking at that. Surely the first thing they should have done is look at Norway and Switzerland to see if these two non-EU European countries were not protecting wildlife, not pursuing renewable energy, overfishing and succumbing to large scale farming.

    It seems pretty clear to me that the EU fisheries policy has led to overfishing, and that the EU's CAP policy has encouraged marginal food production which obviously drives out natural flora and fauna.

    The programme was outrageously biased. Are you going to log it on the complaints website or complain directly?

    1. That's a good point. Norway and Switzerland aren't known for such things.

      I emailed the people behind the complaints website directly. They are going to try and see if they can get the national press interested in it.

    2. Excellent. It deserves to be exposed as a completely biased and inadequate analysis of the issues involved.


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