In this blog Government Affairs Director Richard Hebditch takes an initial look at today’s 25 year environment plan release, welcomes the Government’s ambition, but warns of the need for effective delivery mechanisms if we’re really going to restore a natural environment under increasing pressure.
It’s fantastic to finally have the 25 year plan for the environment, first recommended by the Natural Capital Committee in 2014 and promised in two Conservative election manifestos since then.
We’ve been waiting a long time for this to be released, but Michael Gove and the Prime Minister deserve credit for publishing it now. It’s also great that it looks to be pretty comprehensive – tackling vital issues like restoring wildlife populations, cleaning up rivers and turning around the damage that’s been done to the quality of our soil.
People need nature…
The plan rightly focuses on people’s interaction with the natural environment, with welcome initiatives such as a nature friendly schools programme, consideration given to how voluntary sector organisations can work with healthcare professionals to improve people’s health and wellbeing, and support for the work of the Parks Action Group, which we sit on. It also underlines the Government’s commitment to deliver an all-England coastal path, something we wholeheartedly support as custodians of 10% of the English, Welsh and Northern Ireland coastlines.
Today, Theresa May echoed Michael Gove’s speech at the Oxford Farming Conference in emphasising the importance of public access to the countryside. The plan also promises a 21st Century review of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty with a view to assessing their financial sustainability, scope for extension, and building on their ability to connect people with nature.
There are already 200 million visits to National Trust owned countryside and coast, but we want to work with Defra to bring the benefits of being in nature to many more people.
…And nature needs people…
The challenge is a big one. Society and the economy ultimately depend on our natural environment and both globally and in UK it’s under increasing pressure. 56% of UK species have declined over the past 50 years, with 60% of farmland birds lost since 1970. 60% of our priority habitats are not in good condition, only 20% of rivers and streams in England meet the regulatory standards for wildlife, and we’ve lost 90% of our wetland habitat over the last century.
The National Trust is playing our part by committing to the creation of 25,000 hectares of new habitats on our own land by 2025, and working with partners to take a landscape-scale approach to bring nature back to our countryside. So we’re pleased to see the plans for a Nature Recovery Network in today’s release, which should complement work already taking place. We’re also pleased to be continuing our work with Defra on its pioneer projects, to inform the further development and implementation of the 25 year plan.
…and a plan with teeth
But the big issue is whether the plan will be underpinned by the institutions and laws to ensure it really delivers, and isn’t just dependent on having a friendly minister who ‘gets it’.
The NHS survives because it’s become an established institution in our country’s life – its essential features (free at the point of use and services based on clinical need, not ability to pay) are easily understandable and it’s embedded in how people live their lives.
The UK is cutting carbon emissions in large part thanks to the Climate Change Act, which has set up a legal framework based on a rigorous evidence based approach.
Restoring our natural environment will need similar approaches to these if the Government will truly be able to deliver its welcome ambition for this generation to be the first to leave the environment in a better state than it found it.
It’s all about delivery
Natural capital ideas are clearly at the heart of the 25 year plan and should provide the evidence to monitor its impact. The plan sets out the intention to develop a set of metrics to assess progress towards the 25 year goals, with the promise to report on progress annually.
It’s vitally important that a clear framework is created to continually improve progress, and the environment sector and media will play a key role in holding Government to account on this front. A plan on its own isn’t enough and there’s a danger that improving the environment is always about “jam tomorrow” – so we need a delivery framework with clear, measurable steps along the way to make sure change happens (as with the Climate Change Act’s carbon budgets).
For instance Michael Gove’s speech last week on farming was very positive about what final policy would look like in the mid-2020s. But as the RSPB’s Tom Lancaster and my colleague Marcus Gilleard say, we’re not so clear about the steps towards that (though we should hear more when the Agriculture White Paper comes out).
The 25 year plan also needs effective delivery mechanisms. We now need Government to set out how the plan will bring together different agencies to work together at a local level to deliver landscape level changes needed.
And the UK needs new laws to replace functions carried out by European Commission and Court of Justice. In her speech today, Theresa May re-emphasised that Government will soon be consulting on a new, “world leading” independent statutory body to “hold government to account and give the environment a voice”, which will be underpinned by environmental principles. This body needs to be jointly created by all Governments in the UK if it is to have the support and long term authority it needs to work effectively.
The going might get tough…
Sometimes there will be tough choices. Yes, the country needs more housing but this shouldn’t be at the permanent expense of the natural environment. And sometimes regulation is needed to achieve the big changes in consumer or business behaviour. We’ve made changes to our use of single use plastics because our purpose is to look after special places and wildlife, but others will put their own bottom line first and expect others to pick up the costs. On things like plastic pollution, everyone needs to play by the same rules.
The 25 year plan from Defra mainly covers England. But environmental challenges are not just for England on its own and we look forward to working in Wales and Northern Ireland to developing similar ambitions there.
The National Trust will do all it can with Defra to deliver this plan and make it a success. As we digest the plan further, we’ll share more of our thoughts.
Richard Hebditch, Government Affairs Director, National Trust