This month marks our fifth careers blog, 'Take a leaf out of my book', where we ask people who work in an environmental area to write about their career journey to date: highs and any low points, challenges and accomplishments.
Protecting the environment for future generations and creating prosperity through a green economy is a pretty good reason for turning on the laptop. That’s what I do each day as Deputy Director for Environment Strategy and the 25 Year Environment Plan in Defra. This is a job I’ve had since October 2020. Before that I was developing our replacement to the Common Agricultural Policy and passing the Agriculture Act 2020.
Our farming reforms are aimed at a thriving agriculture sector that sustains nature rather than depletes it. Now I am working on what those environmental gains should be. Five years ago, I would never have thought I would be talking about nature-based solutions. Although trying to get squabbling departments to agree was, in the Cabinet Office, a form of integrated pest management.
My career has given me opportunities to play a part in making the UK a better place to live.
In 2002, I joined the Civil Service and spent two years working on the Civil Partnership Bill. This allowed same-sex couples to form legal relationships akin to marriage. And happened at a time when there was still a lot of prejudice and resistance to change. This was a personal highlight of my career. We changed people’s lives for the better – and half the team were getting engaged on the day the legislation passed. After that I worked on consumer and competition policy in the Business Department (DTI, BIS, BEIS – I’ve lost track), travelling around Europe to negotiate the Consumer Rights Directive. The Cabinet Office was my next stop where I headed up the legislation team in the Economic and Domestic Secretariat (EDS). This team manages the government’s legislative programme, writes the Queen’s Speech (not the Christmas one) and runs the Parliamentary Business and Legislation Committee which clears government Bills for introduction into Parliament.
My next big job was as Principal Private Secretary to the Rt. Hon Oliver Letwin. Oliver was David Cameron’s policy fixer and Minister with overall responsibility for the Cabinet Office. Running a Private Office in Downing Street was incredibly exciting, negotiating with Cabinet Ministers and visiting everywhere from Baghdad to Beijing to Bulgaria. I supported Oliver in keeping the coalition government together and running some of the big cabinet committees like Home Affairs and Constitutional Reform.
And then I came to Defra in 2017 to oversee the development and successful passage of the Agriculture Act 2020 – the most radical reforms of agriculture in 50 years. Now I am leading on setting ambitious legally-binding environmental targets, performance against the Plan and the environmental partnerships we need to implement our reforms.
I hope I bring to this job a sense of how we can make our case for environmental protection and restoration in a world of competing priorities. Yes, Defra is interested in the long-term but economic growth and prosperity depend on our natural resources. It’s inspiring to work with people who want to be here and Defra has benefited from people coming into the fold from other departments and the third sector. It can feel a bit daunting trying to save the planet but all jobs have an element of the fear factor. What would I tell myself 10 years ago that I wish I knew then? Embrace new adventures, focus on what you are good at but stretch yourself. Don’t limit your horizons. Control your diary to do the things you need to do.