The UK Government will publish its long-awaited Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP) on Tuesday (31 January). The EIP builds on key legislative frameworks such as the 25-Year Environment Plan, the Environment Act, Agriculture Act and the Fisheries Act to create a “comprehensive delivery plan” to halt and reverse the decline in nature in the UK.
The full EIP is set to be unveiled by Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey, but the Government has already laid out some fresh new commitments that will form part of the plan.
The Government has committed to creating and restoring at least 500,000 hectares of new wildlife habitats, including 70 new projects and 25 new or expanded National Nature Reserves. The Government will also fund the delivery of an additional 19 Nature Recovery Projects in the UK.
The EIP sets out steps to tackle sewage spills through upgrades to 160 wastewater treatment works by 2027. A plan will be created later this year to tackle and reduce water pollution from new housing developments and infrastructure and improve water efficiency.
Around 70% of the UK countryside will be impacted by the EIP, with new management schemes to be introduced to incentive farmers to adopt nature-friendly approaches. Earlier this month, Defra confirmed plans to pay each farm up to £1,000 in additional subsidies for soil health annually.
Specifically, the EIP introduces a target for 65-80% of landowners and farmers to adopt nature-friendly farming practices on 10-15% of their land by 2030. Farmers will also be incentivised to create or restore 30,000 miles of hedgerows a year by 2037 and 45,000 miles of hedgerows a year by 2050.
Other targets set to be introduced through the EIP include challenging councils to improve air quality, boosting green growth and job creation in the agri-sectors and restoring 400 miles of river through Landscape Recovery funding rounds.
New interim targets, set for 2028, will also be introduced to reduce waste streams including plastic, glass, metal, paper, and food.
The Government has also created an ambition to ensure that every home is within a 15-minute walk from a green space or water such as woodlands, wetlands, parks and rivers.
To deliver on the aims of the EIP, the Government will issue an environmental principles policy statement to ensure that nature-based thinking and planning is embedded across all new policy developments across the Government. This will come into force from 1 November 2023.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “Protecting our natural environment is fundamental to the health, economy and prosperity of our country.
“This plan provides the blueprint for how we will deliver our commitment to leave our environment in a better state than we found it, making sure we drive forward progress with renewed ambition and achieve our target of not just halting, but reversing the decline of nature.”
Last week, the UK’s post-Brexit environment watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), warned that the nation is on course to miss every key nature and environmental policy target.
A report from the OEP found that there has been year-on-year improvement in some areas relating to the UK Government’s key environmental goals, including improving air quality; reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving climate adaptation.
Nonetheless, the rate of progress has not been rapid enough to put England on track to meet new legally binding targets – even though these targets, in and of themselves, have been broadly criticised as unambitious.
The OEP did state, however, that the Government can seize an opportunity to improve nature across the UK through good design of the EIP.
The EIP has been broadly welcomed by green groups, but as pointed out by the Aldersgate Group’s executive director Nick Molho, some gaps in relation to nature restoration are yet to be addressed.
“Through the publication of today’s EIP, the Government has taken an important step forward, by bringing together in one place its vision for the environment and a delivery plan to drive progress. The Government must now build on the objectives and policy commitments contained in the delivery plan and proceed at pace with the specific policy measures that will drive private investment over the next five years in biodiversity, air and water quality, resource efficiency and other key environmental improvements,” Molho said.
“Whilst the EIP contains many important commitments across a range of environmental priorities, there are some ongoing gaps in the overall environmental framework which will need to be addressed in the near future. These include the need to introduce an ambitious resource productivity target to drive greater resource efficiency across material intensive sectors of the economy beyond just packaging, and the importance of introducing outcomes focused targets and policies to deliver more rapid improvements in water quality.”
Natural England Chair Tony Juniper said: “We are facing into a series of environmental challenges that are very serious, pressing and which are connected to one another. If we are to take effective action then we will need an ambitious and integrated plan that is geared up to meeting some very challenging targets. That plan and those targets are now live. The package is broad and most welcome and important. It will now require efforts across government and across society to translate its intent into action.
“This can be done, so long as priority is attached to it and we remain focused on joined-up delivery. Success will not only bring benefits for our depleted natural environment, but also for jobs, food and water security, health and investment.”
The Green Alliance’s executive director Shaun Spiers added: “The government has shown some ambition and it is good to see the EIP published. But this plan can’t be allowed to gather dust in Defra. Every minister and every department across government needs to play their role in making sure these promises are delivered with urgency.”
Not all green groups have welcomed the EIP however. Friends of the Earth’s nature campaigner Paul de Zylva added that there is a danger that the goals of the EIP are just “rehashed” versions of targets that the Government is already failing to deliver.
“At a glance these measures sound impressive, but on closer inspection it seems that many are just rehashed commitments the government is already late on delivering – and it’s unclear how others, such as ensuring everyone can live within a 15 minute walk of green space, will actually be met,” de Zylva said.
“There’s also a big emphasis on improving air quality which is completely at odds with the government’s £27bn road building agenda, raising serious questions over whether councils are being set up to fail.”
Indeed, the Wildlife and Countryside Link’s chief executive Dr Richard Benwell stated that more clarity and funding power would be required if the Government is to deliver these aims.
“The Government’s positive commitment today should be locked into law, with a clear mission in the Levelling Up Bill to ensure that everyone can benefit from a healthy environment,” Benwell said.
“New species recovery funding is excellent, but it must be more than a flash in the pan. The forthcoming Spring Budget must underline the intentions of the EIP by setting out the long-term investment needed to halt nature’s decline – the Prime Minister will need to ensure that every Department, including Treasury, is full square behind the plan’s delivery.”
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