This article is from the July issue of Total Politics
BD: Your ability to speak French is probably about to become quite helpful…
CS: It is. I speak French and German. This is the first job I’ve had in politics where I can finally use my languages. I spent all that time becoming fluent and never got the chance, in 13 years, to use them. Finally, they’re incredibly useful.
What are you hoping to achieve at Rio+20?
We’re very ambitious for Rio, and believe it must get tangible outcomes. The world doesn’t need another wordy communiqué, but concrete actions that will drive change – actually putting the global economy on a more sustainable basis. And one of the best ideas in town is what the Columbians and Guatemalans have come up with: sustainable development goals (SDGs) modelled on the millennium development goals, which were very successful.
We’ve been giving the Columbians a lot of support, and realistically we think themes may well be agreed in Rio. There’s quite a lot of consensus around the world – and that’s consensus among environment ministers.
What will be the impact of these SDGs on British farmers?
In the UK, in most years, we have enough water to grow our own food. But Europe has 30 per cent of the world’s biomass. We’ll be looking to provide more food, both for home consumption and for export, sustainably for a hungry world. The big grasslands of Europe will be needed to help feed populations in drier parts of the world, so it’s in our farmers’ interests to embrace sustainable agriculture. They’ve talked in the industry for a long time about ‘sustainable intensification’.
That sounds almost like an oxymoron, but it isn’t. There would be practical differences, like supplying just the right amount of fertiliser at the point where the seed needs it in order to grow. Sustainable intensification would benefit British agriculture by lowering product costs and reducing the current impact on water sources.
But isn’t that more worker-intensive?
Industry-wide, pelleted seeds and so on are quite common – and you’re speaking to someone who used to work in the industry. It’s all technological change, and if we’re able to develop maintainable agricultural methods here, they will have tremendous cross-reference worldwide. You want to export not only more sustainably-produced food, but also your methods for greater sustainability.
Regarding the Horn of Africa, if you could move their farmers from subsistence to sustainability, you would have achieved a huge breakthrough. Two things that would make the biggest difference to poorer countries would be reducing harvest losses – they lose many crops to the heat – or water capture and storage. Simple systems of rainwater capture would make an enormous difference. Sustainable farming embraces everybody, because wherever you farm it supplies everybody’s needs.
Have you been asked to present specific concerns to the summit?
The UK is supporting two particular things at Rio. A number of British businesses have asked us to promote the idea of corporate reporting for sustainability. The insurance company Aviva is going to share its model of corporate accounting for sustainability in Rio, so that business and investors would to be able to read an annual report and say: “This company is more sustainable than that company.”
At the request of the World Bank, we’re bringing to the table our work on natural capital. At the moment it’s not factored into global government decision-making – we all just assume nature provides services for free, but if it stops providing them, they cost a ton of money to replace. For example, if the bees decided to go on strike, it costs the economy £400bn a year to replace what they do, so it’s vital to factor the cost of nature’s provision into decision-making.
We’ve put economist Dieter Helm in charge of the natural capital committee, and there are reports straight off the chancellor. So the World Bank has asked us to run an event at Rio that unites business and NGOs. It’s exciting that we’ll have British businesses, British NGOs and British government all on the same page, trying to introduce these innovations. I’m looking forward to it – I’m hopeful.
Is it only large businesses that can build sustainable models… it’s not a strain on the resources of smaller companies?
It’s just as important for a small company to be sustainable, particularly in things like resources policy. If using fewer resources to make your products saves you money, you’re going to be more profitable. The big companies are driving sustainability along their supply chains and, with their know-how, are helping smaller companies make their stage of the supply chain more sustainable.
This needs to be global. The floods in Thailand had a huge impact on a UK automotive company because a component part was being manufactured in Thailand. So sustainability needs to run all the way down the supply chain, from small to medium and large companies, globally. And you’ll be able to tell, when you read a company’s report, if sustainability reporting becomes the norm.
On to the politics of international diplomacy, which skill set are you going to deploy? Your languages?
The same skill set I deployed at Nagoya, where, despite very low expectations that anyone would ever conclude a multi-lateral treaty ever again, we won complete agreement on reducing the loss of biodiversity. We played facilitator, and brokered agreement between counties like Brazil and China. Yes, the languages are useful – sometimes – for bringing countries together to better understanding each other’s perspectives.
I worked alongside the European commissioner as a facilitator. The European Commission recognised that we, as a member of the developed world, have worked with developing countries like Colombia and Guatemala by helping bridge these different levels of development, and to get agreement. The UK has a long history of being good at that, and that’s recognised…
Also, we’ve helped the Brazilians a lot. I went out to Brazil last year to help with preparations for Rio+20, making it clear that we want to help them achieve success. And we could help them with their plans for their Olympics in 2016. We can show them how we ‘greened’ our Games, and how they might take that forward. So, we’ve got a good working relationship – environment minister Izabella Teixeira, is “mi amiga!” [Laughs.]
