England nature plan 'lacking policies'

Seven sisters

A draft 25-year government plan sets out a bold vision for nature in England, but campaigners say it lacks policies.

The strategy aims to ensure England's environment is healthy and that it is a beautiful place to live, work and bring up a family.

It aims to bring back birds to a countryside depleted under EU agricultural policy.

BBC News has obtained the latest version of the document.

Its release has been delayed several times, but a government spokesman told BBC News that it was committed to delivering the strategy “in due course”.

The plan has its genesis in the Conservatives’ 2015 manifesto. It promised the first government to leave the natural environment in a better state than they found it.

The policy to support that pledge was first expected last summer. Just after Christmas a source told BBC News the document had been agreed by the prime minister and was ready to be published.

Now talk is of perhaps publishing in the summer or the autumn. Some rumours suggest it won’t be published at all.

The host department Defra has faced radical staffing cuts, and is now recruiting extra bodies to deal with the impact of Brexit on farm policy.

Defra is also struggling with a separate but related 25-Year Plan for Farming.

Grand promises?

Environmentalists who have seen the draft Nature plan, meanwhile, say it is full of good thinking on the framework for environmental management - but lacking in practical solutions.

The chapter on woodlands, for instance offers the counter-intuitive conclusion that it’s better to plant woods near cities than in the uplands.

But the document then places responsibility for acting on that insight on to landowners rather than ministers.

The report says: “Determining woodland planting locations using only timber values and foregone agricultural production suggests that new woodlands ought to be planted on the least productive agricultural land – mainly in the uplands. This policy gives £66m per year benefit.

“However considering carbon and recreational benefits, the highest values are closer to where people work and live. This gives £546m per year."

The conclusion to this research finding is: “Such analysis provides landowners with better information to inform their decisions."

The Woodland Trust is baffled; their conservation director Austin Brady told BBC News: “This analysis should be providing better information for the government – not for landowners!”

One clue to the absence of forest policy was given by NFU vice-president Guy Smith, who told Radio 4's Today programme that farmers would strongly resist widespread forestation of agricultural land because it would lead to more food imports, which would result in loss of forests abroad.

ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton told BBC News: “To protect nature, we need targets, investment and accountability, not grand promises with zero detail.

“We have been waiting for the 25-year plan for over a year. This version is 46 pages of empty words, and now it seems the final plan might not even be published. This is not good enough.

“The government must uphold strong and effective laws to protect the environment. This is especially important as the UK is leaving the EU, so the laws and funding that we have depended on to protect nature for many years are under threat.”

Pledges in the draft 25-year document

  • Our water will be cleaner and healthier
  • Our plants and wildlife will be healthier and our habitats better managed
  • Our air will be of better quality
  • Our seas will be cleaner
  • Our country will use resources more efficiently
  • Our country will develop a low carbon economy

Green groups are especially frustrated because in many ways the document appears to have accepted many of their ideas for making the most of nature.

It embraces the notion that environmental policies can’t be made in a vacuum, talking of joined-up policy on flood prevention, water abstraction, irrigation, wildlife, and soil conservation.

Importantly, the paper aspires to incorporate evidence on the value of Nature into the Treasury’s advisory “green book”, so the environment into all government decisions.

It also agrees that children should have more contact with the natural world, and supports the £1.5m pocket parks fund to introduce tiny local parks. Yet it doesn’t acknowledge the funding shortfall which is causing many local councils to abandon maintenance in parks.

Soil 'crisis'

The plan recognises the crisis in soil, as more and more of it is blown or washed away every year. And it accepts the need to tackle pollution to the air and water from fertilisers – though it isn’t clear how either will be done.

There are many references to the policy opportunities offered by Brexit, which will allow the UK to make its own rules on waste and resources.

And the general tone suggests that ministers will want to simplify environmental rules and prioritise carrots over sticks for businesses that break laws.

But Trevor Hutchings from the green group WWF told BBC News: “It is logical for the 25-Year Plan to come out before the Great Repeal Bill so that it’s clear what needs to be achieved and how, including where new legislation is required.

“There is a danger that Brexit is seizing-up Whitehall - yet the Plan is largely written. So it should be published."

A Defra spokesman said: “We are still committed to publishing the plan and have been engaging on issues with key stakeholders with a view to publishing in due course.”

Defra added: "Our ambition is to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it, and we are committed to publishing a long-term plan that builds on our long history of wildlife and environmental protection, and sets out a new approach to managing the environment.

"We're working closely with a range of environmental and conservation groups and businesses to develop proposals."

Its document does mention one asset that’s available to people already – the fledgling website at Exeter University called ORVal, developed to shows people how they can access green space round the country.

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