As New Year’s resolutions go, the promises unveiled last January in the 25 Year Environment Plan were ambitious. One year on, how successful has the UK Government been in sticking to its resolution to hand on the environment in a better state than it inherited it? Our Public Policy Officer, Matt Williams, takes a look.
Plenty of policy progress
The 25 Year Environment Plan has led to no shortage of announcements over the past year across a whole range of environmental issues. From a new Waste and Resources Strategy and a long-awaited plastic deposit return scheme, to a tree champion to protect and enhance our woodlands; from net gain in biodiversity being put at the heart of planning policy to new indicators to measure the Government’s success on improving the environment.
An Environment Bill, but more to do
The Government’s grand promises in the 25 Year Environment Plan are, at the end of the day, only policy, subject to the whims of changing governments. In order to ensure that the environment is properly protected and ambition is increased over time, we need this plan to be enforced by a new post-Brexit legal framework.
Just before Christmas, the Government published a draft Environment Bill. You can read here why the Bill doesn’t go far enough. It creates an obligation on all future Westminster Governments to have an ‘Environmental Improvement Plan’ (like the 25 Year Environment Plan) but there’s no requirement on what must go into that plan, or whether it must be achieved.
The National Trust, and many other organisations, are asking the Government to use the Bill to set legally binding targets for improving the environment. These would set a beacon to which the Government could chart a course, and the Environmental Improvement Plans would be the map for getting there.
Big promises need money behind them
The ambitions of the 25 Year Environment Plan are big. To make them a reality, they will require dedicated funding. Until now, a significant proportion of conservation funding has come from the EU’s LIFE and BEST funds, and to date there is no clear commitment on how Defra will replace these.
One potential source of funding is a system of “biodiversity net gain”, requiring developers to assess and compensate for the potential harm to habitats caused by their projects, and provide an overall improvement for biodiversity.
With 70% of land farmed, farms will also be crucial to delivering many vital environmental improvements. While we welcome the Government’s plan to redirect payments towards farming that delivers environmental benefits, there have been no promises on the long-term level of funding.
We think Government needs to set up an independent financial review to assess how much money is needed to deliver environmental outcomes and a plan on how it will bridge the funding gap.
History and nature hand in hand
The National Trust is an organisation that sees the natural and historic environment working hand in hand. Whether it’s climate change or intensification of agricultural practices, nature and heritage often face similar threats. We were pleased therefore to see the recognition given to landscape, beauty and heritage in the 25 Year Environment Plan. The high priority given to people’s enjoyment of the outdoors, and the health and wellbeing benefits they gain from it, was also very welcome.
But we’re concerned that the definition of the natural environment in the draft Environment Bill is much narrower than this and could exclude the historic environment entirely. This is at odds with the draft Agriculture Bill, where the Government has put cultural and natural heritage on an equal footing.
Translating resolutions into environmental reality
In summary, there is a long way to go in 2019 to deliver the Government’s resolution to ‘hand on the environment in a better state’. Plenty of key challenges, including delivering a strong green watchdog, maintained or enhanced environmental legal protections post-Brexit, and funding to back-up green ambitions, must be met to turn resolution into reality.
Matt Williams, Public Policy Officer, National Trust
This blog first appeared on the Wildlife and Countryside Link coalition blog.