"Action needed is critical so I am hoping I can be a voice for that - and a pest in the side of my Conservative colleagues", says Sheffield's new shadow nature minister
“Yes it does actually”, said Sheffield MP Olivia Blake, when asked if the world of a challenge that working to protect the environment is can keep her awake at night.
And it is not suprising.
The Labour MP for Sheffield Hallam is one month into a new role, that of shadow minister for nature, water and flooding, and became an MP four months before the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown began. The post is vast, encompassing everything from protecting bees to reducing plastics in the ocean.
Talking to the Sheffield Telegraph from Ecclesall Woods, Ms Blake added: “But the more you learn about the environment, the more amazing it is. It’s about how little time we’ve got – we need action now.
"The Environment Bill is still going through Parliament and it is quite slow, this is part of a 25 year plan on the environment. In 25 years it will be like ‘what environment?’ We are actually three to four years into this 25 year plan so time is running out. The action that is needed is critical so I am hoping I can be a voice for that and a pest in the side of my Conservative colleagues to get them to start taking action.
"I am so excited to go and see some of the great projects happening up and down the country, such as reintroducing beavers, that shows we can make a difference if given the opportunity.”
Among the first pieces of work Ms Blake has undertaken are sponsoring a Labour amendment to the Environment Bill which would prohibit the burning of peat in upland areas, as it releases 260,000 tonnes of CO2 in England every year.
It was an issue she held a Westminster Hall debate on in 2020 and she said not enough people know of their value.
“They (peatlands) are basically the UK’s rainforests”, said Ms Blake, whose constituency includes some of the moorlands above Sheffield.
“As a carbon store, peat holds more carbon than the combined forests of Britain, France and Germany.”
Apart from concerns on Covid-19, the environment was the issue most constituents got in touch about, said Ms Blake.
She added: “The environment is, if not the top, a close second to Covid in terms of what people get in touch about. When you talk in terms of carbon I think a lot of people do switch off but I think more people do know it is an issue. When it comes to discussing nature and the environment, it doesn't matter where you live, everybody knows about nature and how important it is to Sheffield. Everybody cares about what is happening in the Peak District and their garden.
“I think there are a lot of intergenerational conversations going on around the dining table and people are waking up.”
One of the biggest environmental issues in Sheffield has been that of the Sheffield tree felling controversy, which led to years of protests over Sheffield Council’s Streets Ahead highways contract earmarking street trees for the axe.
Ms Blake was deputy leader of the council during that time but resigned in 2019 to support the It’s Our City petition calling for the way the council was run to change.
In May this year, an It’s Our City referendum was successful, and Labour also lost control of the council. It is now run by a Green and Labour “co-operative” which immediately committed to a local independent inquiry into the management of the street trees dispute.
Ms Blake said: “I welcome the inquiry, I became deputy leader of the council in the middle of the tree saga and I really was keen to get that issue resolved. I look back and its really remarkable now if you think back to what the situation was, that there is now a collaborative way of working in place (the Sheffield Street Tree Partnership).
“I understand that people want the inquiry to learn lessons and I think its a real opportunity. “Obviously I think there are lessons to be learned and I am taking some of that into what I am doing now.”
Scrutiny of the Government’s new England Trees Action Plan had been partly shaped by the experience. She has questioned how new trees will be maintained - with a historic lack of investment in Sheffield’s trees being a factor in the Streets Ahead contract – and whether there will be a focus on biodiversity or flood defences. “If you don’t think about the maintenance issue when you are planting these trees and make sure there is funding there then issues will come up in 30-40 years and we don’t want to see that.”
Ms Blake also said she wanted to use her new role to shout about Sheffield nationally.
“I think people outside the city do think of Sheffield as like the Full Monty, they think it is just a very industrial place and it still is, we have a lot of great industry and innovation, but more people are realising we are on the doorstep of the Peak District, we have so many green spaces, and people are passionate about the environment.”
"We have the Lakelands, Wyming Brook, Bradfield, Ladybower – there are all these precious places which are really important post Covid.
"I’m really keen we get more people into jobs in conservation and tourism because conservation in particular is seen as more of an elite job. We have a situation where people here know what is on their doorstep but not further afield so we should really encourage young people to go out into the Peak District and get close to nature.”