The Long Read: Tynedale needs forests, not grouse moors

Tynedale Green Party’s 2019 parliamentary candiate Nick Morphet writes on driven grouse shooting, climate breakdown and the biodiversity crisis.

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We are faced with an existential climate and biodiversity crisis. Forest restoration on a massive scale will be a hugely powerful and critically important component of crisis mitigation, in parallel with the rigorous protection of existing forest and the rapid and dramatic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. It is widely believed that the global restoration of approximately one trillion trees will be required if we are to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. The IPPC Special Report of October 2018 suggested that a global increase of one billion hectares of forest will be necessary to achieve this goal. A paper published in Science in July 2019 showed that 0.9 billion hectares of land (an area the size of the United States) is currently available for reforestation worldwide, without impinging on existing urban or agricultural land. Furthermore, the authors showed that reforesting this land would lead to the removal of 205 gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere – representing over two-thirds of all historical human carbon emissions. Time is running out however; by 2050 the effects of climate breakdown will likely have reduced the area of land suitable for reforestation to 0.7 billion hectares or less. On top of this, we are currently losing ten billion trees per year to deforestation. In order to avoid runaway climate breakdown and consequent societal collapse, we need to reforest all land suitable for reforestation – and we need to do it as quickly as possible.

Analysis by the UK government’s independent Climate Change Committee supports the IPCC’s findings. In order for the UK to reach “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050 we will need to plant 1.5 billion trees, equating to almost 50 million per year. Every region of the UK will be required to play its part.

Rapid reforestation needn’t be impulsive or thoughtless – it could be achieved mindfully and in a manner that is complementary to biodiversity. Natural limits to tree growth (such as altitude or soil type) would be observed and respected, and rare habitats such as healthy, species-rich heather moorland, wildflower meadow and blanket bog would be preserved (by human intervention, if necessary) in sufficient area to ensure the population health of all species associated with them. Returning land to nature is not just about planting trees, and for this reason the term rewilding is often used. In this opinion piece I have chosen to use the phrase reforestation, because my focus is upon the importance of returning trees to our treeless uplands. I don’t mean to imply that this should be our only consideration.

In our mission to reforest one billion acres, we cannot afford to spare the over-grazed uplands and intensively managed grouse moors of the UK. Such areas in fact represent a golden opportunity to turn carbon sources into carbon sinks. Intensively managed grouse moors, mostly farmed for driven grouse shooting, are burned in order to generate new heather shoots; this prevents the growth of trees (preventing “ecological succession”), damages the peat, releases carbon and exacerbates climate breakdown. Furthermore, a proportion of wildfires – which also exacerbate climate breakdown – arise as a result of the ‘controlled’ burning of heather. To make matters even worse, the risk of wildfires will increase as climate breakdown progresses.

Intensive grouse moor management also involves ‘improvements’ to drainage, which (in combination with the lack of trees) leads to faster rainwater run-off and increases the risk of flooding downstream. The flooding of the Tyne Valley associated with December 2015’s Storm Desmond was in part the result of the intensive management of grouse moors in the North Pennines. In a warmer climate where rainstorms will be heavier, we cannot afford to expose ourselves to risks such as this.

Driven grouse moors, intensively managed to maximise grouse numbers, are ‘sterile’ heather monocultures, which are very poor in terms of overall biodiversity. Biodiversity is further reduced by the persecution of predators, both legally (foxes, stoats, weasels, crows etc.) and illegally (birds of prey, including hen harriers). Non-predatory species, such as the increasingly rare mountain hare, are also persecuted. This native species is widely persecuted on grouse moors because it is believed that doing so protects the grouse against the tick-borne louping ill virus. There is a lack of scientific evidence that this serves to increase grouse numbers, and the result is that the mountain hare’s conservation status has recently been downgraded to ‘unfavourable’. The RSPB says that the mountain hare culls are illegal under EU law, as well as unwarranted. It’s a sad fact that 60% of England’s upland SSSIs are managed for grouse shooting – they are managed for one plant (heather) and one bird (the red grouse).

A healthy and biodiverse ecosystem is more resilient to climate change, whilst also helping to mitigate against it by locking up more carbon (in the form of plant, animal, fungal and microbial biomass, as well as in the form of healthy, carbon-rich peat and soil). The climate and biodiversity crises are therefore inseparable.

To add insult to injury, we are subsidising this ecocide with our own taxes, via the Common Agricultural Policy. The ten largest English grouse moors receive over £3 million in farm subsidy every year, and the owner of the closest grouse moor to Hexham (East Allenheads) received £394,048 in subsidy in 2018. Our tax money therefore funds climate breakdown, biodiversity loss and the persecution of wildlife (both legal and illegal). It also promotes flooding and pushes up our household insurance premiums. Is this how we want our tax money to be spent? Would we not rather that subsidy was paid only to landowners who manage their land for nature, for people and for future generations?

