Government response to MPs fails to inspire confidence on environment promises

This week the UK Government’s response to the Environmental Audit Committee’s report on its major environmental set piece (the 25 Year Environment Plan) failed to fill many with confidence that the ambition gap is closing between what Government has promised and what it has delivered on the environment. Mary Creagh, Chair of the Committee, was critical of Government’s response, calling it “woolly”.

Three worrying headlines from our perspective are:

The lack of powers outlined for a new environment watchdog: leaving the European Union will create a significant governance gap in the enforcement of environmental law in the UK. The proposals for a new environment watchdog in Government’s consultation earlier this summer would fall short of its own ‘world-leading’ goal. In their response yesterday, Government failed to confirm that the new body would be given real teeth, with powers to impose fines or to ask the courts to impose them. A strong Environment Bill needs to be the vehicle for setting up a truly world-leading watchdog with the right resource and powers to really reverse nature’s decline.

Where’s the long-term funding for farmers? We’ve welcomed Government’s ambition to direct public money for farming towards public, goods (like cleaner, slower water, more wildlife, healthier soils, and more access for people to enjoy what nature has to offer). What’s still missing (from the Agriculture Bill and from yesterday’s response) is a commitment to provide long-term funding at least at the same level as current Common Agriculture Policy funding, and based on an independent assessment of how much is needed to deliver environmental outcomes. Our own analysis shows it’s at least as much, if not more, than current levels of CAP funding.

Lack of a clear plan for what happens if we leave the EU with no deal: The Government is stepping up preparations for a no-deal exit from the EU. Despite saying that arrangements will be made to make sure a new environment watchdog will be able to tackle ongoing breaches of environmental law, there is no detail on how this will be delivered.

Government has undoubtedly set itself laudable and challenging ambitions. But these are some big pieces missing from the picture. With a draft Environment Bill expected by the end of the year, and a full Bill expected to be introduced to Parliament next summer, the Government has the chance to get this right.  We’ll be keeping a close eye on developments to ensure ambition meets reality.

Matt Williams, Policy Officer, National Trust.

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