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Government policies for the environment are ‘grandiose statements but lack teeth’

Words: Laura Edgar
Wildflower meadow / iStock-508070235

Government policies and targets to improve the natural environment are ‘grandiose statements lacking teeth’ and all too often government departments spend more on practices that exploit the natural environment than conserve it, according to the Environmental Audit Committee.

Indeed, says the committee, policies are inadequate to address “plummeting” biodiversity loss.

This is compounded by nature policy not being joined up across government departments, as nature protection is inconsistently factored into policymaking.

Committee chairman Philip Dunne said: “The UK is home to many millions of species, but government inaction to protect habitats is leading to a significant decline in wildlife.

“Although there are countless government policies and targets to ‘leave the environment in a better state than we found it’, too often they are grandiose statements lacking teeth and devoid of effective delivery mechanisms. We have no doubt that the ambition is there, but a poorly mixed cocktail of ambitious targets, superficial strategies, funding cuts and lack of expertise is making any tangible progress incredibly challenging. All government departments must consistently factor nature into policy decisions, the Bank of England should develop a nature stress test, and the 25-year environment plan must have interim statutory targets to assess progress.

“Despite central government’s responsibility for policy decisions, the responsibility for nurturing natural habitats also rests with each and every citizen. Work to embed nature into the national curriculum, and to inspire the ecologists of the future, is absolutely crucial if we are to protect biodiversity effectively for generations to come.”

Biodiversity in the UK: Bloom or Bust? found that:

  • The government is not on track to improve the environment within a generation.
  • Owing to a lack of clear statutory targets, its 25-year environment plan does not provide sufficient direction to change this.
  • The recent biodiversity net gain policy does not go far enough and has the potential for a lack of compliance monitoring and non-implementation of mitigation measures.

For the committee, the variety of data systems and inadequate monitoring, coupled with a lack of ecologist expertise in the government, as well as in local authorities, “presents challenges to introduce effective mechanisms to halt biodiversity decline”.

This has been exacerbated by funding cuts to various bodies. To reflect the scale of its work to protect nature, the committee urged the government to increase Natural England’s multi-year funding.

The committee does welcome the government’s pledge to protect 30 per cent of the UK’s land and seas by 2030. A timetable setting out management plans and monitoring for all Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) should be drawn up, says the committee, and “destructive” bottom trawling should be banned or restricted. “Effective” monitoring should be introduced to find out if habitats are recovering.

Existing ecosystems like ancient woodland and peatlands need protecting; more work needs to be done to lock carbon into these areas.

Recommendations in the report include:

  • The government must urgently establish a natural capital baseline to measure progress against environmental goals.
  • To allow the biodiversity net gain policy to fulfil its transformative potential within the UK’s built environment the committee suggests that:

     - The government should explain how and when it will move to embedding environmental net gain in the planning system, with clear actions and
milestones provided to achieve this.
     - The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) should be reviewed to ensure reforms strengthen biodiversity restoration and protection and any proposals which undermine biodiversity be addressed.
     - Mandatory gains should endure, rather than only being maintained for the stated 30-year minimum.
     - The government should strengthen local authority capacity and enforcement mechanisms to deliver biodiversity net gain and developers should demonstrate their environmental performance and implementation of mitigation measures as part of good Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance.

  • The government should introduce, preferably through the environment bill, a mechanism for statutory interim targets to ensure that its proposed species abundance target is met to halt the decline of nature by 2030.
  • The scope of the proposed 2030 target should be extended to encompass legally binding outcome measures on species distribution, extinction risk, habitat extent and condition: it must also reinstate the expired target for Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
  • Tree planting should not occur on peat soils and floodplains would be better used for restoring floodplain meadows rather than afforestation projects.
  • The Bank of England should conduct an exploratory exercise into stress testing biodiversity loss.
  • The government should ensure that the National Infrastructure Bank has a mandate for net-zero and includes a focus on nature and biodiversity for investment in its objectives.
  • Education on biodiversity must increase: a natural history GCSE should be introduced and investment in skills should be increased for chartered ecology and associated disciplines.

Biodiversity in the UK: Bloom or Bust? can be found on the UK Parliament website (pdf).

Rounding up recent reports

This is just one of a number of reports in recent weeks that criticises the government’s efforts to address the nature and climate crises.

The Climate Change Committee warned last week that government climate promises are being delivered at “too slow” a pace. Publishing two progress reports, the committee said in this “defining year for the UK’s climate credentials”, climate strategies that have emerged “have too often missed the mark”.

Lord Deben, chairman of the Climate Change Committee, said: “We are in the decisive decade for tackling climate change. The government must get real on delivery. Global Britain has to prove that it can lead a global change in how we treat our planet. Get it right and UK action will echo widely. Continue to be slow and timid and the opportunity will slip from our hands. Between now and COP26 the world will look for delivery, not promises.”

Another report warned that action in the UK to improve its resilience to the climate crisis is failing to keep pace with the impacts of a warming planet.

Evidence in the report shows the gap between the level of risk the UK faces and the level of adoption under way has widened. “Adaptation action has failed to keep pace with the worsening reality of climate risk.”

Although government spending on biodiversity has decreased by 33 per cent in the past five years, it has promised to restore 30 per cent of land for nature by 2030. However, The Wildlife Trusts say the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) funding is inadequate to tackle the size of the task ahead. Additionally, other government departments “are doing little to help reach this target”.

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