Is the Government’s new 25 year plan for the environment a sign it is desperately committed to a green agenda, or a sign it is just desperate?
Restarting the starting point
A Green Future (without a question mark) is the title of the Government’s recently published, and long awaited, 25 year plan for the environment. Here is a partial review of this 150 page complex document which I have seen described as ‘underwhelming’. It covers everything from nature conservation to air and water quality, and climate change to pollution and waste. There is a commitment to “set gold standards in protecting and growing natural capital”, although this is an approach which some criticise as being too utilitarian (although one of the main proponents of the natural capital approach is ex BANC member Dieter Helm).
As is often the case with such documents, the plan is full of ambition and aspiration, but has few firm targets, costings or funding commitments. The rather indeterminate intention to “Work closely with a large range of stakeholders…..to identify their contribution to the goals…” is almost as close as it gets. It also smacks of preparing to take the credit for other people’s work. The conservation sector will no doubt agree with many of the things being said, some of them reflecting what it has been promoting, or, in some cases, is already doing or trying to do.
There is, of course, a review of where we are in relation to such things as soil and water quality, the natural world, and the seas, and where we need, or would like to be. The plan does not though provide a route map to achieve this, so much as a wish list of things which might help. One target that is there is “… ending peat use in horticultural products by 2030”. I’m not sure if this should be welcomed, or derided as yet more foot-dragging in relation to an issue that has already been argued about for 30 years.
Minister finding his feet…
Even so, major policy initiatives such as the plan are rare in the environmental field. Having inherited the process of producing it when he became Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Gove should be given credit for bringing it to fruition. Since he has been in office he has generally been saying the right things, and indicating that he has some welcome ideas in relation to various elements of environmental policy, from banning ivory trading to reform of support for farmers.
For instance, at the Oxford Farming Conference in January this year, he uttered the phrase “public money for public goods” in relation to post-Brexit support for farmers. This was surprising in this austere, small government, and minimal regulation world. However unfashionable this principle is now, it was an entirely apt description of the position the farming industry is, and will continue to be in, for the foreseeable future. Gove went on to speak at length about environmental pressures, the unjustness of the current system, and “the imperative to husband and enhance natural capital”. He said that the principal public good to be invested in is “environmental enhancement”.
In his first major speech last year, touching on the same theme, Gove promised to incorporate effective environmental protection into post-Brexit rules and regulations, saying: “The UK should be the global ‘home of the highest environmental standards’ and green action ‘central to our national mission’, for both the intrinsic beauty of nature and the prosperity of the economy”. The plan partly reflects these soundbites.
Celebrating the U-Turns
One of its less welcome aspects is the Government appearing to take credit for some things which it has strenuously opposed in the recent past, such as reducing pesticide use when, for example, it tried very hard to prevent the ban on neonicotinoids. I suppose that is preferable to continuing with the previous short-sighted approach. Neither is there any mention of badgers and bovine TB, and whether or not culling will continue. Farmers are though described as “true friends of the earth”. No doubt some of them are, but the analysis of damaging agricultural practices elsewhere in the plan rather suggests that some of them are not.
There is also a proposal to set up “a world-leading environmental watchdog, an independent statutory body, to hold Government to account for upholding environmental standards”. We used to have such a body – the Nature Conservancy Council – now morphed into a pale shadow of itself as Natural England. Over the last 40 years it has been continually weakened, its powers increasingly restricted and its budget steadily reduced. Successive Governments have done this in response to lobbying by big business, landowners, and the agricultural industry. It would be good to restore such an organisation, but it is difficult to take this proposal seriously.
This article concentrates on the nature conservation proposals, but first here are the (very simple) goals:
- Clean air.
- Clean and plentiful water.
- Thriving plants and wildlife.
- Reduced risk of environmental harm from hazards such as flooding and drought.
- Using natural resources more sustainably and efficiently.
- Enhanced beauty, heritage and engagement with the natural environment.
The overall policies, each of which has a chapter in the plan, will focus on:
- Using and managing land sustainably.
- Recovering nature and the beauty of landscapes.
- Connecting people with the environment to improve health and wellbeing.
- Increasing resource efficiency, and reducing pollution and waste.
- Securing clean, productive and biologically diverse seas and oceans.
- Protecting and improving the global environment.
So, what is in Chapter Two, Restoring nature?
Three main activities are planned:
- Develop a Nature Recovery Network to protect and restore wildlife. And provide opportunities to re-introduce species that we have lost from our countryside.
- Conserve and enhance the natural beauty of our landscape by reviewing National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty for the 21st
- Respect nature by using our water more sustainably.
There is a really ambitious intention to “…restore losses suffered over the past 50 years”. If this is achieved it will be a wonder to behold, but it looks like an impossible task. A more sensible and realistic aim would be to maximise wildlife gains in the world as it now is. In other words to look forward not backwards. Examples of species recoveries and re-introductions mentioned are hen harriers, curlew and beavers. There is a strong emphasis on social and economic impacts and goals here, as well as supporting nature conservation.
