What a busy few weeks it’s been at Westminster!  Amongst all the Brexit to-ing and fro-ing, on Monday 14th, a new Parliamentary Session began, complete with a new Queen’s Speech. The speech is a list of proposed new policy and legislation; basically the Government’s to do list for the year. 

We already know that we’re in the midst of a climate and nature crisis.  As I blogged recently, the State of Nature 2019 report shows that the decline in nature continues unabated.  Time is running out to secure nature’s recovery and it is essential that the Government’s plans are proportionate to this challenge.

The big announcement for nature was the Environment Bill.  We’ve been demanding this new legislation for well over a year, so it’s publication is a significant milestone for the RSPB and the environment sector as a whole. At 232 pages long (and with an extra 210 pages of Explanatory Notes) it is a beast of a Bill and will have significant implications for on-the-ground conservation in England (of which more later).

But, there are several other important Bills and policy proposals affecting England. 

Firstly, the Agriculture Bill, which was reinstated in this Parliamentary session and will set out proposals for rewarding farmers and land managers for delivering public goods, including improved water quality, increased biodiversity and better access to the countryside.  The Agriculture Bill has not yet been laid so we await the detail of this vital Bill

Secondly, the Speech commits to a Devolution White Paper for England which will look to further devolve powers and governance to English regions, facilitate more local decision-taking and shore up local funding for economic growth.  The Government is keen to increase the number of mayors doing devolution deals.  There are already eight metro mayors, each with at least £600million of long-term funding and powers over strategic planning, housing and transport, amongst other things.  We’ll be watching this closely, as we believe these sub-national layers of governance as well as those local Authorities who have declared a climate emergency have a vital role to play in tackling the climate and ecological emergency in England. 

Thirdly, the High Speed 2 (HS2) Bill (West Midlands to Crewe) was announced.  This provides the powers to build and operate the next stage of the HS2 network (Phase 2a).  A review led by Doug Oakervee is considering the benefits and impacts of HS2 overall – we recently responded to this recognising that HS2 is becoming a totemic environmental issue and a test for the new government’s environmental credentials.  It is our view that HS2 is failing to live up to its potential to be a low carbon form of transport and there remain significant and ongoing concerns about its biodiversity impacts, not least its failure to achieve net gain for biodiversity.  Along with our coalition partners we are calling on the Government to reconsider HS2.   

And so, to the Environment Bill.  This sets out proposals that cut-across the environment from waste and resource efficiency, to air quality and water.  It sets out environmental principles and targets that bind future governments to improve the natural environment.   It also establishes a new environmental watchdog (the Office for Environmental Protection) to enforce these targets and take action to reverse environmental declines. All of these foundations are crucial to make this legislation bite.

But the Bill also includes some vital new tools for on-the-ground delivery of nature’s recovery:

  • For development to deliver biodiversity gains, ensuring new houses aren’t built at the expense of nature;
  • For Local Nature Recovery Strategies (LNRSs) covering the whole of England and
  • Measures for local communities to be given a greater say in the protection of local trees.

Biodiversity net gain, if done right, has potential to provide considerable benefits for nature.  However, there are still significant flaws with proposals which must be addressed.  For example, habitat created through net gain would only be maintained for 30 years – not even half a lifetime – after which it could be ploughed up. If the Government is serious about restoring nature and delivering on the ambition in the 25 Year Plan, then new habitats must be created and managed permanently.          

Local Nature Recovery Strategies (LNRSs) are to cover the whole of England, broadly at county-scale.  Each LNRS will have a ‘responsible authority’, to include local authorities, national park authorities or Natural England.  Each LNRS should include biodiversity priorities for the areas (including opportunities and priorities for recovering or enhancing biodiversity) and a local habitat map for the area.  These proposals seem good on the face of it, but there must be a clearer link between LNRSs and the broader national Nature Recovery Network and clarity on exactly how the strategies will apply to the planning system.  We will continue to review proposals in the coming days. 

Obviously, new systems and ways of working also require enough of the right people working in the right places.  Local authorities and Natural England are increasingly stretched and struggling to fulfil existing functions.  Consequently, increased resourcing (skills and capacity) is critical.  Without this there is a real risk that public bodies will fail to deliver these new duties and the declines in nature will continue.       

This blog provides a snapshot of our thoughts post the Queen’s Speech.  Whilst political uncertainty abounds, we will continue to press for the Environment Bill and other proposals to be the best they can be for nature. To read more on the Environment Bill, read RSPB Director of Conservation Martin Harper's blog here. 

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Puffins on Lundy, image Elisabeth Price