On Tuesday Defra Secretary of State George Eustice made one of his most significant speeches for nature policy since the introduction of the Environment Bill. This speech comes at an important moment. Not only is the UK hosting the forthcoming G7 and COP26 meetings, which will be vital in setting the global ambition for climate change, but the value of nature to people has never been clearer.
During the pandemic nature and beauty have been a source of comfort to many, but as our research has shown, not everyone has equal access to these places of calm and escape. With nature facing a critical decline, and rising threat of climate change there is an urgent need for meaningful action for people and nature.
Halting the decline of nature
We have welcomed much of what the Government has announced, and it’s reassuring to hear that the Secretary of State’s ambition is still to be 'world' leading for the environment. We're delighted to hear that a new target to halt the decline of nature by 2030 will be introduced to the Environment Bill. The details of this target will be worked out alongside other long term targets set by the Bill, and done well, with the right funding, and legal framework behind it, it has the potential to be transformative for vital species that desperately need action to prevent further loss.
The Secretary of State also talked about 'refocusing' the Habitats Regulations, which currently form the foundation of much of the environmental regulation in the UK. He is clearly keen to reduce the emphasis on litigation and process in our legal and regulatory structures for the environment, and move to a structure that more clearly ties into targets and duties set out in the Environment Bill to promote active improvements – rather than merely reduce harm.
Driving positive change
It’s right that the Secretary of State wants to ensure that our laws are consistent and work together to drive positive change. However, any changes to such critical and well tested legal infrastructure come with significant risk. Preventing harm from occurring is much easier than repairing it once it has happened. And although he was keen to emphasise that there would be a robust process of consultation around this process – a Review team to be led by Lord Benyon, consultation with the Office of Enviromental Protection (OEP) and conservation sector stakeholders, and a Green Paper later this year – the mechanism for making changes to the Habitats Regulations will be through secondary legislation powers to be given to Minister by the Environment Bill. This will raise concerns that significant changes could be made in future without primary legislation or substantive parliamentary debate and opportunity for amendments. We’ll be watching carefully to see how this develops, particularly in light of the Government’s wider plans to reform the planning system.
Given these changes, it becomes ever more important that the powers and independence of the Office for Environmental Protection is guaranteed, to ensure that legislation is upheld and targets translate to real improvements for key species, and that the environment is protected for people and nature.
Peatland and tree action plans
The long-awaited peatland and tree action plans were also published, and while there was much to like in both, there were also things missing. The peatland action plan promised to ban the sale of horticultural peat for amateur use by the end of the Parliament – a good development, but one that has been promised before. We’ll be looking for the Government to take action to implement this quickly.
Government also promised funding to restore 35,000 hectares of degraded peatlands in England over the next four years and a plan to phase out managed burning on peatlands. Peatlands are one of our greatest weapons in the fight against climate change and provide vital habitat for some of our most threatened plant and animal species, and so this action is crucial, but we’d like to see greater urgency and speed, with targets that extend beyond 2025 to drive complete restoration of upland peat.
The tree action plan showed an acceleration of Government plans, with an aim to treble woodland creation rates by 2024. Particularly encouraging are the plans for at least three new community forests through planting of 6,000 hectares of woodland by 2025, which have potential to have offer great new access to nature and greenspace for people in urban environments. However, we believe that the overall target of 12 per cent woodland cover by 2050 is still too low, compared to the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation of 17 per cent.
The announcements for trees also interact with the Government’s final announcements relating to species introductions, with incentives to encourage habitat regeneration along 'nature corridors' through tree planting along rivers. This will help support future reintroductions of beavers, which the National Trust has helped pioneer, for example through our work at Holnicote. A consultation on further beaver reintroductions is promised, and the Government also plans to set up a new taskforce to look at species such as wildcat, and a code of practice for species reintroductions. This is all to be welcomed to help bring back and assist some of our most iconic and charismatic lost and struggling species.
Delivering for nature
Altogether this was an important speech, and it’s really encouraging to see the Government back substantive changes for nature. However, we still see gaps that needs bridging between the Government’s ambition and the long-term action, funding and policy needed to deliver in practice. These policies need to work alongside and integrate with the Government's wider plans and ambitions for environmental land management, net zero, and levelling up towns and cities. This will be important to ensure that Government can not only deliver for nature, but take advantage of the scale of opportunity that exists. Investing in nature can not only to help reverse its decline, but create jobs and help grow the economy, enhance our physical and mental wellbeing, and play a major role in capturing and storing away carbon to help the UK meet its net zero goal.