Theresa May’s speech on the environment this week shows that, at last, a Government is seeing how much the environment means to the people of the UK, not least young people.
Both the speech and the plan contain some very encouraging words and ambitions for land and sea but The Wildlife Trusts believe that the lack of legal underpinning is a fundamental flaw. In addition, it is vital that the Prime Minister fulfils her intention to ensure there is no weakening of environmental standards as we leave the EU’s world leading environmental legal system. It is heartening that the Conservative party are saying they are backing nature’s recovery and our reconnection with it. However, we must have cross-party support and legislation if this plan is going to be implemented over the next 25 years: we must guard against a change of mood in a few weeks, months or years if these promises are to become a reality.
The Wildlife Trusts Chief Executive, Stephanie Hilborne OBE, says:
It is clearly ridiculous to rely on political promises and the voluntary principle when it comes to securing a future for our most precious wild places. Equally, we cannot continue to bus children miles across the countryside to have an inspiring experience with nature – it needs to be part of their everyday lives no matter where they live. There must be an ambitious Environment Act in the next Queen’s Speech. Without real Government leadership our wildlife and wild places will continue to decline and with it our mental health as even more people become isolated from the benefits of day to day contact with nature."
It's good to hear that this new plan is, in theory, meant to work across Government departments. In practice though, there is no commitment from the Ministry of Housing that planning permissions will be granted only if there is high quality green infrastructure included, or from the Department of Health to implement green prescribing across the nation. We welcome the commitment to the principle that new development should result in net environmental gain. Our new blueprint for nature-friendly housing, published today, shows how this can be done. The challenge now is implementing this through the planning system, working with local authorities and house builders to integrate wildlife into all new housing developments. Government has a critical role to enable this.
There is evidence from our research with Wildlife Trust volunteers that being close to and active in nature can significantly benefit mental health in as little as 6 weeks. There is a mention of nature: “the Personalised Care Group in NHS England will explore how its own universal model supports people who would benefit from community and environmental programmes.” But this falls far short of a nationwide NHS-led green prescription programme that would have been a great addition to this plan and a way to drive the creation of new natural areas close to where people live.
Protecting, restoring and reconnecting the places that wildlife needs to survive and thrive is crucial. The plan will ensure broader landscapes are transformed by connecting habitats into larger corridors for wildlife, as recommended by Sir John Lawton in his official review. We welcome this support for a Nature Recovery Network, landscape-scale conservation and for nature-friendly farming. We’ve been calling for this for years - but we must ensure that we don’t overlook the areas where most people live. Access to nature and inspiring wildlife experiences should a normal feature of everyday life, especially in towns and cities.
The Wildlife Trusts’ Senior Policy Manager Ellie Brodie says:
“It’s good news that the Government has committed to bringing in a new environmental land management scheme when we leave the EU. The Wildlife Trusts have been calling for years for a system to be based on rewarding farmers for the public benefits that they provide to society, and we’re delighted that these public benefits will primarily be environmental enhancements. On the other hand, it’s a shame that the commitments on phasing out peat in horticulture are simply a re-statement of those made in 2011 which we’ve seen very little progress on. Waiting until 2020 to see if a halt in the use of peat happens voluntarily on the part of amateur gardeners and professional growers is wishful thinking at best.”
It is also good to hear a repeated commitment to designate more Marine Conservation Zones to help our seas and their wildlife recover from past losses. We have the legislation in place to do this, so completing the network in English seas at least should be a key priority for the year ahead. We welcome further crackdowns on plastic pollution but there is still no firm sign of legislation on this or incentives to ensure that industry produces less plastic.
A final thought: The Wildlife Trusts would also have liked to see more about how the plan can be further designed and implemented at a local level - it will need to be enabled, guided and co-ordinated through local Nature Recovery Plans, to maximise the benefits. It will need substantial investment from government, business and across society - and it will need to be given the support of the law.
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