What do we want?

Marbled white butterfly. Photo, Chris Root

As Government publishes its draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill, Harry Barton sets out a vision for what must be done to secure a brighter future for our precious natural world
Great Staple Tor silhouette

Great Staple Tor silhouette. Photo, Ross Hoddinott/2020VISION

What is the best thing about Devon?  For one of the most beautiful counties in England, that’s a pretty hard question to answer.  Perhaps it’s our 500 mile long coast with its beaches, headlands and cliffs.  Maybe Dartmoor, with its wild tors, bogs and oak forests.  Or one of our nine river systems, which plunge dramatically from the remote uplands to our many stunning estuaries.   

There’s no question that Devon is a special place for wildlife.  But it could be a lot better.  Less than a third of our best wildlife sites are in favourable condition, less than one fifth of our rivers are in a good ecological state, and farmland birds continue to be lost across the county.  At sea the situation is no different.  The plastic plague is now well known, but the less visible and even more insidious problems of warming, acidification and over exploitation have wreaked just as much damage.  

Anyone looking at this would say that we have not done a good enough job of looking after what we’ve got, let alone succeeding in improving it.
It’s time to turn things around.  The good news is that we have a once in a generation opportunity to do this.  Earlier this year the government published a 25 year plan for the environment.  It was full of great ambition, such banning single use plastics, increasing our woodland cover to 12% and creating half a million hectares of wildlife rich space.  What we didn’t know at the time is how the government planned to make all this happen.  

Well, now we do.  Over the summer our Prime Minister promised to create a new Environment Act. Public consultation on the first draft of this is launched today – Wednesday 19 December 2018.  We’re expecting another consultation on the full document in the coming spring, but this first draft focuses on the all-important questions of environmental principles and governance – how will laws apply post Brexit, and who will be responsible for making sure they are applied effectively.  This may not make you leap in the air with wild excitement, but you only have to look at the state of our wildlife to see just how important it is to get these fundamentals right. 
 

We need a robust, independent and properly funded watchdog that can hold the government to account for its actions in relation to the environment
Harry Barton
CEO Devon Wildlife Trust
Brown hare looking through flowers

Our wildlife needs action to reverse decades of loss and decline. Photo, brown hare, David Tipling

What do we want?

What do we want from this Bill?  Simply, we want all the principles that have applied to environmental laws in recent decades – the polluter pays, the right to participation in environmental decision making and the principle of taking preventative action to avert environmental damage among them – to continue to apply.  We want to see a “non-regression” principle, which means that environmental protections can’t be rolled back by future governments.  And we need a robust, independent and properly funded watchdog that can hold the government to account for its actions in relation to the environment.  Without this, there is no guarantee that the things we love in Devon will be safe.  None of us has the luxury of flouting Health & Safety law just because it is cheap or convenient to do so.  Why should the situation with our natural environment be any different?

And what powers should this new watchdog have?  It needs to be able to investigate how well environmental laws are being followed.  It should have the power to launch legal action against the government and even press for it to be fined if laws aren’t followed.  Proceeds should go towards environmental protection.  These powers should extend to statutory agencies and local authorities as well as central government.  And to be truly successful, the government must recognise that it needs to accept the authority of the new watchdog, even if it doesn’t like the decisions it takes.

This may sound like common sense, but none of it is guaranteed.  Powerful vested interests are doing all they can to draw the new law’s teeth and limit its scope.  How convenient that would be for those wishing to avoid taking difficult decisions or who want to make a quick profit without paying heed to the consequences.  But what a betrayal that would be for Devon, its natural environment that makes it such a special place, and those who care for it.  

That’s why we mustn’t let that happen.  We want a strong, ambitious law that puts bringing nature back at its core.  Fine words aren’t good enough.  Simply transposing the laws that applied when we were in the EU isn’t good enough.  World leading law is the only thing that’s good enough, because without that nature will at best stay still, and more likely continue to decline.

We can all play a part

This is a time when we all need to be standing up for our natural environment in Devon.  You can help by writing to your MP and your local councillor and telling them how important you think it is to have robust new laws.  And please encourage your friends to do the same.  The biggest threat to wildlife is arguably the silence of those who care but don’t speak up.  So let’s shout together!