Now's the time to meet your MP
This week I had a very positive and open discussion about the environment with the Conservative MP for Windsor Adam Afriyie. I was invited to Parliament to discuss the draft Environment Bill – something that I had learned about on a campaigning training course at BBOWT. I wrote to him as a concerned constituent and as a founder of a new wildlife conservation group called ‘Wild About Datchet’.
I was so excited when I received the invitation through the post! His response was detailed, which reassured me that he’d taken the time to consider the issues I had raised. I was also encouraged by the warm tone of his letter. To quote Adam directly: ‘I am happy to invite you to Parliament for a cup of tea to discuss the issues you raise’. Lovely.
A warm welcome
It was clear from the outset that Adam is environmentally conscious. He’s seen all sorts of wildlife in his garden and told me fondly of the night his family watched as a small group of hedgehogs settled into a wooden house his daughter had made. He also has a BSc in agricultural economics, so I anticipated I might be in for an in-depth discussion about environmental policy!
Adam and his team were very welcoming – they were evidently prepared, with a printed copy of the draft Environment Bill ready for me upon my arrival. He opened the conversation by thanking me warmly for the conservation volunteering I am involved with locally, particularly with regards to setting up ‘Wild About Datchet’. He asked about my plans for the group and seemed pleased about the prospect of practical volunteer groups, particularly their potential to help sustain a sense of community in the village.
Where are all the Nature Recovery Networks?
Having discussed ‘Wild About Datchet’, I then approached the draft Environment Bill by turning the conversation to Nature Recovery Networks (NRNs). Under the umbrella of Wild About Datchet, I have previously advised Datchet Village Neighbourhood Planning group about NRNs and how to map wildlife corridors between biodiverse geographical areas. I reminded Adam, however, that according to the government’s National Planning Policy Framework it is in fact the local authorities who should be mapping ecological networks, not us!
Adam empathised with my frustration and explained why this is yet to happen from his perspective: when it comes to legislation everything takes an incredibly long time. He explained that draft Environment Bill is yet to receive Royal Assent (i.e. is yet to become law) and that once it does it will take at least 18 months before we see functional change at local level.
For me, this answer just didn’t cut it. Biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate and can’t wait 18 months for us to spring into action. Other councils are leading the way with ambitious Green Infrastructure Strategies (e.g. Buckinghamshire County Council released theirs in 2009) so why, I asked, isn’t the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead (RBWM) doing more?
Unsatisfied with his response, I posed the following question: if we have to wait for legislation changes to kick in, what can my group do in the meantime? Can we meet with the RBWM team in charge of planning to discuss NRNs and get the ball rolling early? To my delight, he agreed to introduce us to the relevant team at the Borough! I am really pleased with this outcome – maybe it’ll open up the opportunity to influence green policies across the entire Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead.
The proposed Office for Environmental Protection
Now this is a tricky subject – I’m no expert in environmental policy but I gave it my best shot. I impressed on Adam how important it was for the new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) to be a truly independent body if it is to hold the government to account after we leave the European Union (i.e. in the absence of the European Court of Justice).
He listened to what I had to say and took my point on board. However, he estimated that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being totally independent and 10 being entirely government-derived, that as the proposals stand the OEP is currently about a 7. He seemed satisfied with this, whereas I was not – but we politely and respectfully disagreed.
We’ve got to keep going
It’s important to remember that this is a draft bill with much left to be finalised i.e. who would chair the OEP, who sits on the committee. This is actually a good thing as it means there are plenty more opportunities for us to influence the government to make choices that will deliver for the environment.
Adam believes at this stage the Environment Bill is unlikely to be changed significantly given that it’s been widely accepted across all parties. In fact, he says he almost can’t believe how smoothly the process has been, with virtually no objections from opposition parties. However, he encouraged me to continue pressuring decision makers to aim higher when it comes to biodiversity. He said he’s never seen green policies so high on the agenda across all parties, meaning there have never been more opportunities for groups like us to make a difference.
I had the luxury of a whole hour with Adam, so I decided to be bold and approach the topic of green bridges. I explained that while at a conference recently on rewilding, a speaker from Natural England laughed when he read out my question asking if the government would ever fund them. Well, Adam didn’t laugh! He confessed that if I had approached him about it several years ago then perhaps he would have. He was very excited by the idea of green bridges and said that with the current climate (pun intended) it’s possible that the government would allocate funding for them. He mentioned there may soon be opportunities for us to influence election candidates within the Conservative Environment Network who are beginning to draw up their manifestos.
You should write to your MP too!
Overall, this has been a fantastic experience and a real eye-opener. If you, too, are anxious about the degradation of the natural world and how the government is planning to tackle these issues after we leave the European Union then I urge you to contact your MP.
If you’re nervous or unsure about meeting your MP I hope reading this has helped. Adam very generously set aside a whole hour to speak to me - he listened courteously and was always respectful of my point of view.
You don’t have to be an expert to do this. After all, it is your MP’s job to listen to your concerns regardless of your level of knowledge. For a comprehensive guide about writing to your MP, from how to get started and what to expect on the day, from someone else who did just this, take a look at Val Siddiqui’s blog.