ANALYSIS: Has reshuffle dealt Defra a poor hand?

The exit of Caroline Spelman from Defra's secretarial post yesterday was one of the first predicted in the hours leading up to Cameron's first major cabinet reshuffle since the coalition took office. That in itself is significant.

Her departure was not a surprise, it didn’t generate much in the way of shock or dismay from those operating within environmental circles – some even breathed a sigh of relief. Her appointment was perhaps ill-fated from the start as her department’s remit struggled to live up to the Government’s self-proclaimed ‘greenest ever’ boast, which quickly crumbled.

Spelman came under fire from green pressure groups most notably over botched attempts to sell off England’s forests, which resulted in one of the most humiliating U-turns ever for the Government. She also culled her department in an apparent attempt to please the Treasury, weakening it at the core.

This blood-letting was only too clear to see when Spelman started to clash heads with Communities Secretary Eric Pickles (a notable survivor of the reshuffle). Internal wranglings between Defra and the DCLG over key environmental policies have undeniably inflicted a lot of damage – particularly in the waste sector.

The power of Pickles, his directness and ability to tune into the public mood and manipulate it for his own agenda left Spelman ineffectual in combat. His speeches were controversial – but they hit a nerve and made national headlines. Her speeches were for the most part vapid, save for the time when she talked of “smelly waste” in a rather condescending manner.

That said, many did believe she was starting to warm to her role. She began to receive praise in certain quarters for pushing through mandatory carbon reporting requirements and helped broker an international agreement on biodiversity and wildlife protection.

What legacy she has left is now in the hands of Owen Paterson to pick up. The former Northern Ireland Secretary comes with a dubious track record on environmental issues, seemingly pro-aviation and anti-energy subsidies, but most lobbyists are prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt as they seek to secure a window in his diary.

And already the pleas are piling up in Paterson’s inbox. Please embrace the waste-to-energy agenda, urges the Renewable Energy Association. Can you strengthen the links between Defra and other departments such as DECC and DCLG, asks the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management. Get the build-out of waste heat networks onto the housing/infrastructure agenda, advises the Environmental Services Association.

These are all good calls. They will be backed up by sound scientific evidence. It will be hard for the Secretary to dismiss them out of hand, even if he is the rogue climate skeptic some are painting him to be. He will be new to the role and it’s the perfect opportunity for the senior civil servants beneath him to step forward and press home the arguments for climate science.

Persuasion is what’s needed if Paterson is to get to grips with tackling the mighty resource issues of waste, water and energy. Not just from lobby groups, but from industry, Defra’s own contingent of advisors and the public too. Let’s hope he will embrace the green shoots of his portfolio and rise to the challenge.

Maxine Perella

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