Such change could come about in many ways. There are land reform campaigns which seek to create, amongst many other things, a healthier upland environment. Land reform in Scotland is progressing steadily, and Community Right to Buy is giving ordinary people the opportunity to have a say in how their local environment is managed. England is lagging well behind Scotland in terms of land reform, but not for want of exciting ideas. Many have called for grouse moors to be licensed – giving government the power to revoke licences if, for example, illegal raptor persecution is identified. There are also those calling for an outright ban of driven grouse shooting, and a petition calling for exactly this has recently exceeded 100,000 signatures – meaning that a debate in Parliament will now be considered.

Would an end to driven grouse shooting result in a loss of rural jobs, income and cultural identity? There is no reason why it would need to, if an equitable transition to a wildlife tourism-based economy was made. The world has seen a great number of successful wildlife tourism initiatives (e.g. in Germany’s Harz mountains), and it should be borne in mind that whereas wildlife tourism could be a year-round phenomenon, the grouse shooting season is only four months long. Unfortunately, statistics comparing the economics of grouse shooting to the wildlife tourism which could replace it are hard to come by. Most media reports and widely quoted figures come from a narrow base of shooting industry and estate-sponsored studies that have self-reporting biases and fail to consider alternative land uses. A recent Scottish government report shows that driven grouse shooting estates typically employ only one staff member per 10km2, whereas RSPB nature reserves typically employ between four and six. Those previously employed on shooting estates would most likely find themselves with many of the right skills to find meaningful employment on the nature reserves that replace them. The government report’s main conclusion is, however, that further research is needed.

Due to its vast expanses of ecologically poor upland habitat, Northumberland has enormous potential for reforestation. Given the correct economic and societal changes, our county could lead the UK in the fight against climate breakdown and biodiversity loss. In doing so, our county would become more beautiful and our lives richer. But there is a huge amount of work to be done. If Northumberland were to act on the CCC’s advice and were to plant its fair share of trees by area, it would be required to plant almost one million trees every year until 2050. Northumberland County Council has plans to plant 633 urban trees over the next two years, and the Great Northumberland Forest will involve the planting of up to one million trees in total by 2024. If we are to ensure a vibrant future for our children, we must raise our ambition enormously. We must ask ourselves what we would like that future to look like, and we must urgently start making the necessary changes to secure it.

The Green Party would bring an end to driven grouse shooting and launch a reforestation programme commensurate with the scale of the crisis that we face. As your Green Party MP for Hexham I would bring people together and encourage discussion, I would be your voice in Parliament and I would hold government to account on the behalf of the community. Together we would push for the changes that we want to see.

Nick Writes: On the Universal Basic Income

UNIVERSAL BASIC INCOME

Today the Green Party has lanuched its Universal Basic Income policy.

Parliamentary canidate for the Hexham constituency Nick Morphet explains what this means.

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Universal Basic Income is a regular payment made to every citizen, enough to cover their basic needs and regardless of means. The Green Party has championed the idea since the 1970s, but it will be included in the fully costed 2019 general election manifesto for the very first time.

A Universal Basic Income will make all our lives better, and nobody will find themselves worse off. It will lift the curses of poverty, stress, debt, unemployment and job insecurity. It will tackle inequality and take the sting out of the loss of jobs to automation. It will break the cycle of production and consumption, helping us to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises.

It will give us the freedom to do what we want to do – no longer enslaved to market or state – and the agency to say “no” to undesirable or environmentally damaging work. The Basic Income is a superior public good – we will benefit collectively as well as individually. Basic Income trials have led to higher educational attainment, lower healthcare costs, greater levels of entrepreneurship and higher levels of self-reported happiness. Work that previously went unpaid and unrecognised, such as caring for elderly or disabled friends or relatives, will finally receive the recognition and reward that it deserves.

Universal Basic Income has been called the ‘Green New Deal for incomes’ – it is one of the ways we will make sure that nobody slips through the net when the Green New Deal is implemented.

Universal Basic Income will be phased in over ten years. It will replace Universal Credit, Job Seeker’s Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support, Child Benefit, the State Pension and tax credit. Housing, Disability, Sickness and Maternity Benefit will be maintained, as will the Carer’s Allowance. Every adult in the UK will then receive a Basic Income of £86 per week (in 2019 prices), regardless of income or wealth. Pensioners will receive £175 per week, with a £25 supplement if they live alone. Single parents will receive a weekly supplement of £86 and there will be a weekly payment of £67.50 for each child in the family (reduced to £50 for third and subsequent children). Those on lower incomes will no longer have to prove that they qualify for payments, and there will be no long phone calls or forms to fill in. This is one of the reasons that the Basic Income can be so conducive to better health.

