Yesterdays's announcement from the Prime Minister that the UK will aim to protect 30 per cent of land for nature by 2030, including 4,000 km2 of new land for nature in England, is a welcome pick-me-up for those who care about nature, especially after recent reports on the UK missing most of its biodiversity targets and the state of its waterways.
If delivered properly, this could provide a huge boon to our ailing biodiversity. It is also encouraging to hear the Prime Minister’s plans to work with the devolved governments to deliver a UK-wide approach. Nature, and the ecosystems it relies on, span the UK’s internal boundaries, and England needs to deliver its fair share in collaboration with the other nations.
This announcement is not only a positive signal of the Prime Minister’s environmental ambitions, but also a sign that the UK is gearing up to play an important role in two major UN environmental summits next year: a biodiversity conference in China and the climate change summit that the UK will host. It sends a strong message to other countries that 2021 must be a year of high environmental ambition. The UK’s spearheading of the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, signed by more than 60 countries at the ongoing UN General Assembly, shows that the UK wants to bolster its international environmental credibility ahead of 2021. This international credibility will stand or fall on whether such promises and pledges are delivered on back at home.
But drawing lines on a map can only get you so far. The UK’s existing “jewels in the crown” for biodiversity, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), cover around 8 per cent of England and 12 per cent of Wales, but less than half of them are in favourable condition. Research by Greenpeace suggests that a large proportion of them may not be regularly monitored either. As the Prime Minister says, “extinction is forever”; SSSIs contain some extremely rare and specialized species of plants and wildlife, and the ongoing poor condition of many of these sites puts them at risk of being lost from those sites, or even the UK, for good.
The Government currently counts the land within Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) and National Parks towards its ’protected areas’ contribution (and it looks like it plans to do the same for the new 4000 km2 of land). They make up 24.5 per cent of land in England, and therefore boost the UK’s protected area contribution quite significantly, but in many cases they are in a poor condition for nature. Less than half (38 per cent) of SSSIs in England are in favourable condition but this drops to 32 per cent for SSSIs in National Parks.
What all this shows is that putting a fence around an area and declaring that it is for nature is a great start, but is not enough. The Prime Minister says we must act ‘right now’, and we agree – including by publishing the Government’s response to the Glover Review on protected landscapes. If AONBs and National Parks are to make a significant contribution to the UK’s protected areas for nature, then there needs to be a step-change in their management and the investment in them (for both existing and any new or extended sites).
For the Prime Minister’s pledge to succeed there are some key tests it will need to meet:
- Protection must be followed by management and actions to restore and protect nature: protecting a new area must be followed by a sufficient investment in the tools, capital and personnel to manage and intervene in an area to restore or protect the habitats and biodiversity there. Otherwise, it risks becoming a ‘paper park’ that is protected on a map but not in the real world.
- There must be a step-change in the way we manage protected landscapes: if AONBs and National Parks are to truly deliver for biodiversity (at the moment many of them do not) then there must be a transformation in the way they are managed. National Parks and AONBs need a new purpose that places a higher priority on restoring nature. Delivery of this can come in part through a new “public money for public goods” agricultural system for the farmers who work the land within them (63 per cent of England’s National Parks are farmed commercially), particularly a well-funded Tier 3 which will support landscape and catchment-scale interventions. It will also need to come through increased funding for the Boards of National Parks and AONBs to increase their staff and management capacity - many of them have faced prohibitive financial shortfalls.
- The new planning system needs to support the restoration of nature: changes to the planning system must not put existing sites for nature at risk (for example the loss of important space for nature if planning procedures are eased in the proposed Growth or Renewal zones) and must also allow space for nature to grow, rather than preserving in aspic the existing boundaries of nature sites that we have today. The planning system should fully integrate the principles from Sir John Lawton’s 2010 paper -bigger, better, more and joined spaces for nature.
- A strong legal framework is needed to protect our natural environment: the current, and future, governments need to be brought to book if they fail to monitor or protect designated sites in compliance with the law. A strong new environmental legal framework will be needed, including a robust and independent environmental watchdog. Legally binding targets can also help to achieve the Prime Minister’s goal, and should be set for habitat extent, condition and connectivity. The Environment Bill needs to be brought back to Parliament and passed as soon as possible.
So, a very welcome move by the Prime Minister which could form a major contribution to the Westminster Government’s plans to leave a strong environmental legacy. But to have that vital long-lasting impact for nature recovery we believe that this commitment must be backed up by action on the areas we’ve outlined above.