If, like me, you believe that politics can change things for the better, then the first environment speech from a Prime Minister in a generation is not immaterial.  It is a sign of personal commitment and that matters when there is 24/7 scrutiny of government performance.

So I was delighted to be able to listen the Prime Minister’s speech at the London Wetlands Centre today.  This accompanied the publication of the much anticipated 25 year environment plan – a manifesto commitment from both the 2015 and 2017 elections.

I welcomed the ambition, tone and also some of the proposals that have survived the tough conversations that have clearly taken place across government. 

Landscape scale conservation in action at RSPB Dearne Valley - Old Moor (David Wootton, rspb-images.com)

On first reading the document, there are lots of things to applaud…

…the restatement of ambition to restore nature in a generation

…the proposal to create a nature recovery network delivering 500,000 hectares of new habitat

…a commitment to deliver a net gain in habitat coverage as a result of development

…a commitment to review and refresh our biodiversity targets following the 2020 global meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity

…reconfirmation that all EU environment law will be retained

…a clear statement of intent to sustain international leadership role to deal with global climate and biodiversity challenges

…a commitment to report annually on progress

There are some things, however, for which we shall have to wait or continue to fight for…

…more specific metrics of success to judge progress

…new institutional arrangements to report on progress and hold governments account

…environmental principles to underpin this action

All of these will be subject to consultation.  I don’t mind this too much – while frustrating that these issues have not yet been resolved, it makes sense to try to get these right and secure cross-government buy in.

However, the one thing that I think it notable by its absence is a commitment to translate ambition into law.  The only way to ensure that the ambition in the plan is met and momentum sustained, is by establishing a new Environment Act essentially to do for the restoration of nature what the Climate Change Act has done for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  This applies as much to site protection as it does to preventing species such as turtle dove and willow tit being lost from the UK in our lifetime.

While we may believe the statements of politicians today, legislation provides security to deal with any political volatility which may arise in the future.  And besides, within the plan there is a very clear reminder of why voluntary targets just don’t work – we have yet another target to end the use of peat in horticulture, this time by 2020.  This, I think is the third such voluntary target in 20 years but they have clearly failed: recent monitoring suggests 56% of all growing media still contains peat!

Over the next few days, we shall do further analysis of what’s in and what’s not.  But for now, my final thoughts are with the civil servants within Defra who have worked so hard in getting the plan to this point.  While Michael Gove rightly gets many of the plaudits for driving this agenda forward, he is supported by a committed and extremely able team.  These are the hidden heroes who have sacrificed evenings, weekends and even Christmas holidays to establish a new framework for environmental protection. 

I hope they can take a brief moment to recover, but not for too long, because the hard work starts now – turning the words into lasting and tangible action for nature.

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