This post is by Matt Williams, public policy officer at the National Trust. A version of this piece will be posted on the Wildlife and Countryside Link blog.
As New Year’s resolutions go, the promises of the 25 year environment plan for England, launched on this day last year, were ambitious. One year on, how successful has the government been in sticking to its resolution to, for the first time, hand on the environment in a better state than it inherited it?
A year of progress
For aficionados of environmental policy, there has been no shortage of announcements over the past year across a whole range of different areas. Whether on waste and resources, species recovery, land management or planning policy, the 25 year plan has resulted in a year of significant activity. For example:
- a new Resources and Waste Strategy, including a plan for a Deposit Return Scheme for single use plastic containers;
- proposals to ensure that all local development results in a ’net gain’ in biodiversity, thereby putting the environment at the heart of planning and development;
- a new tree champion working on the government’s behalf to look after existing trees and increase planting rates;
- a review of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty has looked at their important role in relation to nature, people and heritage; despite the significant funding, wildlife has continued to decline in these areas, so this is one of the most important things the review needs to change;
- a proposed set of new indicators to measure government progress in improving the environment;
- a draft code and guidance on species translocations and reintroductions;
- and, as we enter 2019, the government is launching a Year of Green Action, involving businesses, charities, individuals and the government.
We need legal targets to back up the promises
But the grand promises in the 25 year plan are, at the end of the day, only policy. And policy is subject to the whims of changing governments. To ensure that the environment is properly protected and ambition is increased over time, this plan has to be underpinned by law, and enforced by a new legal framework for the environment, to replace the system the EU currently provides.
Just before Christmas, the government published draft clauses of the Environment Bill. These proposals don’t go far enough. The bill would create an obligation on all future Westminster governments to have an Environmental Improvement Plan (like the 25 year plan), but there are no requirements regarding what this should contain or whether it has to be achieved.
The National Trust, and many other organisations, are asking the government to use the bill to set legally binding targets for improving the environment. These targets, with interim milestones, would enable the government to chart a progressive course, and the Environmental Improvement Plans would be the map for getting there.
Where will the money come from?
The ambitions of the 25 year plan are big. To make them a reality, they need dedicated funding. Until now, a significant proportion of funding for conservation action has come from the EU’s LIFE and BEST funds. To date, there has been no clear commitment from Defra to address this potential loss after Brexit. Money from private sources will play an important role, but government funding will have to be the primary source of financing for nature, if we are to have any chance of achieving the ambition to recover wildlife.
A system of biodiversity net gain, requiring developers to assess and compensate for the potential harm to habitats caused by their projects, and provide an overall improvement for biodiversity, is being put forward as one possible source of funding.
With 70 per cent of land farmed, farmers will also be crucial in delivering many environmental improvements. While the government’s plan to redirect payments towards farming that delivers environmental benefits is welcome, there have been no promises on the long term level of funding. An independent financial review should assess how much money is needed to achieve the 25 year environment plan’s goals.
Nature and heritage must be considered together
The National Trust sees the natural and historic environment working hand in hand. Whether it is climate change or the intensification of agricultural practices, nature and heritage often face similar threats.
It was good to see recognition given to landscape, beauty and heritage in the 25 year plan and the high priority given to people’s enjoyment of the outdoors, and the health and wellbeing benefits they gain from it. But the definition of the natural environment in the draft Environment Bill was much narrower than this. In fact, future Environmental Improvement Plans could exclude the historic environment entirely. This is at odds with the draft Agriculture Bill, where the government has put cultural and natural heritage on an equal footing.
Thanks to the 25 year environment plan last year we now have the direction and the momentum. This year, the challenge for the government is to raise the ambition with stronger targets, provide legal underpinning with the upcoming Environment Bill, and commit to the financial support to see it through.
[Photo courtesy of Gidzy, Flickr]