What is practical, and welcome, is the commitment to produce a new “strategy for nature” to provide continuity when the current strategy, Biodiversity 2020, runs out. Also welcome is the recognition that something must be done to deliver the ‘larger, better, more connected’ semi-natural landscapes called for by Sir John Lawton in his 2010 report Making Space for Nature. The mechanism proposed for this is a Nature Recovery Network which will provide 500,000 hectares of additional habitat. This will build on the successes and experience of the existing Nature Improvement Areas. Whilst they have been generally successful their funding was a sop to nature conservation following cuts in funding which far outweighed their particular budgets. Those cuts have themselves contributed to some of the problems the plan is trying to address. No matter, wildlife now is to “recover, brim over and colonise new sites”.
Funding in this case is expected to come from voluntary partnerships, private sector sponsorship, and, presumably not yet thought through, “other new and innovative funding mechanisms”. A straightforward ‘we will pledge £XM over the life of the plan’ would be more encouraging, practical, and demonstrate real commitment.
An interesting idea is to look at introducing conservation covenants “to enable landowners to create legally-binding obligations with respect to their land”. This is a mechanism used extensively in the USA with some success. A report on this is to be commissioned from the Law Commission although the process has been researched here in the past by the former Countryside Agency.
The muddy waters and confused attitudes to introduced invasive species get a look in in this chapter too. The Government will “seek to neutralise their threat by managing them effectively”. Not sure whether that’s motherhood or apple pie. I guess such efforts must be made, but they are generally likely to fail for all sort of reasons. As always, invasive native species and natural processes are left out of the equation.
Human health and greenspace – but no funds
Chapter Three is titled ‘Connecting people with the environment to improve health and wellbeing’. There is a commitment to “Green our towns and cities by creating green infrastructure and planting one million urban trees”. One million trees may sound a lot, but over the whole of England and over 25 years it is not very many, especially compared with the existing tree stock. Birmingham City Council, for instance, estimates that there are about six million trees in the City already. Currently in Sheffield there is huge concern about the overall management of street trees, which has been contracted out as part of a portfolio of council services. The private contractors concerned have very different values, priorities, and approaches to risk management than the council has traditionally had.
The plan calls for people to spend more time in green and blue spaces in their everyday lives. All the right information is included about the benefits to our health and wellbeing of having and enjoying green and open spaces close to where we live. The evidence is quoted, the examples of good practice are given, a “Nature Friendly Schools Programme” is announced, support will be given to the Parks Action Group, and so on.
It is here though that the plan has one of the widest gaps between aspiration and ambition and action and achievement. There is no recognition that local authorities all over the country are struggling, and in some cases giving up, with regard to keeping, maintaining and improving parks and green spaces. There is no commitment to make this area of their work a statutory duty, no new funding promised in a field where, no matter how well-intentioned and dedicated council staff are, austerity and budget cuts are wreaking havoc. A huge opportunity has been missed to rescue parks and greenspaces form the abyss threatening to engulf them. A million trees, a national tree champion, and the Northern Forest will barely scratch the surface of this issue.
This is typical of the inherent weaknesses in the plan, in that insufficient integration with policies in other areas is contemplated. (Although there is mention of the Government’s Industrial Strategy.) There is no acknowledgement of the need to tackle policy contradictions or vacuums. Dealing with invasive exotic species, as outlined above, is another example. More effective legislation and better regulation of the horticultural and forestry industries would tackle that problem at source. Dealing with species once they are here and apparently out of control is expensive and often futile. There is a nod in this direction through the intention to “encourage the development of a biosecure supply chain for woodland creation”.
Words without action?
It may be hidden away somewhere, but I cannot find any reference or commitment to major new nature conservation legislation. This is something which the major conservation bodies have been calling for for some time. The whole plan might have more value, and more chance of success, if it had been framed as a white, or at least a green, paper. That would have provided an implementation imperative, and perhaps led to the inclusion of new legislation in the next Queen’s speech. As it is, it is a wish list, quite a good one, and a useful insight into Government thinking. It is certainly better than much we have seen in recent years. The critical test will be what happens next.
The whole thing is available here.
Make the most of the Minister
A final word on Mr. Gove. Since his post was established in 1970, by Edward Heath, we have had a mixed bag of Secretaries of State for the Environment. Some of them seemed to be more like Secretaries of State Against the Environment. Every so often though one comes along who seems to have a genuine understanding of, and commitment to, the post. John Gummer, Michael Meacher (actually a Minister of State) and Caroline Spellman come easily to mind. Now, to the surprise of some, Michael Gove may be emerging as an unlikely new champion. He is in the tradition of big political hitters occupying the post, such as Michael Heseltine and John Prescott.
If the Government does not implode, and he remains in post long enough to have some effect, we should remember that everything cannot be put right at once. We could perhaps try encouraging him, cheering him on, letting him think he is having all the good ideas.
A jobbing nature conservationist, with experience of the Wildlife Trusts, and a special interest in urban environments.
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