One of the most common frustrations when working on environmental policy is the discrepancy between the long time-scales over which environmental processes operate, and the 'short-termism' of our political system. So, when in September 2015 the UK Government committed to produce a 25 year plan “for a healthy natural economy”, we welcomed the announcement. An opportunity to define a long-term vision to protect and enhance our environment was an extremely positive step.
In 2015, we did not anticipate it would be more than two years (and three environment Secretaries) before the full plan materialised. Although this delay has been frustrating given the urgency of our environmental challenges, it’s hard not to conclude that the finished product is better for the wait. Early leaked drafts were vague and lacking in ambition. The plan which was launched this week by the Prime Minister, and championed by Michael Gove, is much improved. Although many details still need to be worked through to make the government accountable, it is ambitious, and is underpinned by the reiteration of the pledge to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state.
A plan for the whole government
This plan was launched by the Prime Minister, and is published as a plan for Her Majesty’s Government, not just Defra. This is positive. For a long-term environment plan to be successful, it’s principles must be embedded in all areas of government policy-making, and have the support of leaders across the government. Governance mechanisms and resources must now be put in place to make this vision a reality.
Blue Planet fever and resource productivity
There are some very welcome announcements in this plan. The elements most promoted by the Government in the press, seeking to build on the momentum created by the Blue Planet II series, focus on single-use plastics. The commitment to extend the 5p plastic bag charge to small retailers is welcome, but just brings England in line with Scotland and Wales where the charge has already been implemented. There are also commitments to launch a call for evidence on how the tax system could be utilised to reduce plastic waste, and a pledge to end ‘avoidable’ (meaning what is technically, environmentally and economically practicable) plastic waste by 2042.
These plastic pledges sit alongside some less-talked-about, but equally important statements on resources and waste. The plan pledges to double resource productivity (defined as the GDP generated per unit of raw materials used in the economy) by 2050, and to work towards an ambition of zero avoidable waste by 2050. Although the language here could be stronger, and we await further details on how these targets will be achieved, such statements are welcome. The IES has been calling for resource efficiency to be embedded at the heart not just of environmental policy, but all government decision-making. The Government - through fiscal incentives and the power of public sector procurement - has the potential to make a big difference in this area.
The natural environment
When this plan was first conceived in response to a recommendation of the Natural Capital Committee, it was expected to deal primarily with the management of the natural environment, and this still accounts for a large and important portion of the document. Since the country’s decision to leave the European Union, this part of the plan has taken on an even greater importance in the context of ongoing uncertainty regarding environmental protections and the land management regime after EU exit.
A major worry in the wake of EU exit is the ‘governance gap’: i.e. concern about who will hold the UK Government accountable for enforcing environmental protections and meeting important targets for environmental quality. Importantly, in this plan the Government has committed to consult in early 2018 on setting up “a new independent body to hold government to account”. It will be vital to maintain pressure on the Government to ensure this body has a statutory footing, and the tools and resources it needs to do this job, but it is positive that Michael Gove and the Government are listening to concerns on this issue.
The plan also commits to consult on a new set of environmental principles to underpin policy-making, addressing another concern about EU exit. The precautionary and polluter pays principles are embedded in the EU treaties, making them binding principles of law. Maintaining these protections in UK law is extremely important, both in terms of our environmental protections, and potentially our future trade relationship with the EU. The IES stands ready to respond to these consultations, and assist the Government in setting a solid foundation for a future body of UK environment law.
‘Environmental net gain’
The plan contains a commitment to embed an ‘environmental net gain’ principle for development, including housing and infrastructure. Building on current policy that planning should deliver biodiversity net gains where possible, the Government hopes that this policy will deliver measurable improvements, and be compatible with their ambition to build an extra 300,000 homes a year by the middle of the next decade.
Again, this issue is yet to be consulted upon, and the detail of the policy will be extremely important – ‘net gain’ can imply ‘offsetting’ which is a complex and contested issue in its own right – but the Government’s ambition is again evident. Long term aspirations to expand thinking from a narrow biodiversity focus to one based on natural capital benefits is positive, but there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. The planning system must be sensitive to local context, and decision-making must be based on robust scientific evidence and monitoring.
Strategies are like buses (but hopefully not diesels…)
One thing on which this plan certainly delivers is new strategies, with a whole annex helpfully listing existing and planned strategies with environmental relevance by subject.
We were already expecting new Waste and Resources, and Clean Air Strategies this year, so the promise to consult on this in 2018 is not a surprise. The announcement that a Chemicals Strategy will be published is new however. The new strategy will set out the Government’s approach to this important policy area as the UK leaves the EU.
There is also a section in the plan which indicates the Government’s intention to undertake a second National Ecosystem Assessment type initiative, beginning in 2022.
So, what next?
Given this plan’s challenging and chronically delayed development, it’s pleasing to see a document which is genuinely ambitious, and recognises the value of an integrated, cross-government, systems approach to tackling environmental challenges. The extensive evidence report which accompanies the plan demonstrates a clear attempt to understand the complexity of socio-environmental systems, and the inherent uncertainty in attempts to manage them. This gives me hope, but serves to emphasise the importance of developing robust metrics and monitoring programmes to track progress towards these targets, and inform future decision-making. It is vital the Government commences this work as soon as possible, working transparently and collaboratively with a diverse range of stakeholders. The UK is a world leader in environmental science research, and scientists undoubtedly have a crucial role to play in this process.
The Government has committed to report annually on their progress in delivering the plan’s goals. Strong, evidence-based metrics will make this reporting meaningful. There are also commitments to reflect on and revisit the plan based on future learning. This vision is a good start, but it must evolve with our understandings of the environmental systems in concerns.
Finally, this vision will only become a reality if the Government is held accountable for its delivery. The IES has long called for the 25 year environment plan to have roots in legislation. Currently this plan is short on legislative underpinning, and so, despite the plan’s admirable scope and ambition, the Government’s true test is yet to come. The IES looks forward to working with the Government, and colleagues across the scientific and environmental sectors, to develop a strong governance system with statutory underpinning, and to deliver on this vision.