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Government won’t meet soil sustainability ambition, warns Environmental Audit Committee

Words: Laura Edgar

The failure to prevent soil degradation could increase the risk of flooding, lower food security and greater carbon emissions, says the committee's latest report.

In addition, unless further action is taken, the government won’t meet its ambition to manage the UK’s soil sustainability by 2030, says the Environmental Audit Committee.

Environmental Audit Committee chair Mary Creagh said: “Soil is a ‘Cinderella’ environmental issue. It doesn’t receive as much attention as air pollution, water quality or climate change. But, whether we realise it or not, society relies on healthy soil for the food we eat, for flood prevention, and for storing carbon. The government says it wants our soil to be managed sustainably by 2030, but there is no evidence that it is putting in place the policies to make this happen.”

According to the report, Soil Health, around 300,000 hectares of soil are thought to the affected by legacy contamination from the UK’s industrial past. But the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has withdrawn capital grant funding for local authorities to clean up contamination.

The committee’s inquiry heard that without this funding councils are “less able and less likely to proactively investigate” potential contamination, despite health risks. If left untreated, the contamination may harm public health and water quality, said the committee.

Creagh said Defra's “complacent decision” to withdraw contaminated land grants has “undermined the ability of councils to identify and clean up polluted brownfield sites not dealt with through the planning system.

“This presents a real danger that contaminated sites are being left unidentified with consequential public health impacts,” she explained.

The committee is calling on Defra to set new funding for contaminated land remediation at the level of the old scheme.

Report recommendations:


  • Soil degradation and climate change: The government must set out specific, measurable and time-limited plans to increase the amount of carbon retained in soil to help meet the Paris Agreement. It should also take “tough” action to tackle land use practices, which degrade peat, such as the burning of blanket bogs.

  • Agricultural soil: Currently, the government relies on rules linked to farm subsidy payments to regulate agricultural soil health. The committee suggests that rules with greater scope, force and ambition are required to meet the government’s goal to manage soil sustainability by 2030.

  • Monitoring soil health: A rolling national-scale monitoring scheme for soil health should be introduced to ensure that adequate information about the state of the nation’s soil is available.

Peter Tooher, executive director at Nexus Planning, commented: “The prospects of further cuts to government funding for remediation is consistent with a fairly inconsistent approach.

"On the one hand there is the 'brownfield first' approach of NPPF - albeit largely side lined in many areas due to delivery issues - whilst on the other there is no structured financial framework as to how brownfield sites can be brought forward.

"Brownfield sites are more challenging, have a longer lead in times, require front loaded investment and are often in more marginal market areas - and this needs to be reflected in some more meaningful and straightforward way in the government’s overall approach.”

The report can be found here (pdf).

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