Despite not being means tested, Universal Basic Income will still benefit those on lower incomes proportionally more than those on higher incomes. For example, a single person household with an income of less than £10,000 per year will be 17 to 45% better off under a Basic Income, while a single person household with an income in excess of £10,000 will only be 3 to 7% better off. A two parent/two child household earning up to £50,000 (in total) would be 13 to 41% better off, and pensioners will see their income increase by between 19 and 37%.

Universal Basic Income will cost the government £354 billion per year. The bulk of this money (£286 billion) will be generated by the scrapping of benefits, tax credits and the State Pension. A further £41 billion will come from a tax on polluters (a carbon tax), and the remaining £27 billion will come from general taxation. The Green Party will introduce a fair, redistributive tax system which will generate significant revenue by taxing excessive wealth and assets such as land. Further revenue will be generated by a crack-down on tax avoidance. The result will be a redistribution of wealth that will make our society healthier, happier and more equal.

Guy Opperman’s Voting Record: Pt 4

Guy Opperman’s voting record speaks for itself, as Nick Morphet finds out in the final part in this series. If you believe in a fairer, more compassionate, more sustainable society then vote for what you believe in: vote Green.

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ENVIRONMENT

Mr Opperman has a terrible voting record when it comes to environmental issues. In 2011 he voted in favour of cuts to Feed-In Tariffs (subsidies for renewable energy generation), and in 2012 he voted against a requirement for the Green Investment Bank to act in support of the current carbon emissions target. In January 2015 he voted against a ban on fracking, against compulsory environmental permits for fracking, and against a review of the impacts of fracking on health, climate and the environment. He has voted twice against targets for CO2 and greenhouse gas production, voted against the energy industry requiring a strategy for carbon capture and storage (CCS) and voted not to reduce the permitted CO2 emissions of new homes. He has also voted twice to apply the Climate Change Levy (a tax on non-domestic electricity supplies) to renewable energy.

The Guardian newspaper has recently scored Mr Opperman a miserable 15% for his environmental voting record. The score was generated by identifying the sixteen most important votes on carbon emissions since passage of the Climate Change Act 2008. Of the thirteen votes that Mr Opperman attended, he voted in favour of the climate in only two (the Energy Bill of 04/06/13 and on nuclear energy subsidies on 03/06/13). The Guardian considered a vote for nuclear energy to be a vote for carbon emissions reduction. Many would argue that a vote for nuclear energy is not a vote for the environment, and would give Mr Opperman a score of 8% (1 out of 13) instead. This is a record to be highly ashamed of.

The Green Party would permanently ban fracking, plant (and protect) forests and eliminate waste. It would introduce a Clean Air Act and expand Clean Air Zones. It would phase petrol and diesel cars out by 2030 (instead of 2040) and increase spending on active travel (walking and cycling).

ELECTORAL AND CONSITUTIONAL REFORM

Here again Mr Opperman is typically both conservative and Conservative. He has repeatedly voted against 16 and 17-year-olds being allowed to vote in either the EU referendum or local elections. He has voted against proportional representation and against reducing the size of the House of Lords.

The Green Party would replace the First Past The Post voting system with the Single Transferable Vote, a voting system used successfuly in many Australian, Scottish, Irish and Northern Irish elections. It would reform the House of Lords and give 16-year-olds the right both to vote and to stand for election.

ANIMAL WELFARE

In June 2013 Mr Opperman voted in favour of the badger cull, despite evidence that it fails to significantly reduce tuberculosis in cattle and causes untold suffering.

The Green Party would put a stop to the badger cull and replace it with a badger vaccination programme. It would also enforce the Hunting Act, put a stop to all commercial shooting, ban cages for farm animals and bring about an end to animal testing.

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Read the previous articles in this series: part 1, part 2, part 3.

Guy Opperman’s Voting Record: Pt 3

Hexham’s MP is on the wrong-side of all the issues that matter. In part 3 of this nightmarish tour through Guy Opperman’s voting record, Tynedale Green Party’s Nick Morphet takes a look at some more key issues.
Follow the links to read part 1 and part 2.

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FUNDING FOR LOCAL GOVERNMENT

Mr Opperman’s voting record on local government funding speaks loudly for itself. In 2010 he voted against “basing future decisions on local government funding on fairness and the protection of frontline services”. He also voted against expressing any regret! He voted to decrease local government funding by 4% in 2011, by 25% in 2015, by 44% in 2017, by 28% in 2018 and by 56% in 2019.

The Green party would empower local authorities and restore their budgets. It would give people the power to force a referendum on local government issues and it would create a People’s Bank for every city and every region.

EDUCATION

Consistent with his apparent desire to wrest all power from local authorities, and with his desire to privatise (see Transport, below), Mr Opperman is a big supporter of academies. In 2010 he voted against them being built only where a proven need existed. Academies aren’t obliged to follow the national curriculum, and Mr Opperman appears happy to exploit this for his own mysterious ends: on the same day in 2010 he also voted against academies having to follow a curriculum which includes personal, social and health education.

