Britain’s beautiful natural environment and heritage has provided inspiration, enjoyment and work throughout our history. But the pressures of economic growth, changing weather patterns, and our use of natural resources put a constant strain on nature and wildlife. The Natural Environment White Paper, published this week, was heralded by the Tory-led government as a landmark moment for our natural world. Here was the government’s chance to set how it will protect and restore our habitats and biodiversity. Sadly, the paper’s lukewarm reception from environmental charities and conservation groups reveals that beneath the eco-hype it was long on words (it contains no fewer than 92 commitments), but rather lighter on actions.
The government has a plan for cuts, but no plan for the environment. Their record so far is bleak: a breathtaking attempt to sell-off England’s forests, attempts (now abandoned) to get rid of National Nature Reserves and a 27% cut to flood defence investment leaving people uncertain about whether they will be insured in future. Up to a quarter of Defra’s 30,000 staff will lose their jobs in the next 4 years as its budget shrinks from £3.1 billion to £2.4 billion. These are the frontline staff of the national parks, Natural England and Forestry Commission who care for our environment. In that context, the White Paper’s much trumpeted £7.5 million fund for 12 new Nature Improvement Areas (over the next 4 years) is a bagatelle.
Ministers talk about protecting the environment but do the opposite. The White Paper is silent on the government’s ‘Red Tape Challenge’, currently merrily consulting on whether we need regulatory burdens as the Clean Air Act, the Climate Change Act or the Zoo Licensing Act. There is no detail on how it relates to planning and George Osborne’s budget announcement that the government wants a presumption in favour of sustainable development. Which begs the question sustainable for whom?
The National Ecosystem Assessment, published in May, estimated that nature was worth £30 billion to the UK each year in health, welfare and economic benefits. The NEA, commissioned by Hilary Benn in government, provides the evidence base as to how we value the natural environment.
More recycling and waste processing businesses and exporting our agricultural scientific research to other countries would help create the private sector jobs the economy so badly needs. Yet this requires stewardship by government and, where money is tight, a regulatory framework that gives businesses the confidence to invest. Yet Defra is hamstrung by the “one in one out” rule on regulation and an ideological approach which is against regulation. The Waste Review to be published on 14th June will be another key test of the government’s green credentials.
The forest sell-off fiasco showed that the Tories still cannot be trusted with the environment. Despite a u-turn on a wholesale sell-off, the Treasury still intends to raise £100 million from selling England’s forests over the next four years, the largest sell-off for a generation. This is exactly the same policy that the Tories had when last in government when they sold off 190,000 hectares of public forest – a policy stopped by Labour in 1997.
Labour has a good record on protecting our natural environment, and opening it up for the public to enjoy. The Attlee Government legislated for our first national parks, nature reserves and Sites of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI). The last Labour government created two more national parks in the New Forest and South Downs. We established the right to roam, and gave better protection to wildlife, through the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (2000), and coastal areas through the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2010). When it comes to government, actions speak louder than words.
The challenges of protecting our natural environment and dealing with a changing climate are immense. The Natural Environment White Paper is long on rhetoric yet short on action.
Mary Creagh is the Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs