A big estate allegedly trashes the environment: there’s nothing remarkable about that, you might think. Until you discover that [Richard] Benyon is the minister responsible for wildlife and biodiversity.
William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, was the founder of the fortunes of Richard Benyon. Cecil was appointed to manage Princess Elizabeth’s estates back when her younger brother was King of England, and he became Elizabeth I’s chiefest minister. William Cecil’s son Robert was the first patron of the founder of English gardening, John Tradescant the elder.
When David Cameron was handing out posts to loyal Tories in May 2010, Richard Benyon – MP for Newbury since 2005 – got the job of Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. He had, after all, studied at the Royal Agriculture College and managed his family estates so well that his family get to live on welfare – a government handout of about £200,000 a year. if the Daily Mail have their figures right.
(A household benefit cap of a mere £26,000 for families like Richard Benyon, his wife, his ex-wife, and his five children? Don’t be silly. David Cameron never meant that to apply to the very, very wealthy.)
If you’re appointed minister for the environment, wouldn’t it make sense to learn about the environment? Apparently not if you’re Benyon, who caused an environmentalist furore when he posted on Facebook in September 2010:
“I hate ragwort. It may not be the issue of the moment but I am on the warpath for those who let this vile weed spread. Chief target at the moment is the Highways Agency.”
He got educated about ragwort so hard that he had to delete the post from Facebook:
- “At least 30 insect and 14 fungi species are entirely reliant on ragwort, and about a third of the insects are scarce or rare. Ragwort is also a critically important nectar source for hundreds of species of butterflies, bees, moths, flies and other invertebrates, helping to maintain what remains of their much declined populations in the UK countryside.”
- “Actually there is not a severe infestation of ragwort at the moment. There is a great deal of increase in the hysteria but the last government countryside survey actually shows a decrease. Ask your civil servants to check it for you.”
- “There is very very clear science on meta-population dynamics that shows that habitat loss with in a patchwork of habitats has a very severe effect. There is a chapter on ragwort in one of the standard textbooks.”
- The Highways Agency said: “We take ragwort seriously. Where we judge it a risk we control it. This comes out of the blue.”
But that ragwort mistake turns out to be minor in the scale of Richard Benyon’s exploitation of his powers to the financial advantage of his family – after all, they’re struggling along on government welfare. His family trust wants to sell sand and gravel under the land of “Benyon’s Inclosure”, an ancient name for a piece of ground designated as a site of importance for nature conservation.
It contains pockets of ancient woodland, including rare alder carr (swamp forest), heath and dry acid grassland. According to the Hampshire Wildlife Trust and the borough and parish councils, the new works, covering 88 hectares (217 acres), and the estate’s plan to use the area for commercial forestry when the extraction has finished, will destroy irreplaceable ancient woodland, cause the permanent loss of heathland and prevent the restoration of native forest. The protected species surveys, the borough council claims, were inadequate. So too, according to the wildlife trust, is the plan to recreate some habitat on nine hectares of land when the quarrying comes to an end.
The quarry cuts through the middle of a long-standing plan by conservationists to connect up local wildlife habitats, in order to create a large-scale “living landscape” of the kind that now appears to be essential to prevent continued losses of wildlife and biodiversity. The estate’s proposal effectively spanners years of hard work by the wildlife trust.
But the local county council of Hampshire, under Conservative control, ruled that this would cause no significant biodiversity impact.
But this story is much more serious. It suggests a potential conflict of interest. Were the laws protecting wildlife and biodiversity as tough as many believe they should be in order to arrest the shocking rate of decline of our fauna and flora, workings such as those at Benyon’s Inclosure would not be permissible. The minister appears to have a powerful commercial interest in resisting stricter protections for the animals and plants he is charged with protecting. The conclusion that he is in the wrong job seems inescapable.