Top marks to those who recognise the title of the piece. It’s part of the subtitle from Tolkein’s The Hobbit, and more specifically it’s from the Red Book of Westmarch. So as a “red” (and green) who came from Wales to London, had some very exciting adventures, and is now going back west to wales, it somehow seems appropriate. There and back again … And looking forward to some more adventures to come.
I’m heading back shortly to stand for the National Assembly for Wales. The Welsh government has been carving quite a reputation in environmental issues and sustainability: from being the first country in the UK to introduce the carrier bag charge, to creating a single body for the environment in Natural Resource Wales; leading the UK by introducing the Wales Coastal Path; ground-breaking “Made in Wales” legislation like the Well-Being of Future Generations Act, enshrining the principles of real sustainability in all policy-making; and so much more.
This is the difference a Labour government can make, and we should never forget that. We don’t hug huskies for photo-ops then take them round the back to put them out of their misery. We don’t talk green one day, then dismiss it all as “green crap” the next (Prime Minister Cameron … allegedly). We don’t say one thing and do another, talking big internationally (and well done by the way PM at COP21) but creating havoc and uncertainty back home with shocking decisions on solar and wind energy, CCS, zero- carbon homes and so much more. So yes, for someone like me with the environment and sustainability running through my veins, it’s an exciting prospect to be heading back to my big little motherland of Wales and a progressive Labour government led by Carwyn Jones, and a country which continues Labour’s ceaseless advance on environmental matters.
I never hold regrets. It’s bad for the soul. I’m truly excited about the prospects for my big little country of Wales under devolution. But I’ll have some sadness too. For the people and organisations I’ve worked with over many years as a Minister and Shadow Minister and as a backbencher, trying – and sometimes succeeding – in doing great things for the environment. For the agony and the ecstasy of being in government and opposition (I’ll leave you to work out which the agony relates to, or both?).
So before I head west for another exciting adventure, her are some passing thoughts which, hobbit-like, I’m scratching down in my notebook for future generations to read. And here is my first message to you, and to those to follow:
NEVER, EVER, NEVER STOP CAMPAIGNING.
It is the long, enduring campaigns by the public, politicians, NGOs and others which push government and help government to do good things. Sometimes it may seem futile and frustrating, but nothing comes easy. In fact the harder it is, sometimes makes the climb even more worthwhile.
The establishment of the South Downs National Park was possibly one of the longest campaigns ever. It began in 1929, or even earlier in the ‘20s, so when I had the privilege under then Secretary of State for DEFRA Hilary Benn in 2009 to help make it finally happen, that was some happy day for conservation and access to the countryside. It built on Labour’s proud track-record reaching from the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Acts of the 1940s, through the Right to Roam legislation, and culminating too in the England Coastal Path which I was delighted to have a hand in too.
So my thanks to all those campaigners, from the South Downs folk to the Ramblers and Open Space Society and others, but right back to the campaigners from the start of the last century and the Kinder Scout trespassers. You have a fine tradition, and the work is unfinished. Keep campaigning.
From the green open spaces to the big blue yonder. One of my proudest achievements was taking helping take the Marine and Coastal Access Act through parliament and onto the statute book. This pioneering legislation which has the power to change the way we manage and respect our seas around the UK. There is still much to put in place to achieve a genuinely ecological network of MCZs, and to roll-out the coastal path, and to adequately resource the management of the contested space of our busy seas. But the mechanisms are now in place, the current government is (slowly and painstakingly) taking the right actions. But when Labour is back in government, we’ll need to finish the job we began.
The same applies to flood and water management. What has happened to the SUDS (sustainable natural drainage systems) approach we put in place? Why hasn’t water catchment management – adequately-resourced and with everyone playing their part and working with natural fluvial systems - been taken forward across the country? Where is the long-term plan for resourcing flood resilience, defence and maintenance in the face of increasingly traumatic weather events? Where is the action on water scarcity? There is so much we began under a Labour government, which has ground to a halt under the Conservative government.
And that’s before we begin on the deliberate hollowing out of DEFRA by Osborne with brutal cuts, the odd climate change denying Tory Secretary of State, the crazy scrapping of the Sustainable Development Commission, attempts to flog off our forestry estates, the failure to deal with health-impacting chronic air pollution in our cities, and so much more. We have work to do now in opposition. We’ll have much more to do when we return to government at a UK level.
But when I look back, I am immensely proud of what we have achieved in government, and in opposition. Labour has always led on climate change, sustainability, the environment, and access to the countryside. I take pride in little wins, like the time I banned the cruel practice of shark-finning in the UK (yes we did still do shark- finning till recently) or the establishment of a “National Trust for the Waterways” by transferring British Waterways to a not-for-profit Canal and River Trust, which goes from strength to strength. Labour and Co-operative values in action.
But most of all, I am immensely proud and thankful for the work put in by others who believed in the intrinsic and extrinsic value of our natural environment, and in protecting and enhancing our environment for this and future generations. The passionate grass-roots activists – including in SERA – and the campaigning organisations, the experts and the of officials who want to change the world, my parliamentary & ministerial colleagues … Without of all of you, nothing gets changed.
I’ve loved working with you all in Westminster. We’ll keep on working together to the same aims, and sometimes together, even when I’ve headed west to Wales. So for my final words in departing from Westminster (as I’m partial to a little bit of a Tolkein puzzle) I refer you to the last words of Thorin Oakenshield. If you can’t be bothered to look them up, then this will do instead …
KEEP ON CAMPAIGNING. IT REALLY MATTERS. YOU CAN CHANGE THE WORLD … LITTLE BY LITTLE!
Huw Irranca-Davies was the Labour MP for Ogmore, he is retiring from Westminster in May to contest the Ogmore constituency in the Welsh Assembly elections. This ‘View from Wales’ by Huw Irranca-Davies originally featured in the Spring 2016 New Ground. The views expressed in New Ground are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the editor, SERA its executive or its members. If you would like to contribute to future editions, please contact Melanie Smallman, Co-Chair at email@example.com.