Absent without leave

20th April 2017

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Philip Austin Jones

What does the election mean for the stalled 25-year environment plan?

Never has the phrase ‘a week is a long time in politics’ felt as relevant as it does today, so why at a time when a long-term vision is most needed is Defra delaying its 25-year Environment Plan?

The Conservative party set out its aims for the plan in its 2015 manifesto 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 due for release in December. The Environmental Audit Committee stated that it was essential that the government consults on and publishes the plan as soon as possible so it could inform negotiations to leave the EU.

The environment minister has repeatedly stated that the launch will be ‘soon’. However, it was widely reported earlier this month that the plan was delayed and may be published later this year, with some sceptical that it may not be published at all. In addition, journalists and campaign groups that have seen the plan admire the aspiration, but criticise the document for lacking in policies and practical solutions for environmental improvement.

Even before the plan has been published, this already feels like old news, with prime minister Theresa May calling for a general election in June with presumably a new Conservative manifesto. Will the promise of a ‘once in a lifetime’ environment plan be carried through to the next manifesto?

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, with 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 State of Nature report, the UK was described as having lost significantly more nature over the long term than the global average, and was 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.

The plan to provide a long-term view was new and refreshing and would have embedded natural capital approaches, which is a means of accounting for the value of environmental benefits, including protected species and habitats.

The delay and a potentially different manifesto has the potential to damage momentum and investment that has already been gained in embedding natural capital approaches into environmental management. For example, Natural England recently published its conservation strategy for the 21st century that promotes growing our natural capital and creating resilient landscapes and seas for the long term.

At a more tangible local level, the London Assembly published their ‘At Home with Nature’ guide for housebuilders to encourage biodiversity in development projects. One of the assembly’s ambitions is to go some way to reversing the 50% decline in London’s hedgehog population since 2000.

The general feeling among practitioners is that we know what needs to be done. We have environmental economic tools that can help predict social, economic and environmental benefits (or unintended consequences) and the governance is in place (at least until 2020) through the Natural Capital Committee to bridge the gap between the plan and on-the-ground environmental improvement.

Although the plan is not a statute, it would have laid down a marker for environmental protection and helped to guide future statute.

While we await the next twist in this political saga, 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.


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