DWT response to Government's 25-year plan for the environment

Teigngrace Meadow. Photo, Andrew Taylor

After long delays the government's 25-year plan to improve the natural environment was launched today. Some of its content is welcome, but we will need an Environment Act to ensure aspirations are backed up by law.

The government’s long awaited 25 year plan to improve the environment has arrived. Entitled A Green Future, it is bold, wide ranging and long term in its thinking. Its scope is the land, the seas around us and the sky above us. It considers the UK, its overseas territories and the international community, and the subjects covered range from saving rare species to improving health and well-being. The very fact that the long-delayed plan has been produced at all is a considerable achievement, and should give us hope.

Much to be welcomed

There is much to be welcomed in the content of the plan too. It establishes or confirms some important principles, such as Environmental Net Gain in built development. There are some interesting ideas, such as the revolving land bank in rural areas. And the commitment to restore 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich landscape outside legally protected areas is one of a handful of hard targets that we can hold the government to.

White-beaked dolphin

White-beaked dolphin. Photo, Caroline Weir

Weaknesses in the plan

But the plan has its weaknesses. Some of the targets are very distant. Why do we need to wait until 2050 for an end to avoidable waste, or 2042 for avoidable plastics? We have ample evidence of the eye-watering scale of the problem now, and the damage that could occur in the coming three decades hardly bears thinking about. Some difficult decisions have been side-stepped with phrases such as “explore” or “consult on”.

More could have been said on the role of natural flood management: such a key issue in the South West and one where the region has played a leading role, including through Devon Wildlife Trust’s restoration of Culm grassland in north Devon. And there could have been more on the reintroduction of formerly native species such as the Eurasian beaver, building on the DWT-led River Otter Beaver Trial, in east Devon.

Devon River Otter Beaver scratching it's chin

Mike Symes

Our greatest concern

Of greatest concern is the little space given to explaining how these laudable ambitions will be delivered in practice, with few hard targets or policies set out in any detail. That’s why The Wildlife Trusts are calling for an Environment Act, to ensure that the aspirations in this plan are backed up by law. This is particularly important in the light of our departure from the European Union, as 70% of our existing environmental laws are tied up with the EU. An ambitious new Environment Act, coupled with some funding mechanisms to help delivery, really could position UK to be a leader in environmental protection. Without it, that seems a pretty unlikely prospect.

In its defence, the government could point to the commitment to consult on how the plan will be implemented over the coming year, the strong hint towards the creation of an independent body to hold the government to account, and the existence of metrics against which progress can be measured – sketchy though they are in the published plan. All these are welcome as far as they go, and should give us some cause for optimism that the government is simply wanting our input on the detail rather than avoiding the difficult decisions.

A huge step forward

We should be in no doubt, this is a huge step forward. But if we want the 25 year plan to improve the environment to be worthy of its title, all of us who care about the future of our natural environment need to play an active and constructive role in the consultations, let the government know that we are taking this seriously, and hold them to their promises.