Reactions to the speech by Environment Secretary George Eustice

CaptureOn Monday 20 July, Green Alliance hosted online the first major speech on the environment by the Rt Hon George Eustice MP, Defra secretary of state. You can read the full speech, watch the event on our YouTube channel or listen to the highlights on our podcast.

Here are reactions to what he said, on funding, the Environment Bill, trade and the UK’s global role, from leading environmental campaigners:

Beccy Speight, chief executive, RSPB, on funding:
The announcement of £4 million for nature prescribing is entirely welcome, but at this rate there won’t be much nature left to prescribe.   What was missing yesterday from the secretary of state was a clear indication of commitment to the prioritisation and ambition of the legislation and the scale of the funding that is needed to match the government’s stated aims for nature as part of a genuine ‘green recovery’.  We urge the UK government to reshape the economy so that it has resilience for the long term, putting healthy communities and a thriving natural world at its heart and resisting the temptation to deregulate to get a short term fix.

Specifically on funding, we need investment of at least £615 million in restoration and creation of habitats per year for the next ten years to meet the government’s own ambitions to both restore nature in a generation but also to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from land use. This would not only create thousands of green jobs to aid the recovery, but also improve our health and protect us from climate change.

Ruth Chambers, senior parliamentary affairs associate, Greener UK, on the Environment Bill:
Environment Bills do not come around very often and the opportunity to put in place a world leading environmental governance system must not be squandered. The secretary of state made it clear yesterday that he wants better protection and better data, leading to a better state of the environment. But this won’t be possible without a better bill. His willingness to consider constructive, practical improvements to the bill was appreciated and we look forward to discussing these with him.

The Environment Bill was once described by the prime minister as the “huge star of our legislative programme’, but it has been stuck in the parliamentary slow lane since March. The bill must return to parliament in September as the secretary of state said he hoped would happen, otherwise it will run out of time and the governance gap the government faithfully pledged would not transpire will become a reality. While the news that the set up of the Office for Environmental Protection is to pick up pace is welcome, there is no room for complacency and this must remain a top priority.

As environment secretary, Mr Eustice will play a critical role in defending the bill from those who may see it as a convenient vehicle to pursue deregulatory ambitions. And he must also champion his department’s work across Whitehall in the 2020 Comprehensive Spending Review, so that the measures in the bill to restore nature, improve air and water quality and boost resource efficiency forge a new chapter in our environmental story.

Kierra Box, trade campaigner, Friends of the Earth, on trade and standards:
Mr Eustice was curiously blasé about our environmental protections when it came to trade. He offered reassurances that trade deals would not weaken standards, while at the same time confirming that the government will not guarantee import standards in law. He denied that proposed ‘Freeports’ would pose any threat to UK nature, because of the way ecosystems are protected by our legal and planning system, but offered no hints as to how these protections will interact with such port zones, which are designed to offer looser planning laws and lower regulation than in the rest of the UK.  And he suggested that MPs would “inevitably” have more ability to scrutinise UK trade policy in the future, to keep our standards safe, despite government refusals to develop a process to ensure transparency and democracy in future trade negotiations.

It was, as always, good to hear of the government’s ongoing commitment to maintain our existing environmental, animal welfare and food standards. But it was worrying that the secretary of state felt that recent proposals to secure standards through tariffs and to set up an Agricultural Standards Commission would have put minds at rest. We’ve always been clear that a legal commitment not to backslide on import standards or domestic protections is vital, and that only proper, ongoing, parliamentary scrutiny, not temporary advisory commissions , will be enough to hold future governments to account and protect our environment.

Debbie Tripley, director of environmental policy and advocacy, WWF-UK, on action on the global climate and nature emergency
Yesterday’s speech ’ was all about reading the mood music” according to Beccy Speight of the RSPB.  To be fair, the music wasn’t all bad. For instance, more and better data to improve the planning system, the emphasis on nature-based solutions to integrate the Convention on Biological Diversity with global climate change obligations and more money for the prescription of nature are all welcome.

But there was little sign of anything resembling urgent action to deal with the climate and nature emergency. Global leadership by the government is needed to end the destruction of nature, which is likely to fuel further zoonotic diseases and pandemics.  In the Amazon, the burning season is about to begin again and is predicted to be worse than last year. Shocking recent data from the National Institute for Space Research shows over 50,000 football pitches of forest was cleared in the first six months of 2020, that’s 26 per cent more than the same period last year. Losing just five per cent more could mean we lose the fight again climate change. The UK must be at the forefront of efforts to prevent this.

Quick action through strengthening the Environment Bill with stronger duties to achieve nature recovery networks, net biodiversity gain and due diligence to end deforestation should be at the top of the government’s list to turn the tide on nature’s loss at home, as promised by George Eustice.  Instead, the government has announced a review of the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and a £5 million pilot on establishing a new Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment.

Choosing to review EIAs as the centrepiece of reform, instead of committing to high standards in law for trade deals, or non-regression, is unlikely to dispel the fear that a deregulatory wind is blowing this way.

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