How’s the Portuguese?
Tolerable. I wish I spoke it better. As a linguist, I thought I could get on top of it more easily, but it’s a difficult language.
On to the green economy: the environmental audit committee recently described plans for the green economy as stalled and lacking vision. Is that fair?
I don’t agree. We got on quickly with the natural environment white paper, the first for 20 years. We launched it at the end of our first year in office, and haven’t wasted any time in rolling out its important measures.
Things like nature improvement areas are new. They’ll link up parts of the country so that where species are endangered, we make it easier for them to flourish and migrate – rather like stepping stones in the environment, or wildlife corridors. People had been calling for this initiative, so it’s been enthusiastically embraced. The first round, about 12 ‘corridors’, are already up and running. I hope we’re able to create more.
There’s been no dawdling over tackling pressures in the environment. Globally, setting up a Green Investment Bank is very important for ‘greening’ our country’s infrastructure. It’s further evidence that, across Whitehall, there’s a determination to be the greenest government we’ve ever had.
And does that determination continue in government, even if there’s a lack of economic growth?
Absolutely. The installation of the Green Investment Bank is going ahead. Some commentators say that you can’t be green and growing, but the evidence is that you certainly can be – you need to be – and some of the biggest, most progressive British businesses, both household and global names, are among the world’s leading green companies. Companies like Nestlé, Unilever and Kraft have brought in amazing changes to the way they do business because they understand that if you’re more resource-efficient while creating the same volume of produce, you save costs but also place less pressure on the environment. And there’s a big appetite for resource efficiency. We calculated that if the UK were more resource-efficient, it could save the economy £23bn a year. So why wouldn’t you be green? ‘Green and growing’ is going to save money and protect the environment. Big business understands that.
Talking about efficiency, we’re sitting here on a boiling hot day and prospects of hosepipe bans have been in the news a fair amount recently.
[Interrupts] It’s a reality – there are. [Laughs] In places where there is severe water stress following the two dry winters, there are temporary restrictions. The water companies’ drought plans have trigger-points, which, when passed – it’s to do with ground-water levels – bring in the restrictions. But in parts of the country where the trigger-points haven’t been passed, there are no restrictions.
But are the water companies efficient enough at dealing with water leaks, for example?
Well, those are two separate things. One, the major cause of water stress at the moment is those two dry winters. Two, in terms of leakage, since privatisation the water companies have reduced leakage by about 40 per cent. They have annual leakage targets that are set by the economic regulator, and the regulator is tough on the companies about reducing leakage. Leakage figures are publicly reported, so these companies continue to commit themselves to leak reduction.
In the latest accounts, Thames Water made a pre-tax profit of over £200m. What percentage of water rates is spent on leak detection? And would you like to see more?
It doesn’t quantify like that. You want the companies to be profitable, because you want them to remain in business and want them to invest in the infrastructure. So investing in not just about stopping leaks – which they’re contractually required to do – but about increasing resilience. That was at the heart of the water white paper that I published at the end of last year. With prescience, as it turned out, as we didn’t know at the time we were heading for another dry winter. I made the call that the biggest challenge facing the water companies is climate change. The increasing frequency of extreme weather events puts pressure on the water supply, so the water companies need to be profitable and invest in the infrastructure.
Take Thames Water: it’s built a desalination plant that can now serve a million people a day with a water supply derived from the brine-laden water in the Thames. And it’s been looking to expand reservoir capacity. All those things are possible because investors see the water industry as a good place in which to invest. The water white paper is signalling that that’s what we want them to do.
And you’re satisfied that the regulatory structure Ofwat means consumer rights are protected?
Yes. As an economic regulator, Ofwat has a statutory duty to make sure that the taxpayer gets value for money and that the water-rate payer isn’t charged beyond what’s reasonable. Ofwat’s actions so far reassure me that that is a regulator with teeth.
You can’t be expected to judge what the weather’s going to be like…
[Laughs] I’ve been teased on many an occasion on this.
Not following the Steve Hilton ‘sowing seeds in the clouds…’ idea?
No, this is more tangible. We’ve had one of the driest Marchs, followed by the wettest April on record and, with the exception of a few days, a cold May. Every minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has to work with the weather. But we’re doing that.