Although Mr Opperman’s voting history with regard to schools is highly questionable, he has come down far harder on university students. In 2010 he voted to approve the raising of undergraduate tuition fees to £9,000 per year, and in 2011 he voted to allow student loan interest to be charged at market rates.

The Green Party would abolish SATs and league tables, encourage outdoor learning and teach children more about different global cultures. It would introduce mandatory sex, relationship, equality and diversity education in all schools, and it would ensure that all such education is age-appropriate, LGBTIQA+ inclusive and immune from faith school opt-out. It would scrap tuition fees for undergraduates and write off all existing student debt.

TRANSPORT

There are few surprises here – again Mr Opperman sides with big business at the expense of both his constituents and the climate/biodiversity crisis mitigation that we so desperately need. In 2012 he voted against reducing public transport fares, and in 2014 he voted against local government having powers to develop more integrated, frequent, cheaper and greener bus services (and this despite having previously voted against lower fuel tax rates in remote areas). He has voted consistently against slowing the rise in rail fares and in 2016 he voted against a publicly owned rail system (while we’re on the subject, he has also voted twice to privatise the Royal Mail).

Mr Opperman is not totally opposed to public transport though – he has voted consistently in favour of HS2. HS2 will directly affect 63 ancient woodlands and indirectly affect another 45 – Mr Opperman clearly supports public transport when by doing so he can favour big business over the environment. Despite his enthusiasm for HS2 the trains on the Tyne Valley line have got shabbier and shabbier under Mr Opperman’s watch.

The Green Party would scrap HS2 and use the billions of pounds saved to upgrade regional public transport infrastructure. It would bring railways and bus companies back into public ownership and increase spending on active travel (walking and cycling) infrastructure.

HOUSING

Here again Mr Opperman sides with big business rather than ordinary people, having voted several times against restrictions on letting agents’ fees. He has also voted against secure tenancies and against action on excessive rent hikes.

The Green Party would introduce a living rent and compulsory licences for landlords. It would build 500,000 socially rented homes in five years, prioritising building on brownfield sites. New homes would be built to the highest energy efficiency standards and existing homes would benefit from a nationwide retrofit insulation programme.

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In the final part of the series Nick looks at Guy Opperman’s record on the environment, animal welfare and electoral and constitutional reform.

Guy Opperman’s Voting Record: Pt 2

In the second of his series of articles examining Guy Opperman’s voting record, Nick Morphet looks at how the Hexham MP has voted on Brexit, home affairs and welfare. You can read part 1 here.

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BREXIT

It is clear from Mr Opperman’s voting record that he is partially to blame for the mess that we currently find ourselves in. He voted four times in favour of an overly simplistic in/out Brexit referendum, and since the referendum he has voted twice in favour of Brexit itself. Furthermore, he has consistently voted against a Right to Remain for EU nationals already living in the UK.

The Green Party would hold a People’s Vote (a second referendum on Brexit, enabling voters to choose between a specific Brexit deal and remaining within the EU). It would also campaign for EU reform. The Green Party believes that it is better to make changes from within than to simply run away from the problem.

HOME AFFAIRS

Mr Opperman has consistently voted for stronger enforcement of immigration rules and a stricter asylum system. He voted against contributing to the resolution of the European refugee crisis in both 2015 and 2016. He has also voted against banning the detention of pregnant immigrants, against guidance on the detention of vulnerable people and against giving asylum seekers permission to work if their application decision takes over 6 months.

The Green Party values migrants. It would provide migrants with access to Legal Aid, legal advice and childcare. It would put an end to the indefinite detention of refugees and asylum seekers. It would also abolish the requirement for a UK citizen to earn at least £18,600 in order to bring their non-EU partner to the UK.

WELFARE

Mr Opperman’s voting record on welfare makes for quite unpleasant reading. He has voted repeatedly for a reduction in spending on benefits, and repeatedly against higher benefits for those unable to work due to illness or disability. He has also voted against raising benefits in line with inflation. He has voted repeatedly for the “bedroom tax” (for the reduction of housing benefit for social tenants deemed to have too many bedrooms) and repeatedly against spending public money to create jobs for the young and long-term unemployed. He has voted four times to restrict the scope of Legal Aid. In 2012 he voted against “the provision of legal services that effectively meet the needs of the individual”, against making Legal Aid available in social welfare cases and against making Legal Aid more widely available to children.

The Green Party would increase disability benefits and restore the Independent Living Fund. It would increase the Carer’s Allowance and create carer’s leave rights for those in employment.

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In part 3 Nick examines Guy Opperman’s voting record on funding for local government, education and transport.