Hilary McGrady’s speech at Countryfile Live

Today at Countryfile Live, our Director General, Hilary McGrady, made a passionate speech where she talked about the National Trusts’ commitments to addressing climate change and called on the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, to deliver a strong Environment Bill. 

Read the full text of her speech below.

Hilary McGrady and Theresa Villiers at Countryfile Live

‘Good afternoon everyone.

I am delighted to see so many of you here today. This is the fourth year we have partnered with Countryfile Live, and I am once again thrilled to be part of one of the best expressions of this nations great love of the countryside, of nature and our environment.

At one level, it is no surprise that this event is popular when millions of people watch Countryfile every week, their interest extending from simple entertainment through to real engagement in the issues facing our farming community.

The National Trusts itself has more than 5.6 million members drawn from a broad church of people, from those simply interested in a really lovely day out, to quintessential eco warriors and everything in between.

So Countryfile Live and the National Trust make a good team I think.

What is clear is we live in interesting times. This year, there has been an undeniable rapid growth in public engagement in all things relating to our environment.

Something has changed – it feels like we have moved past a tipping point. Think Blue Planet, Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg.  A week doesn’t go by that there isn’t some climate related story.

Only this weekend I was reading about the extraordinary fires occurring in the arctic. Our nation finally feels as though it is waking up, opening its eyes to the genuine threat that surrounds us.

Just today we’ve had flooding at a couple of our properties. It is no longer simply scientists or special interest groups saying it. It’s a movement, and fundamentally, it is our young people who are rightly demanding more from us.

This morning we’ve had young people asking really blunt pointed questions. More than a million young people took part in climate strikes in May.

While there will always be people who doubt or question the problem, the tide is turning in a direction that is powerful, urgent and compelling.

Two questions I have to ask myself as the leader of Europe’s largest conservation charity. The first is whether this is something the Trust should be worrying about.

Some of our supporters believe climate change is the single biggest issue for us and the majority of our resources should be re-directed towards it. I get letters from people saying we’re not doing enough. Others believe it shouldn’t even be on the list. They tell me “you, National Trust, are here to protect places in your care and provide us with a great day out. It’s not your place to get involved. It’s for government to deal with these things, and this is just a passing fad anyway”.

The second question is this a fad we are tagging on to?

From politicians making promises that they cannot keep, to companies keen to attract young people to their brands, the temptation to get “cool with the kids” is huge. I have rightly been challenged over the past few months. On everything from coastal erosion to coffee cups. And with the sheer breadth of what the National Trust, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the scale of change needed.

But it’s also exciting. I like a challenge. Making such substantial change is a real challenge. And this is a challenge we all have to face into. As individuals and as organisations.  Because the climate emergency is real, and I don’t think I need to rehearse any of the evidence for it. So, it is not about – should we be involved – it is about what we are doing to play our part.

My starting place is our properties because every one of them is impacted in some way.And we are doing three key things.

First, we’ll adapt in the places that we look after: coastline, mountain, farmland, gardens, buildings and collections all face impacts from a changing climate.

Second, we’ll empower people to reduce their carbon footprint and to do their bit on their own doorstep. We’ll challenge our staff, volunteers and supporters to look for solutions and then help make them happen.

Third, we’ll inspire others to help. We’ll support where we can and lead where we should.

We want other people to love nature as much as we do – and we want everyone to play their part.

So what does adaptation mean?  The answer is it depends where you look.  We look after 248,000 hectares of land in the National Trust. That’s about 1% of the UK.

We also look after more than 500 historic buildings, all with their own unique history and character.

Climate change is a risk to all of them and we have – for a very long time –  been adapting to the changes happening around us.

Sometimes adaptation means taking really tough choices. This is Birling Gap, on the South East coast.  We know that climate change is speeding up the natural process of coastal erosion here. In winter 2014, we watched some five metres of cliff erode in front of our café here. That means seven years’ worth of erosion happened in one afternoon. We have made the really tough decision not to build coastal defences here, but instead to work with natural coastal change and accept our café will soon fall into the sea.

