Robert Ashcroft
May 2016

The Government’s 25 year plan for the environment

In September 2015 the UK Government responded to the Natural Capital Committee’s third State of Natural Capital Report. The committee recommended that the government develop a 25 year plan to deliver on their aim to be “the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than it inherited”. In the government response they agreed with this recommendation and committed to produce a 25 year plan “for a healthy natural economy”.

Since September Defra has been working to develop this plan, now more commonly referred to simply as the government’s ‘environment plan’, and has run several workshops to engage key stakeholders in which the IES has participated. Defra is expected to release a draft of the plan this summer, with a final version due for delivery before the end of the year.

This plan has the potential to establish an exciting new long-term framework for environmental management and decision-making in the UK if well-coordinated (and matched with cross-government political support), and so is of great significance for all working on, or with an interest in environmental issues. With this in mind, the Institution’s Policy team, in collaboration with the IES Council, has developed a statement explaining the key points we would like to see in the draft plan.

Our vision for the 25 year plan

The IES welcomes the Government’s action to develop a 25 year plan for the environment, in accordance with the recommendations of the Natural Capital Committee in 2015 and in line with a Conservative party manifesto pledge.  The environmental challenges we face today require long term solutions and commitment, so the development of this plan is a step in the right direction.

This plan is an opportunity to apply a systems approach to environmental management and protection in England that seeks not simply to slow or halt the severe decline of ecosystems and their services but to regenerate critical habitats and associated societal benefits. It is understood that environmental systems do not operate according to political boundaries; the IES therefore expects that this plan will approach management at a landscape, or catchment scale, where the full implications of management decisions for nature and human interests can be best appreciated.

A systems approach also recognises that environmental processes are complex and interconnected. To separate, for instance, the management of water resources from biodiversity protection is artificial and unhelpful, as are spurious divisions between terrestrial and aquatic or urban and rural habitats.  A systemic approach, assessed scientifically and transparently, will yield more sustainable and acceptable outcomes for people and the environment. The land, air and water environments are inextricably linked. Management decisions should therefore be based on an appreciation of the importance of feedbacks and thresholds, as well as scientific evidence concerning system functioning and dynamics, consistent with the UK’s commitment to implementing an ‘Ecosystem Approach’ under the Convention on Biological Diversity, EU Biodiversity Strategy and other international agreements. We hope that Defra will use this plan as an opportunity to put science firmly at the heart of all management planning.

Given the importance of a holistic approach to environmental management, it is unfortunate that Defra has not acted to combine its ‘Environment’ and ‘Food and farming’ plans into one coherent strategy. Nevertheless, it is essential that government addresses management of agricultural land to produce integrated, multi-benefit solutions if the environment plan is to be effective in halting, and ideally reversing, the degradation of natural capital and ecosystem services across catchment landscapes. Representing approximately two-thirds of the UK’s land area, farmland is an important habitat and delivers many important ecosystem services.

The plan should not simply address the countryside. The majority of our population live in cities, so the plan must also make provision for urban areas, where the links between public health and wellbeing and the environment are perhaps most starkly apparent through issues such as air quality and access to nature. The links between urban areas and the habitats in rural areas, here and overseas, supporting the demands of urban residents and businesses must be explicitly addressed. A systems approach is again the most appropriate way to analyse complex urban systems, and their interdependence with wider ecosystems. We welcome the Government’s intention to also extend this plan to the marine environment, where the same principles should be applied in developing management strategies.

For this plan to be successful, we would like to see it establish not just an overarching vision, but clear goals and targets towards which progress can be monitored and the Government held to account. We support the Wildlife and Countryside Link in their recommendation that these targets should be informed and updated adaptively by independent scientific advice. The plan must recognise that the future is unpredictable; the environmental, social, political and economic context will change at the global, EU, national and local scales over the next 25 years. As such, sufficient flexibility should be built into the plan to enable adaption to the future as it unfolds.

If this plan is to deliver for people and the environment, it will need cross-Government support, and stable funding for monitoring and delivery. We would therefore welcome development of cross-party support for this plan, to ensure that pressing sustainable development challenges and opportunities are depoliticised.  It is also essential that this plan does not stand alone, but is accepted as a strategy that informs decisions in all policy areas of government.

Even more welcome would be action to give this plan, or its key elements, roots in legislation.

This statement was recently covered by the ENDS report, in a review of what a range of environmental organisations would like to see prioritised in the 25 year plan.
Read the article here (paywall)