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 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.