Sometimes adaptation means making change one small step at a time.

Ham House in Richmond is a 17th century mansion with a beautiful formal garden.

Rosie, our Head Gardener, is managing the impacts of more frequent spells of extreme hot and wet weather. The historic plants that were there in previous years are no longer suited to the climate And only 10% of our daffodil bulbs are now flowering, due to drought conditions.Box Moth Caterpillars have decimated our Box trees. They weren’t there 5 years ago.

Rosie has to adapt to ensure Ham’s formal garden can survive into the future – by doing things like changing planting schemes to flowers that need less watering, letting sections of the garden go to long grass and using natural alternatives to pesticides to tackle Box Moth Caterpillars. The second thing we are doing is to simply empower our teams to intervene.

Change at scale cannot happen if people on the ground do not feel able to act. So each of our properties has delegated responsibility to do the right thing at their property – delivering a sustainable future for nature and for people.

Jon Stewart is a great example of this. He is our General Manager in the Peak District looking after more than 17,500 hectares of moorland and woodland.

These moors are a life support system to both the immediate nature on the moors – species like short eared owls and iconic hen harrier, and to all of us dependent on carbon being stored and rivers being slowed to prevent flooding downstream. We took the Moors on in 1982, and to be honest they were in desperate need of care due to eroding peat from overgrazing and drainage.

For almost thirty years, in partnership with United Utilities, Natural England and the Moors for the Future, we’ve been slowly restoring hundreds of hectares of eroding peat bog. Our rangers and volunteers have built over 6,000 natural dams, which slows the flow of water off the moors and protects surrounding communities from flooding too.

They have also been planting thousands of tiny plugs of sphagnum moss – slowly but surely restoring the bog and locking carbon dioxide back in, to a point where we have about 13 million tonnes of carbon underground.

The final thing we want to do is inspire people.

Arguably, the Trusts role is more about people than it is about place. It is by inspiring people to care for land, nature and the places that are important to them, that we benefit the nation and not just the people that visit our properties.We do that in lots of ways but in the context of climate change I particularly like this example.

This is Gareth Fuke, our Food and Beverage Manager at Sticklebarn in the Lake District.Not only does all of the energy used by sticklebarn come from a local hydro scheme, earlier in the year it became the first pub in Britain to list the carbon footprint of all its meals on the menu. Not in a guilt inducing way – he is absolutely focused on serving great tasting, high quality, locally sourced food – but he did want to provide simple facts to help inspire his customers to make the connection between the food we eat and the carbon we generate

So these are all examples of us playing our part – in big ways and small ways to make a difference but the question is – is it enough?

In the last decade we have replaced over a third of our fossil fuel use with renewable energy.  Last year we replaced the plastic covers on our membership magazine with one made from potato starch. Just last month, we made the significant decision to disinvest from fossil fuel companies.

This is not a bandwagon we have jumped on. We have been on this road for a long time and we have achieved a lot.

What has changed though and I welcome it – is the momentum, the sense of genuine urgency and the demand particularly from our young people that we act and we act now.

Connecting young people with nature has been at the heart of our work for nearly a decade now through programmes like 50 things to do before you are 11 ¾, which encouraged kids to do everything from pond dipping to tree climbing.

But we took it up a level when we created GAP, the Green Academies Programme.This project has helped empower over 10,000 young people like Arjun to protect the natural world.

Like many kids, Arjun has been fascinated by nature since he was young.GAP is an opportunity for young people who care about nature, or who simply love being outdoors, to meet each other.And it’s a chance to do something meaningful for nature in their neighbourhood.

Together, these amazing young people have made improvements to 79 green spaces and created 24 more.That’s seven more communities with a garden, five more communities with an orchard, four more communities with an allotment and four more schools with a garden.

