Yesterday UK Government published the first report on progress made in delivering their 25 Year Environment Plan. The Plan, published in January 2018, sets out how Government intend to achieve their ambition to pass on a healthier environment to the next generation. Today’s report, which you can read in full here, describes how well they’re doing one year on.  Below, I have asked my colleague, Jess Chappell (who leads on our work on the 25 Year Environment Plan) to offer her commentary on progress.

Progress so far

The Government has given themselves high marks in this report, stating that that 90% of priority actions have been delivered or are on track.  Steps have undoubtedly been taken towards improving the environment over the past year, much of which we have celebrated. We’ve had the publication of three draft laws, all of which have huge potential to drive forward real improvements to the natural environment. However, whilst the Fisheries and Agriculture Bills have been laid, they remain stuck in the Parliamentary process, while the Environment Bill remains in draft form. We welcomed a commitment to change how built development treats the natural world by ensuring that developers leave nature in a better shape than before, and last summer we responded to plans for brand new Marine Conservation Zones which, if accepted, will protect an extra 12,000 square kilometres of marine habitat in UK waters.

Colin Wilkinson's image of a nectar mix in field margin, Rectory Farm, Buckinghamshire (rpsb-images.com)

And whereas we don’t question the importance of the above, the real question is how much of this will deliver what is required: urgent and immediate action on the ground.  Our natural world is in crisis, with one in 10 species now at risk of extinction in the UK, and wildlife is declining fast. At the beginning of the month a global assessment of the state of the world’s nature revealed that nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history. The UK is no exception - the latest State of Nature report revealed that we are now one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. MPs have recognised the crisis our natural world is facing, recently voting to declare an environment and climate emergency. But emergencies require urgent and extraordinary action. Consultations and strategies are all well and good, and we’re pleased to see Government asking the right questions. But as species and habitats continue to decline and our climate changes, we need to do more than simply acknowledge the problem. We must now turn the ambitions of the 25 Year Environment Plan into practical actions.

So the recognition in yesterday’s report that we require a “real step change in our ambition for wildlife” is vital. Transformative change is required if we are to tackle the current environmental crisis. But again, we need more than warm words. We need radical action, and we need it now.

A new law for nature

When the 25 Year Environment Plan was first published we were positive about it’s potential to provide a new approach to nature conservation. However, a plan on paper alone is not enough, and last year we welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement of a new Westminster Environment Act, which will ensure that this and future governments are obliged to act for nature’s recovery. You can read more about our response to the draft Bill, including some concerns with the proposals as they stand, here.

To be successful, the Bill must introduce targets to protect and restore habitats and species, and make sure that everyone has access to nature and green space, no matter where they live. It must create a new, independent body to enforce environmental law and hold Government to account, and we are pushing hard to ensure that when the Bill is laid before Parliament later this year, its ambitions are raised. Two parliamentary environment committees have also recently criticised the Government’s plans for the Bill, identifying serious concerns with the weak proposals, which they felt fell “woefully short” of what’s needed to protect the environment if and when we leave the EU. You can see their reports here and here.

Setting a precedent

Transparent and honest reporting of progress is vital. We appreciate that this report is the first of its kind, but it sets a precedent for what these will look like in future years.

At the end of the first year of the 25 Year Environment Plan, Government have been able to mark their own homework and put out the results without critique or debate. We need a process which clearly states whether Government are on track to achieve their ambition to restore nature and improve the environment. This report, although positive in outlining some welcome steps taken so far, fails to do that. We expect future reports to demonstrate clearly not only what action has been taken, but also whether or not there has been any change in the state of the environment as a result. These reports also need to be scrutinised by others – we hope to see them debated in Parliament in future years to ensure that MPs have a chance to voice their views. Likewise, the draft environment Bill requires that the new watchdog provides its own progress report off the back of these annual reports, providing an opportunity for independent critique of the Government’s activities.

Alongside the report, Defra published their set of indicators to show how the environment is changing over time. There are many positive things to say about these indicators, which are in the main progressive and forward thinking, and recognise that measuring progress is key to driving delivery of the 25 Year Plan. We appreciate that many indicators still require further development and look forward to working with Defra as this work progresses.

A new future for nature

Our environment is facing huge challenges and needs urgent action.  But with the right interventions, we still have time to help nature bounce back. The 25 Year Environment Plan and Environment Bill relate to England only, but if the four governments of the UK all take action to address these challenges, working together for a shared vision of a healthy, restored environment, this will provide a concrete demonstration of their commitment to tackling the current nature crisis. In doing so, the UK can act as an international leader as countries from across the world come together in China next year to agree a new global plan for the recovery of nature, for the benefit of both wildlife and people.

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