What happened to the UK’s environment plan?

As our politicians ready themselves for a general election with new manifestos for a better future, what does this mean for earlier promises and, in particular, Defra’s delayed 25-year environment plan?

The government set out its aims for the plan in its 2015 Conservative Party manifesto. The stated aim of the plan was to ensure the next generation inherits a better environment than the one we live in today, with cleaner air, water and seas, healthier wildlife, a low carbon economy and greater resource efficiency. The plan was originally due for release in December 2016.

The environmental audit committee stated that it was essential that the government consults on and publishes the plan ‘as soon as possible to inform negotiations to leave the EU’, however no plan appeared.

It was widely reported in the media in April 2017 that the plan may be published later this year. However, some were sceptical would ever be published at all. Some copies of the plan were read by journalists and NGOs who commented on its admirable aspirations, but criticised the document for lacking in policies and practical solutions for environmental improvement.

It was hoped that the plan would go some way to providing environmental protection in a post-Brexit landscape. The government may be missing an opportunity to provide long-term protection to Britain’s wildlife and environment as we transition from European to national regulations.

We are now facing the potential dilution and loss of confidence in the plan, and the danger that the laws on nature and the environment will not be enforced with as much rigour as they should be, potentially endangering nationally important protected sites and species.

In last year’s Natural England State of Nature report, the UK was described as having lost significantly more nature over the long term than the global average, and we are among the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Reports such as this provide evidence for informing the plan and hopefully strengthening domestic regulation through the Brexit process.

What the manifestos say

With a general election called for June 8, the political parties have been formulating manifestos, with the Conservatives being the last of the main parties to publish their promises on May 18. The pledge to be ‘the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it’ remains in the new manifesto, although the 25-year environment plan is now described as a plan to ‘chart how we will improve our environment as we leave the European Union and take control of our environmental legislation again’.

This appears rather short-term, unless charting our way through Brexit really will take 25 years. There is very little of substance or reassurance behind what was originally seen as a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity for environmental improvement. Also, the pledge appears in the manifesto at the end of the promises relating to ‘our countryside communities’, below the future of the Hunting Act and rural post offices. Aside from the demotion from the headline commitment in the 2015 manifesto, it does not appear to leave much hope for our urban environment or better management of our natural capital.

The Conservative Party manifesto also reiterates the intent to enact the Great Repeal Bill, which will automatically transfer European legislation into UK law ‘at the point at which we leave the EU’. The bill will also give powers to “correct the laws that do not operate appropriately”. This may also pass to the devolved administrations.

Of the other party’s manifestos, Labour has pledged to drop the Great Repeal Bill, replacing it with an EU Rights and Protections Bill and an assurance that there is no detrimental change to environmental protection.

However, there is equally a lack of substance or detail behind their term ‘environmental protection’ and absence of a long-term view. The Green Party is pledging a new Environmental Protection Act to safeguard and enhance everybody’s right to a safe environment, as currently guaranteed through our membership of the EU.

The Liberal Democrats appears to have the only manifesto that specifically mentions natural capital, which was at the heart of the 25-year environment plan. The pledge is to ‘pass a Nature Act to put the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) on a statutory footing, set legally binding natural capital targets, including on biodiversity, clean air and water, and empower the NCC to recommend actions to meet these targets’.

Damaging delay

The long-term view promised in the 25-year plan was new and refreshing and would have embedded natural capital approaches, a means of accounting for the value of environmental benefits, including protected species and habitats. It would have laid down a marker for environmental protection and helped to guide future statute.

The delay and a passing mention in the Conservative manifesto could potentially damage momentum and investment that has already been gained in embedding natural capital approaches into environmental management.

It is a concept that is useful for corporates (accounting), and in urban and rural resource management. We have environmental economic tools that can help predict social, economic and environmental benefits (or unintended consequences), and the overnance is in place (at least until 2020) through the Natural Capital Committee to bridge the gap between the plan and practical environmental improvement.

While we await the outcome of the general election, any major landowner or industry that is dependent upon natural resources should be getting to grips with natural capital as a matter of urgency.

Even without the government’s plan, landowners and corporates may soon have to be able to speak the language of natural capital to allow them access to funding, demonstrate their value to the public, reduce impacts and realise efficiencies. It may yet underpin future agricultural stewardship schemes and allow publicly funded bodies to demonstrate their value to government and the public for investment.

Photo by Bs0u10e0

Samantha Deacon

Samantha Deacon

Manager at Ramboll Environ

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