But it’s about more than just making space for nature.

Arjun has become an advocate for nature and he recently joined us in Westminster at a national lobby day, where he was one of more than 12,000 people who met 380 MPs to explain why they passionately believe that the time to act on climate change is now.

We have more than 370 amazing young people like Arjun volunteering with us as Young Rangers, and we have developed a new apprenticeship scheme for the next generation of Rangers.We will be rolling these out to more of our places in the coming years, helping more young people stand up for nature and their local greenspaces.

But the Trust on its own can only do so much. While I am proud of the work we have been doing, I am acutely aware that it is only when we work in partnership that we achieve real difference. Working with other NGOs, the voluntary sector and the private sector, we are seeing real change start to happen.

But if ever there was a time where we need our key partner, Government, to take a clear purposeful lead on this – it is now. Because the threats to our climate and our biodiversity are so serious that we have to face them together.

If the government doesn’t deliver on the Environment Bill and the Agriculture Bill, there is only so much we can do alone.We aren’t expecting them to fix everything. But we do expect them to play their part – just as we are.

This means the government must put the environment at the heart of everything it does and it needs to be given the same priority as the economy.

All of us here today are looking to the new Prime Minister to demonstrate he recognises the seriousness of the threat we face and shows the national and international leadership we need.

This is not about doom and gloom. This is about positive and purposeful leadership.

It’s a critical moment for you too, Secretary of State, in your new role.

The new draft Environment Bill and Agriculture Bills are the single most important pieces of legislation your department will draft for a generation.

We welcomed the significant progress that was made over the past three years. But we need to keep going.

The 25 Year Plan for the Environment, the draft Environment Bill and legislating for net zero emissions by 2050 were all positive steps in the right direction.

And we fully recognise they were not small steps. But they don’t quite go far enough.

But there is so much more to do if we are to reverse the catastrophic decline in nature, which is critical to our efforts to combat climate change. We could potentially deliver a third of our emissions cuts by 2030 from nature-based solutions. But that work will be significantly more challenging if we don’t have an Environment Bill that lives up to the political promises we have been given.

So you will not be surprised to hear that we still have some clear asks of you.

The first is that the new Office for Environmental Protection – the proposed new watchdog – must be able to robustly enforce the law and hold government to account.

It should have the credibility and authority to be truly independent – but accountable to Parliament.

And it must be backed up by a strong Agriculture Bill.

We support the direction of travel the government is moving in, and we look forward to seeing the Bill return to Parliament and be passed.

This will set us on a path to ensuring our farmers are properly rewarded with public money for public goods.

We believe this is the right course of action, but also offers new sources of income to farmers. Storage of carbon could be a new crop for them – if the government invests in this properly.

We want you, Secretary of State, to stick to your guns on this.

A public money for public goods approach is important for both nature and the climate.

It will be critical to ensure we get the design of the schemes that underpin the Act right and ensure there is enough money in the pot for farmers to deliver it.

We stand ready to help in whatever way we can.

Together, all of this action has the potential to make the UK one of the world’s leaders on the natural environment and on our response to climate change.

But it won’t happen without political leadership. And it won’t happen without all of us playing our part.

I am proud of what the Trust has been doing but I am ambitious to do more.

I don’t believe this is a bandwagon, this is a movement here to stay. It has built on decades of work but brought a new energy and demand that we cannot ignore.

If you don’t believe me I would point to the sixteen-year-old girl who got the governments of the world to sit up and pay attention.

And I would point to the fantastic young people we have with us today.

This afternoon, I’ll be meeting with some of our GAP young rangers and the Youth Forum from Our Bright Future to talk about how we can ensure young people are empowered in this debate. They are looking to us to make change happen.

So a final thought – our generation is the first to feel the urgent impacts of climate change, but we are the last who will be able to do something about it.

It’s up to all of us here to make sure we rise up and meet that challenge.’

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