I’ve been stuck indoors today, struck down by flu yesterday. There are a lot of things going around at the moment, and I was being optimistic and hoping that I wouldn’t catch anything this winter. Oh well! Hopefully I’m now over the worst of it but you never really can tell with these things. It has however meant that I’ve had the time to read my way through the UK government’s latest gift to the world: the long-awaited 25 Year Environment Plan, available to download in full by clicking here. At 151 pages you need some time (and several cups of tea) if you want to read the whole thing. It probably didn’t need to be this long, but it’s worth persisting with it (most of it at any rate) if you want to get to grips with Defra’s ambitions.
The general reaction has been moderately positive, although numerous individuals and organisations have stated that the plan is wishy washy, generally lacking direction for how it will be backed up legally and ignores many issues such as fracking and the destruction of ancient woodland as a result of HS2. Campaigners such as Tisha Brown were disappointed at the pace of reform that the government is suggesting. We are talking fairly long time periods after all. True, the environment works on large timescales, but we have also seen that we can have a huge impact on the natural world in relatively small time periods. We need to get moving.
Notable targets in the plan include eliminating all ‘avoidable’ waste by 2050 and all ‘avoidable plastic waste’ by the end of 2042. Noble targets but it is true that this is a long way away, similar to the target of banning new diesel and petrol cars by 2040. The problems the world faces are massive and growing and many think that action needs to be faster and more radical.
Despite this, I think there is a lot in this report to be praised and I, like Adrian Colston, am simply glad it has been published in the first place. It feels as if we are turning a corner when it comes to the environment being a mainstream subject which has widespread public appeal and this must surely be a good thing.
I want to avoid focusing too much on ‘litter’, as Miles King commented on twitter earlier today…
…but it must be said that plastic pollution and how to curb it was one of the flagship subjects of the plan. Evidently Blue Planet 2 has had an impact on the civil servants at Smith Square and on the Prime Minister. One good news story (for the short term) is that smaller shops will no longer be exempt from the 5p plastic bag charge. This is surely a good thing. It should have happened in the first place but better late than never. The government also wants to ‘work with supermarkets’ to encourage plastic free aisles, something that I would applaud, but again there was nothing in terms of legal clout to enforce this. How it will happen we’re not entirely sure. We want to see an end to plastic wrapped bananas and swedes, and the supermarkets aren’t going to change overnight. The change required is enormous but it needs to happen sooner rather than later. I long for the day when I walk along the beach on our farm and don’t pick up a single piece of litter, but that is perhaps overly hopeful.
A new environmental watchdog
Currently governments can be held to account through that little thing called the EU when it comes to the environment but Brexit will change all this. It is vital that a body with similar powers is brought in to force post-Brexit, and the report suggests this will happen although it doesn’t mention it explicitly, other than the government will ‘consult’ on plans for such a statutory body.
More, Bigger, Better, Joined
The report also suggested that 500,000 hectares of extra habitat will be created post-Brexit, based on Sir John Lawton’s report calling for areas that are ‘joined up, bigger and better than those we currently have (and we need more of them)’. This includes a somewhat controversial ‘Great Northern Forest’ which would span the country along the M62. James Common has outlined why this project might not be as ‘green’ as some might like to think. There was a lot of talk of tree planting in the plan, something that Patrick Barkham has been sceptical about. Nonetheless, the aspiration in terms of overall habitat creation is a positive one. How it works in line with future agricultural policy, the planning system and growth in housing is yet to be understood.
A third round of marine conservation zones will be established by July 2019 according to the report (another better late than never moment), but it’s vital that these can be enforced. Further, whilst a vision for sustainable fishing is outlined in reality this, like so much of this plan, depends on the outcome of the negotiations with the European Union.
I would have liked the plan to go further in terms of education and encouraging young people to learn about the environment. It is mentioned, and some money will be available but it doesn’t go nearly far enough in terms of aspirations. I was also disappointed when it came to coastal defence strategy. This was not really the time for detail on this subject I’ll admit but it was very vague and the term ‘natural processes’ cropped up yet again, which when you drill down to it doesn’t really mean anything at all. For people living on or by the coast in areas that are likely to suffer extreme erosion in the coming years there was little for which to be optimistic.
Positively, there were outlines for actions in overseas territories, lengthy discussions about water quality, a suggestion that we need to learn far more about the state of our soils, inferences of money being available for projects such as the Great Fen Project and the statement that planning should involve mandatory outlines for how developments will achieve ‘environmental net gain’. I remain opposed to biodiversity offsetting, which this idea alludes to, but if development is going to take place regardless I suppose it must be a positive thing. There was also a nod to delivering mental health services through nature therapy, surely a positive step.
I cannot outline every little thing that was in the report, for there was a lot, and you will have to take a look yourself if you want more detail. In conclusion I would say that this is a largely positive vision for post-Brexit Britain and it is clear that Michael Gove’s presence in Defra has kicked the plan into form. The challenge will be how to implement all of this as Defra’s budget is inevitably cut, cut and cut again? There is also a need for outlining how these policy ideas are going to be backed legally and how exactly government will work with others to implement it.
All in all, the Environment Plan is a positive thing to have been published, but it faces severe challenges in the light of Brexit, austerity and future changing faces at Defra.