Government's 25-Year Environment Plan needs legal underpinning

The Prime Minister’s speech on the environment today has encouraging ambitions for nature in towns and cities, the countryside and our coasts and seas. However, London Wildlife Trust strongly recommends that this needs to be underpinned with a legal framework.

Theresa May’s speech at the London Wetland Centre shows that, at last, a Government is seeing how much the environment means to the people of Britain, not least the young.

Both her speech and the Plan contain some very encouraging words and ambitions for land and sea but London Wildlife Trust – as one of the 47 Wildlife Trusts – believes that the lack of legal underpinning is a fundamental flaw.

In addition, it is vital that the Prime Minister fulfils her intention to ensure there is no weakening of environmental standards as we leave the EU’s world leading environmental legal system.

Sufficient ambition?

We welcome much of the Plan’s ambitions. For example the more overt commitment to protecting and enhancing nature for its intrinsic value, as well as for the economic benefits of managing our natural assets, which have dominated some of the political narrative in recent years.

The Plan’s recognition of the value of people’s contact with the natural world for their well-being is also welcome. Nevertheless, London Wildlife Trust believes this critical element should be so much stronger, and the planned actions – such as tree-planting and school nature grounds – don’t show a high level of ambition or integrated thinking.

Measures greening our urban environments are already taking place in London, Birmingham and other cities. These show the potential for embedding nature in the design and management of where most people live and work. A robust commitment to overcome the barriers that prevent this potential being realised, for example mandatory requirements to deliver high quality green infrastructure in new development, highlight the weaknesses of the Plan.

Mathew Frith, London Wildlife Trust’s Director of Conservation, said: “We welcome the Government’s growing recognition of the value of protecting, conserving and promoting the nature with which we share our lives, in our towns and cities. If the Plan’s proposals are enacted, they could go some way to delivering the health benefits of contact with the natural world to people. But London is under significant pressure from development and we would hope to see a greater commitment to stronger protection for natural assets and mandatory requirements for urban greening in planning policy.

"Quick wins, such as the delivery of a ‘Natural Estates’ programme for existing social housing, could help to address concerns that people with the poorest health live in areas with little or no quality green space. Our experience suggests that such measures can significantly contribute to residents’ well-being and secure benefits for biodiversity in otherwise green deserts.

"These mixed messages are echoed in the proposals affecting the wider countryside."

The Wildlife Trusts’ Senior Policy Manager Ellie Brodie sais: “It’s good news that the Government has committed to bringing in a new environmental land management scheme when we leave the EU. The Wildlife Trusts have been calling for years for a system to be based on rewarding farmers for the public benefits that they provide to society, and we’re delighted that these public benefits will primarily be environmental enhancements. On the other hand, it’s a shame that the commitments on phasing out peat in horticulture are simply a re-statement of those made in 2011 which we’ve seen very little progress on. Waiting until 2020 to see if a halt in the use of peat happens voluntarily on the part of amateur gardeners and professional growers is wishful thinking at best.”

Will it work at a local level?

London Wildlife Trust would also like to see more details of how the design and implementation of this Plan will work at a local level. It will need to be enabled, guided and co-ordinated through local Nature Recovery Plans – or, for example, the Mayor of London’s Environment Strategy - to maximise the benefits. It will need substantial investment from government, business and across society – and it will need legal support, if it is to be successful.

This 25-year plan can only be the start of a process; it is not an endpoint. It doesn’t bind this Government, let alone future administrations, and much of its ambition is undermined by a significant lack of rigour in commitment towards delivery.

In addition, organisations, businesses, communities and individuals will need certainty that the Plan is here to stay for the long-term before making commitments needed to channel the necessary resources – capital and human – toward nature-positive actions, stopping pollution at source, and making supply chains more sustainable.

Details need to be added, gaps filled, resources allocated, and promises underpinned with legislative and regulatory commitments.