8.The Government’s stated ambition in the Plan is to leave the natural environment in a better state than it found it.12 This arises from its manifesto commitment to “be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it.”13 The Plan sets out ten aims, ranging from achieving clean and plentiful water to enhancing biosecurity.14 It stresses its use of “a natural capital approach” to support longer-term decision making and sets out a series of targets in respect of each of the ten aims.15
9.The evidence we received was enthusiastic about the overall level of ambition shown in the Plan. Witnesses drew attention to two aspects they especially welcomed:
10.However, developments since then - particularly the consultation on governance after leaving the European Union - have been met with a sense of disappointment. When initially announced in the Plan this was warmly welcomed; however, once the details emerged many were concerned that the proposals do not meet the stated ambitions of the Government to establish a ‘world leading’ body.18 The Chartered Institution of Ecology and Environmental Management indicated that the proposals have not brought confidence to the sector:
At a time of huge uncertainty, a powerful expression of the conviction of the UK Government to protecting the environment would go a long way in reassuring stakeholders. The lack of conviction within these proposals is disappointing and is also contrary to the Prime Minister’s stated aspiration for “a new, world-leading, independent, statutory body to hold government to account and give the environment a voice”.19
11.The work of our predecessor Committee showed how membership of the European Union has played the determining role in shaping our environmental policy for much of the last 50 years.20 Many witnesses agreed with Ruth Davis MBE, Deputy Director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) that when evaluating the Plan:
the starting point has to be absolutely not going backwards. We have to have a complete line of sight between the things that were put in place during our membership of the European Union, which have made a considerable contribution towards at least stopping the rot around the natural world and biodiversity, and indeed our natural resources, and that is not present in the plan as it currently stands. There is no absolute line of sight between the transfer of European law into our system and how that will operate in future. That line of sight is vital, including replacing the existing governance systems with things that work.21
12.The Secretary of State, citing the Prime Minister, told us:
… there would be no dilution of the environmental protections that we currently have within the European Union. Indeed, it would be our aim to set out to show that we could have higher levels of protection and that is settled Government policy.22
13.Whilst the ambition of the Plan was widely welcomed, witnesses did not think it constituted a plan for delivery. As Ruth Davis put it, “The level of ambition is absolutely appropriate to the nature of the crisis [in biodiversity] we are facing. You then have to ask the question, “How do we get from the ambition to where we need to be?”23
14.The Plan itself acknowledges that much of the work of delivery will be carried out through further consultation and strategies. The Plan is accompanied by a table setting out existing and proposed Government strategies on the environment. The Secretary of State acknowledged that there was a lot of work still to do to produce a programme for delivery.24 Some witnesses believe this time is needed to get the details of the Plan right.25 Others saw it as a fundamental failing, given the time elapsed since the original pledge in 2015.26 We wrote to the Government identifying around 30 commitments to further work in the Plan and asking for timescales. The Secretary of State responded that the consultation commitments in the Plan will be carried out “over the coming year”.27
15.One point which most of our witnesses were agreed on was the need for primary legislation to embed the Plan’s objectives and delivery mechanisms into law. Our predecessor Committee identified the need for an Environmental Protection Act in its 2016 report on The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum.28 They recommended that the Government should commit to such an Act before triggering the Article 50 process for leaving the European Union. The Secretary of State told us he would “hope, but of course it is subject to the agreement of my Cabinet colleagues, that we would bring forward an Environment Act […] by 2020”.29 This would cover issues such as a deposit return scheme on plastic bottles. The Government has now committed to publishing a draft bill on environmental governance in the autumn, following the Consultation set out above, again intending to introduce legislation early in the next Session of Parliament.
16.The 25 Year Plan for the Environment sets out a necessary and welcome cross-government ambition to move from environmental protection to environmental recovery. However, the ambition to “leave the natural environment in a better state than we found it” has been stated Government policy since the 2015 General Election. We are therefore concerned that delivery is, for the most part, still being expressed in terms of further consultations and long-term aspirational targets without supporting delivery plans. For the Government’s ambition to achieve credibility it needs to move rapidly from promises and consultations to specific actions and legislation.
17.We believe the Government should put the Plan on a statutory basis. This would set a long-term direction across the whole of Government. This report sets out some of the key elements that, in our view, should be included in that legislation.
18.The Plan must not be an excuse for delaying Government action. Many environmental issues pose immediate threats which require urgent action. For example, the Government has been taken to court three times for breaching air quality limits. More short-term, targeted action is required to tackle air pollution now, and not just within 25 years.
12 25 Year Plan, p.2
13 Conservative Party, Forward, Together: Our Plan for a Stronger Britain and a Prosperous Future, Conservative and Unionist Party, 2017, p 26
14 25 Year Plan p 10
15 25 Year Plan p 16; HM Government, At a Glance: Summary of Targets in our 25 Environment Plan
18 Q2 EGI [Ruth Davis]; Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (EGI0008); Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (EGI0019); ClientEarth (EGI0013); Greener UK (EGI0028)
20 Environmental Audit Committee, The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum, Sixth Report of Session 2016–17, HC 599 [henceforth The Future of the Natural Environment]; Environmental Audit Committee, EU and UK Environmental Policy, Third Report of Session 2015–16, (HC 537)
25 Q9; Country Land & Business Association (CLA) (ENP0008); Energy UK (ENP0066); National Farmers’ Union (ENP0096)
26 E.g. Association of Local Environmental Records Centres (ENP0083); Campaign to Protect Rural England (ENP0048); Wildlife and Countryside Link (ENP0087); Living Law (ENP0079); Friends of the Earth England Wales and Northern Ireland (ENP0068)
28 The Future of the Natural Environment
Published: 24 July 2018