'Fundamental to the economy': Government publishes five-year Environmental Improvement Plan

The government will today publish its long-awaited Environmental Improvement Plan, setting out how it intends to deliver on the various targets set out in the Environment Act and honour its pledge to “leave our environment in a better state than we found it”.

The new strategy builds on the 25 Year Environment Plan, which was published five years ago, and will cover the next five-year period through to 2028.

As such, it includes a host of new goals and initiatives designed to deliver on targets set through the government’s recently adopted Environment Act, Agriculture Act, and Fisheries Act, as well as its new international commitment to reverse nature loss, which the UK signed up to as part of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework that was agreed late last year.

Specifically, the plan commits the government to creating and restoring at least 500,000 hectares of wildlife habitat, through 70 new projects including 25 new or expanded National Nature Reserves.

The plan also introduces a new pledge for everyone to live no more than a 15 minutes’ walk from a green space or water.

In addition, the plan incorporates a new roadmap for boosting household water efficiency and tackling leaks across the water industry, new plans to tackle air pollution hot spots, and a series of initiatives to bolster green innovation by improving access to finance and research and development for farmers and foresters.

The plan also reiterates the government’s commitment to reforming farming subsidies, promising that its new Environmental Land Management Scheme is set to transform the management of 70 per cent of the UK countryside by incentivising farmers to adopt nature-friendly practices.

And it includes a new set of interim targets for 2028 to reduce different types of waste, including plastic, glass, metal, paper, and food. 

“Protecting our natural environment is fundamental to the health, economy and prosperity of our country,” said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. “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.”

Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey said the new plan would “set out how we will continue to improve our environment here in the UK and around the world”.

“Nature is vital for our survival, crucial to our food security, clean air, and clean water as well as health and well-being benefits,” she added. “We have already started the journey and we have seen improvements. We are transforming financial support for farmers and landowners to prioritise improving the environment, we are stepping up on tree planting, we have cleaner air, we have put a spotlight on water quality and rivers and are forcing industry to clean up its act.”

She also urged businesses and the public to support the delivery of the new plan and “join us in our national endeavour to improve the environment”.

The new Environmental Improvement Plan will be accompanied by the release later today of a new Environmental Principles Policy Statement, which sets out how environmental protection and enhancement is to be embedded into the design and development of new policies across government. 

The new measures drew a decidedly mixed response from green groups and environmental campaigners.

Ministers have faced fierce criticism from campaigners, business groups, and MPs over their failure to date to deliver on many of their environmental targets, with a recent report from the Office for Environmental Protection warning the government was not on track to meet any of its environmental targets set out in its initial 25 Year Environment Plan. 

As such the response to the new plan welcomed the new ambitions, but also questioned whether the government will now deliver on its goals.

Natural England Chair Tony Juniper said the new package was “broad and most welcome and important”. But he stressed that 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,” he said. “Success will not only bring benefits for our depleted natural environment, but also for jobs, food and water security, health and investment.”

His comments were echoed by Nick Molho, executive director at the Aldersgate Group of businesses, who said that delivering on the new plan “will require all parts of society and the economy to collaborate on environmental improvements as well as careful co-ordination between the UK’s climate and environmental targets”.

“Through the publication of today’s Environmental Improvement Plan, 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,” he said. “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. Providing clarity on the near- and long-term policy commitments is essential to unlock significant private sector investment and ensure businesses play their part in restoring nature.”

However, environmental campaigners warned the new strategy lacked the fresh policies and budget commitments necessary to ensure the new targets would be met.

“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,” said Paul de Zylva, nature campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “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.”

The plan comes just days after the UK100 group of local authorities committed to accelerating climate action again called on the government to provide them with the funding and powers they need to deliver more ambitious environmental policies.

Meanwhile, Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK’s policy director, described the plans as “a roadmap to the cliff edge”. “This Conservative government promised the most ambitious environmental plan of any country on earth. Instead, here’s yet more paperwork containing a threadbare patchwork of policies that fail to tackle many of the real threats to our natural world,” he said. “This won’t do.

“Ministers want to crack down on dual flush toilets while letting water firms pump tonnes of raw sewage into our rivers and seas. Until we see immediate action this Parliament to ban industrial fishing in all our marine protected areas, reduce industrial meat and dairy farming, and ramp up protections across a bigger network of national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, we’re in real danger of UK nature going into freefall.”

And Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, warned the new targets urgently needed to be supported by new spending commitments in the upcoming Budget. “The government promised votersthe most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth’ in their 2019 manifesto – but unprecedented nature declines are worsening and there’s a big mountain to climb to address the climate emergency,” he said. “So a plan that matches the government’s earlier ambition is desperately needed. This plan must ensure the whole of government is acting to halt the chronic loss of nature and tackle this existential threat to our prosperity, our ability to produce food, and to have enough clean water.”

He also warned that the government was continuing to pursue its Retained EU Law Bill, which could see thousands of environmental protection laws modified or removed at the end of the year. And he reiterated that the UK was well short of its goal of protecting 30 per cent of land and sea for nature by 2030, with some estimates suggesting 3.22 per cent of land currently adequately protected. 

“A dramatic increase in funding is needed if the UK is to reach its target to protect 30 per cent of our land and sea for nature by 2030,” he said. “Progress towards this target is painfully slow because government funding for biodiversity is more than 10 per cent lower than it was a decade ago – yet we know that £1.2bn extra each year is needed to restore nature. The government must find new cash to do this – not just recycle existing funding pots under new names.

“The government appears to be hoping that the agricultural budget will help to restore the nature we’ve lost – but if the Environmental Land Management schemes lack the required ambition, they will have to make up the shortfall from elsewhere. Government must scale up funding to match the ambition – and stop hoping that existing budgets will do the job.”

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