Resilience is the key, so how do we make the infrastructure more resilient? One of the big questions that came up was: “Why don’t we just pump the water from the north to the south?” That’s difficult. It’s very expensive to move water over long distances, so it’s better to get the water companies to connect up. Local connectivity is now happening, creating a virtual national grid. But it isn’t always about north–south. Two years ago, the north-west’s United Utilities – and north-west readers will verify you can normally count on the rain there – had problems with shortage of supply and had to build a connection to Welsh Water (which is, of course, now a permanent connection). It doesn’t always follow that the water needs to move in one direction. With a national network, you can move it around, and that’s what you need to do.
Is there anything else you can do to see off the threat of standpipes?
Standpipes are most unlikely – although ‘unlikely’ could still result in a headline. Local connectivity is the key to building resilience into the industry. Previously, water companies operated in isolation, and even in their own areas they hadn’t connected up reservoirs to bore-holes and to rivers. Yorkshire Water, a good example of a company operating in the rain shadow of Britain, east of the Pennines, improved its resilience by bolting together the different water sources within its area. Companies like Anglian Water, again in a typical rain shadow, is in discussion with Severn Trent about building a connection across its region to move water from Wales into Anglian’s supply. So, hopefully, that’ll make standpipes obsolete.
In 2010 when you started as secretary of state, you said you wanted to remain at Defra for a long time. Two years on, is that still the case?
I love this department. I’ve been able to use my languages in the national interest – a great joy, and made all that hard study worthwhile – and it’s a department on the frontline. We have to deal with disasters and emergencies as they arise: plant disease, animal disease (we had Schmallenberg this year) and the weather, whatever it throws at us. There’s never a dull moment.
Does that sometimes mean you feel like a harbinger of bad news?
No, I’m quite often the bringer of good tidings – for for example, when we get all the otters back in every county in England. We have plenty of good news.
In politics you don’t often get the chance to work in an area that you know something about, and all the ministers here who have some agricultural connections have really enjoyed bringing that into their work. Our civil servants are really dedicated, and the Defra ethos is very attractive. People come to work here because they really care about protecting the environment, and that makes for a well-functioning, happy department.
The pasty tax was in the news recently, which brought up the U-turn on the forests again. Does it annoy you that it remains a prime example of the government changing tack on something?
I took full responsibility for what happened last year. And would you rather that we hadn’t listened to what people had said, and done nothing in response? It’s important that governments listen to public reaction and are prepared to change tack if that’s what’s required. The independent panel I set up will probably bring something even better, because it’s had a long time to reflect on how better to protect our woodlands and forests, and improve access. Those on the panel represent a wide range of views, and they’ll report to us this summer. I mustn’t pre-judge the outcome of the report, but I think it’s an example of listening and responding and, hopefully, producing something better.
Do you get angry much?
[Laughs] I have three teenage children – what do you expect?
You’re often described as softly-spoken, you always appear very controlled on Question Time… I’m just wondering if you ever get really passionate, and thump something?
Of course you do. The important thing is to translate emotion into something constructive, so being angry can fuel your ambition to get something done about an injustice. That’s what brought me into politics.
I was working in agriculture, and was dismayed that Fortress Europe meant farmers in developing countries couldn’t export their produce into Europe because of the subsidy regime. I realised I wasn’t going to get it changed working in the industry, that you needed the legislators to change the law. Now Fairtrade is a household concept.
Trade justice is something I feel very strongly about. There are still a few more harmful subsidies that need to be removed, and they – as you can see – still evoke strong emotions.
But yes, a lot of politicians are motivated by justice issues. So you use the right kind of anger in the right way to achieve good. Distinctly different from my experience, or my children’s experience, of dealing with “Mum…?” but anyway… [Laughs.]
I’m always influenced by what I’ve just been reading, but I’d probably have to go with Dickens. Jeremy Hunt gave me Bleak House, but my favourite is Great Expectations.
Dark chocolate. Preferably over 70% cocoa Fairtrade.
Are you a good dancer?
No, terrible. And my husband has size 14 feet, so between the two of us we usually sit out the dances.
Favourite area of the countryside?
When I drive home from Westminster to my constituency, as I come up over the top of the Chilterns, the Aylesbury Plain comes up between the two chalk faces of the cutting. Then I know I’ve left London behind, that I’m on my way home. It’s a pivotal moment.
I like singing. If pushed, Italian. I used to sing in the parliamentary choir.
Can you drive a tractor?
Not only can I, but I’ve had bad experiences. I’ve reversed one through the side of the barn.
Favourite opposition MP?
I used to shadow Clare Short at international development, and we actually got on well, but she’s gone now from frontline politics. Then I shadowed Hilary Benn and had a good working relationship with him. They both have integrity, and that leads to co-operation and consensus-building, not point-scoring. I prefer the grown-up politics of trying to find solutions that work rather than opposition for the sake of it.
Are you a consensus-seeker?
I’m a bridge-builder by nature. That doesn’t mean I can’t confront. You need to be able to do both.