Ellie Savage & Joseph Lewis
December 2023

What does the DEFRA reshuffle mean for environmental scientists?

Cards being shuffled

On the 13th November, Rishi Sunak carried out a government reshuffle. Headlines were dominated by the Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s removal from the Cabinet and the surprise appointment of ex-Prime Minister David Cameron as Foreign Secretary. Further changes were made throughout the Government, as the Prime Minister attempted to reset his ministerial team in what is likely to be the last reshuffle before the general election.

At the Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), former Health Secretary Steve Barclay was appointed Environment Secretary, replacing Thérèse Coffey who resigned from the post. At the junior ministerial level, Robbie Moore has filled the gap left by Trudy Harrison, who also resigned from the Government. He is expected to be working primarily on waste policy, with other environmental responsibilities redistributed across the DEFRA team. 

Will a new Environment Secretary mean a new vision for the environment?

During a government’s time in office, departments see numerous ministers come and go. These changes can make a substantial impact on the direction of government policy, which can then affect the work of environmental professionals. In reality, a new minister may not always make a significant difference. 

The potential for changes in policy direction under Barclay’s leadership is limited. The next general election will take place during or before January 2025, with common predictions that it will be called for May 2024 or October 2024. The Government has very little time before then to propose and implement new policy. Earlier this month, the King’s Speech set out the Government’s current plans for new legislation, so it is unlikely that any substantial change will be made over the coming months.

The more likely scenario is that Barclay’s vision for the environment will form a part of the Conservative Party’s manifesto for the election, with the potential to set a new direction if the Government is re-elected. The extent to which that vision differs from the approach taken by Thérèse Coffey will become clear early in 2024.

IES Policy Lead Joseph Lewis said: “Steve Barclay’s appointment probably won't change the Government’s environmental goals or ambitions, but it’s a big opportunity for the new Secretary of State to come in and unfreeze some of the key environmental policies which have been delayed this year. We should keep a close eye on whether he can rise to the challenge of leading on implementation, which remains the biggest policy challenge of the decade.

What do the changes in DEFRA mean for environmental professionals?

Even as the Government’s vision for the UK environment remains largely unchanged, the new appointments still have substantial implications. A new Secretary of State may help to deliver on existing commitments, including those which have previously been delayed during Thérèse Coffey’s tenure.

Already, there are indications of a renewed drive to deliver on environmental policies, with the publication of a final response to the consultation on the Glover Review of landscapes and the launch of 34 new landscape recovery projects through ELMS. As the long list of policy commitments begins to be delivered, environmental professionals should expect a fast-paced series of announcements over the coming months.

Environmental professionals seeking to influence the Government have already begun to send Steve Barclay letters welcoming him to the role and setting out their priorities. Given the importance of relationships to effective engagement with policy, one of the biggest changes brought about by the reshuffle may be the opportunity to start fresh with the forging of new links. 

Find out how best to engage with the new Secretary of State:

What's next?

The coming months are likely to be a busy time for the Government, as it works to deliver on the last policies of this parliamentary term. A general election is likely to take place in the next 12 months, so both the Government and the shadow DEFRA team are likely to set out their visions for how they would approach environmental policy if they were elected. 

How can you stay informed on the latest developments?

Whether the focus is on Steve Barclay delivering environmental policy over the next year or a new vision being set out after the general election, the voice of environmental professionals will remain critically important to ensure that Government policy helps to create a better future for people and the planet.