Farming News - Pressure mounts on absent environment secretary

Pressure mounts on absent environment secretary


There have been fresh appeals for the Prime Minister to replace embattled environment secretary Owen Paterson this week, though the Defra boss has yet to make a public appearance since early February, and is still said to be recuperating from eye surgery.


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Greenpeace claims Paterson's department 'buried' a document detailing 1,400 recommendations for flood relief projects across the country. The projects, proposed by the Environment Agency, could have benefitted thousands of homes in the South West but were postponed, according to Greenpeace climate spokesperson Jimmy Aldridge, who described the environment secretary's response to flooding as "not just incompetent, [but] irresponsible and dangerous."


The Environment Agency has taken flak for flooding in the South West, not least from Paterson's temporary replacement, Eric Pickles, but officials and senior members of the Agency maintain that its actions were constrained by government cuts and an inflated cost to benefit conditions placed on spending.


Some areas of the South West have been under water since before Christmas, though flooding developed from a departmental issue to a national crisis when areas of the South East were inundated as the River Thames burst its banks. The Met Office revealed last week that Southern parts of the UK have experienced the most "exceptional" period of rainfall for at least 250 years. Met Office chief scientist Dame Julia Slingo went on record to state that the evidence suggests this is linked to climate change, and that it may be a taste of things to come.


In a publicity stunt on Monday, Greenpeace activists moored a rowing boat containing a stranded Spitting Image style effigy of the Environment Secretary on the Thames, opposite the House of Commons. The campaign group began calling for Paterson's resignation late last week, arguing that "his total failure to recognise the risks of climate change" led him to underestimate the risk of flooding.


Funding for climate change adaptation measures has been cut by 41 percent since Paterson assumed office, having risen by 20 percent under his predecessor Caroline Spelman. According to Greenpeace, Owen Paterson's flood plan explicitly disregards climate change as contributor to future flooding, and "assumes that flood risk remains the same."


Since being promoted to Defra from the Northern Ireland Office, the North Shropshire MP's position on the right of the Conservative party and his consistent backing of divisive policies, including the badger cull, shale gas fracking, claims that climate change could benefit the UK, and a crusade to increase European acceptance of genetically modified crops, have attracted unwanted attention to his department's work.


Following a well-publicised spat with Communities secretary Eric Pickles, who was drafted in as public face of the government response to flooding during Paterson's emergency eye surgery two weeks ago, an unnamed member of the cabinet said of the environment secretary last week, "He just isn't very bright... He isn't climate sceptic, he's climate stupid."


On 5th February, the day before Paterson was due to undergo eye surgery, the Prime Minister intervened to chair a Cobra Committee meeting, sparking speculation that Paterson had been overridden. Since the surgery, the Defra secretary has not resumed his duties, though Departmental sources said he would be out of action for "a few days" and his wife told local newspaper the Shropshire Star that he would have to remain in bed for four days.


The PM's spokespeople have also been evasive when asked whether Mr Paterson will resume charge of the flood effort once he has made his recovery. When pressed, Downing Street sources have stated that the PM has faith in Mr Paterson.