The Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan published today

Stephanie Hilborne, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts, comments on the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan which is published today

The 25 year environment plan is published today and demonstrates how - when a Minister is committed and you have bright civil servants - you can capture an enormous topic and many of the key issues and challenges in one place. Some impressive general ambitions are expressed very eloquently in the plan and it makes the important connection between the environment and human health.

But environmentalists have not gained a reputation for being cynical for no reason. The reality is that, with a few notable exceptions, short term needs have almost always trumped the needs of future generations: politics works in short term cycles. History has taught us that nothing good will happen for nature or the environment without primary legislation that has full cross-party support. This was as true for the Marine Act 2009 as for the Climate Change Act 2008. Making primary legislation that holds future governments to account is absolutely essential. 

There must be an ambitious Environment Act in the next session of Parliament or all this is simply the Government saying what the voluntary sector has been saying for a long time. It needs to Act.

By all accounts Gove is trying to secure commitment to an Environment Act in the next Queen’s speech and we need to help to secure this as there is not yet full government support. And this must be an ambitious Act that sets us on the path to nature’s recovery.

Today’s speech by the Prime Minister shows that, at last, a Government is seeing how much the environment means to people, not least young people. There are fantastic words and ambitions for land and sea that raise the spirits - but the lack of legal underpinning is a fundamental flaw. What is point of gently urging the horticulture sector to phase out the use of peat when for decades it has been plundering the beautiful moors and mosses of the UK and now of Eastern Europe? What hope can we draw from a promise to return wildlife to our land when there could be a change of mood in a few weeks or months’ time? There must be an ambitious Environment Act in the next Queen's Speech or all this is simply the Government saying what the voluntary sector has been saying for a long time. It needs to act.

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. A Nature Recovery Network is certainly essential but it must be in law, and work across urban and rural areas.

Unless more Government leadership is shown, our wildlife 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.

Finally this is an English document. The impact of a Brexit vote on the unity of the four nations is fundamental. The devolution settlements were made in the context of the EU’s uniting force. There are clearly deep political tensions over this. However, the environment knows no boundaries. And it is essential that much greater dialogue starts between our nations to establish UK environmental principles and scrutiny – even if the delivery is mostly devolved – if we are in any way to replicate the benefits of the EU’s world leading environmental legal system.