This post is by Hilary McGrady, director-general of the National Trust. A longer version was published by the Daily Telegraph.
Right now, the nation’s attention is rightly focused on dealing with the immediate and profound impact of Covid-19 on health, social fabric and livelihoods. But governments around the world are beginning to turn their thoughts to recovery.
As this country starts to look to the future, we need the sort of forward-thinking we showed after the second world war when the National Health Service, National Parks and a planning system to protect green space were created. We must also learn from the last financial crisis and opt for renewal over mere recovery. Anything else would fail a nation whose citizens have shown what collaboration and collective action can achieve.
Everyone will suffer if environmental progress is reversed
No doubt some will argue for quick, high carbon fixes: new roads, building projects, deregulation. Others will want the government to dilute its proposed new nature-friendly farming legislation. They must not win. If we reverse the environmental progress of recent years, everyone will suffer.
Now is the time to invest in energy efficiency, renewable energy, clean transport: a green recovery. Delivering green infrastructure and supporting the technologies of the future makes economic sense, and there are encouraging signs from ministers that they recognise this. In the words of the Business Secretary Alok Sharma: “Every country around the world will face a choice, between laying the foundations for sound, sustainable growth or locking in polluting emissions for decades.”
But we also need spending that has a dividend for nature, which boosts public health through clean air and nature recovery. The recovery plan must respond to what the lockdown has clearly shown: that people want and need access to nature-rich green spaces near where they live. Many living in urban areas have been hit by poor provision on their doorsteps as a result of the sale of public spaces and playing fields. Budget pressures meant many local councils were already struggling to care for public parks.
The government has ambitious plans to reverse the decline in nature and green space. Its 25 year environment plan sets out how it intends to meet its commitment that ours should be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it.
Organisations are under threat
But the government’s plans for restoring nature and tackling climate change depend on the support of partners, not least conservation charities, and that cannot be taken for granted. A sharp drop in income is now threatening the very existence of many of those that look after nature sites and create natural solutions to climate change around the country. They are in need of urgent, practical support.
The National Trust is a resilient organisation, but our losses could amount to £200 million this year alone. That means we have had to make some incredibly difficult decisions to pause important conservation programmes to clean rivers, prevent upland flooding and improve soil. Our tree-planting schemes – we have plans to plant around 20 million more trees by 2030 – must not go the same way.
What is the government doing to support nature conservation? Alok Sharma has written to retail and manufacturing businesses to thank them for their efforts and set out a programme of support. Ministers now urgently need to make an immediate offer of support to nature, wildlife and environmental organisations, and set out how the sector will contribute towards its green recovery plan.
Urgent solutions to climate change are needed
On a practical level, this means urgent, creative solutions to climate change. More trees and naturalised rivers can help us deal better with the devastating, financially crippling flooding experienced by large sections of the country this year, a problem that will not go away. We also need a rapid shift to farming that regenerates our natural environment, improves biodiversity and captures and stores carbon. An important signal of the government’s intent will be how quickly it moves to pass the Agriculture and Environment Bills, whose passage through parliament was delayed by Covid-19.
Our towns and cities cannot take any more destruction of habitat and biodiversity. We must grow back in green, not grey. The nation must also have fresh air and green space. Equal access to nature and fresh air is what the founders of the National Trust set out to achieve 125 years ago. It remains worth fighting for, today and always.
Hilary McGrady spoke at Green Alliance’s online event Covid-19: what will the role of nature be in the nation’s recovery? on the 5th May 2020, along with Beccy Speight chief executive of the RSPB and Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England. You can listen to the highlights on our podcast channel.