When Keir Starmer reshuffled the Shadow Cabinet in May, headlines were dominated by the chaotic sacking (and hasty promotion) of Angela Rayner. Among these machinations you’d be forgiven for missing a quiet but nonetheless critical appointment to the Shadow Cabinet.
A new brief has been created: a Shadow Minister for Nature, Water, and Flooding.
This new position could be a significant step for Labour’s environmental policy, ensuring the climate and ecological crises are dealt with in tandem. Rather than tacking nature on as an afterthought, the rapid loss in species and habitats can now be addressed directly, alongside the prioritisation of nature-based solutions to climate breakdown.
The Nature brief straddles a number of issues, from conservation and tree-planting to water supply and rivers, to coastal communities and marine ecosystems. Its potential is vast. The very existence of the role throws down a challenge to an environmentalism that sees nature as separate from people, and segregated from human questions of inequality, health, and wellbeing.
Nonetheless, the scale of the biodiversity emergency—alongside the polluted state of our rivers and escalating flood risk as temperatures rise—matches the role’s potential. The UK has been declared one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, and recalculations of land emissions in 2021 mean our degraded natural landscape, long thought to be sucking down carbon, is now actually a net source of emissions.
Radical action must be put forward, not watered-down positions. The person responsible for steering a course for the new role is Sheffield Hallam MP Olivia Blake. She has a huge challenge ahead. But with a strong campaigning background for a Green New Deal and a peat burning ban, her appointment seems fitting. But questions remain: how can this role bring about transformation to our land and to the natural world?
First, action to restore nature and cleanse our contaminated waterways and seas must integrate people. Rewilding projects, which are sorely needed to reverse catastrophic nature loss, should be orientated towards the benefits nature can provide for mental and physical wellbeing – recognising that the vibrant flourishing of other species deeply affects our own.
A core plank to this is green jobs. Maps produced by Green Alliance show how areas with greatest unemployment contain much of the land with the greatest potential for nature and habitat restoration. This overlap should be at the strategic heart of a National Nature Service (NNS) which has been called for by both Blake and Ed Miliband.
The NNS could be a public jobs programme that creates skilled green work for young people in building natural infrastructure, including peatland restoration, tree-planting and protection of green carbon (like kelp forests) off our coasts. This work should meaningfully reconnect communities with their ecological surroundings, and is absolutely vital for a green recovery with youth unemployment rates currently three times higher than the whole population, at 13.2 percent. It could also incorporate a reskilling component for workers currently in carbon intensive industries.
The shadow brief could also be people-centred by helping support resiliency in rural parts of the UK. Labour’s vote share has tanked in rural communities: after the elections of 1997 and 2001, Labour held 170 of 199 rural or semi-rural seats. In 2020, they held just 17. Evidently, more must be done to work with voters in the countryside. Working across Defra, the Shadow Nature Minister can support farmers in transitioning to agroecology and agroforestry, which would restore soil health and biodiversity, as well as sequester carbon.
Beyond agriculture, Blake’s new role could help reinvigorate the Labour rural vote by pushing for policy that not only creates a thriving green tourist sector (such as through species reintroductions), but also ensures essential needs are met, like secure job prospects and flood-proof housing for rural people.
Second, Labour needs to crack the access issue. Access to the countryside and rural land is crucial for education, citizen science, and a culture that nurtures care for and love of the outdoors. It thus sits squarely in the Nature brief. One shortcut to making the countryside open to all is introducing a right to roam, challenging the vastly unequal land ownership on this island.
Primarily, Labour should provide a legislative voice for this to protect the ways of life of the Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities – a case made particularly pressing given existing access rights are already under threat from the authoritarian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which seeks to criminalise trespass.
But an additional benefit of the right to roam is the expansive potential it provides for people to get out into green, freeing up thousands of acres of privately guarded land for the enjoyment of all. As more big landowners turn to rewilding, the verdant benefits should be experienced by everyone, not just an elite few.
If the right to roam was also extended to Britain’s rivers, it would open up 97% of waterways currently closed to the public for recreation and exploration. This would in turn provide even stronger justification to regulate (or nationalise) water companies that are dumping waste into our rivers and damaging ecosystems without penalty.
Fear of trespass can also prevent marginalised groups from heading to the hills. Maxwell Ayamba, founder of Black Men Walking, has cited the need to challenge the perception of the British countryside as a white landscape. The right to roam is just one small step along that path.
With only half our national biodiversity remaining, and with British bird populations tumbling by 40 million since 1970, encouraging reconnection and care of nature is of paramount importance.
Third, in her push to improve Britain’s natural realm, Blake should not neglect urban populations. Barriers to nature must be broken down on two fronts, both access enshrined in rights to the land but also access in a more immediate, material sense. The most nature-depleted areas are largely found in deprived, urban parts of the UK – access to green spaces and wildlife is thus a matter of social justice.
This means cheap, accessible public transport from our cities to areas of natural beauty, including our cities’ green belts, which should be rewilded. The brief also covers national parks and could uphold Labour’s 2019 manifesto pledge of ten new parks. Many of these should be strategically close to the nation’s cities, such as the Chiltern Hills near London or North Pennines near Newcastle.
An urban focus doesn’t just mean taking people out of cities ‘into the natural world’, but also means repairing and restoring ecosystems close to densely populated human life, too. National tree planting targets should boost tree cover in our towns, as tree-lined streets reduce heat, noise, and air pollution as well as create urban nature corridors. But it’s also about tearing up concrete and sowing the seeds for community orchards, allotments, and city farms – ensuring local governments are empowered and sufficiently funded to do so. These vibrant public spaces are not just a way to reorientate ourselves towards nature but also to each other, combating social isolation and vulnerability.
Beyond policy, there’s scope for the role to improve the uneven Green New Deal messaging across Labour’s shadow cabinet. Blake will need to cooperate with other Defra ministers, especially when pushing forward demands for agroecology, but the role is also a collaborative bridge across multiple departments, too, given its cross-sectoral attention on work, infrastructure, education, transport, and communities.
There will be many competing priorities, but also great potential to orientate Labour policy towards a greener land for all of us. Time will tell if this role will prove a new spring for Labour.