Environmental groups have branded the government’s efforts to build a so-called “green recovery” after the coronavirus pandemic “a real failure”, with nowhere near enough action to make the UK a world-leader on the environment.
[Youtube link to speech, questions and answers included at the end of this post]
Environment secretary George Eustice told reporters and conservationists on Monday that nature was “at the heart” of the government’s efforts to reboot the economy, but did little to allay fears held by many groups concerned about the potential for existing environmental protections to be watered down as the government pursues a “build, build, build” policy.
During the speech, organised by think-tank Green Alliance, Mr Eustice announced a £4m trial for “green prescribing”, where people are prescribed time in out in natural environments as a means of boosting their physical and mental health.
He also announced a new £5m pilot for a new “natural capital and ecosystem assessment”.
“We can improve the baseline understanding of habitats and species abundance across the country in every planning authority and we can make better decisions towards achieving our vision to leave the environment in a better condition than we found it,” Mr Eustice said.
This would “ensure that new developments really do deliver a net gain for people and for nature.”
But the announcements are not of the scale environment groups were hoping to see.
Speaking to Mr Eustice, RSPB chief executive, Beccy Speight welcomed measures to collect improved data on ecosystems and how humans are impacting them, but she said overall the government’s efforts don’t feel like a “turning point” and warned against a lifting of regulations which could see a return to the “bad days of the 70s and 80s when we had concreting over of really important mudflats for breeding birds just to create more carparks.”
“This should feel like a turning point, where everything is pointing in the direction of really putting nature at the heart of this resilient recovery, and actually it feels like more of the same, or in fact going backwards,” she said.
She said: “Today’s speech was an opportunity for Mr Eustice to guarantee to match the government’s ambitious rhetoric with action. Instead we heard a welcome but frankly tiny announcement of new money – well short of the investment that is needed – and a commitment to change the planning system where the purpose and details of that review remain opaque at best or catastrophic for nature at worst.
She added: “In the run up to the UK’s hosting of the forthcoming global conference on climate change, long promised legislation to ban burning on our precious peat bogs is nowhere to be seen, demonstrating a real failure to tie our domestic performance to global leadership, and while a number of countries have already committed to protecting 30 per cent of their land and sea for nature by 2030 ahead of an upcoming global nature conference, there is no sign of the Westminster government joining the ranks of the genuinely world-leading.“
Tanya Steele, chief executive of WWF-UK also raised concerns about the apparently low level of ambition the government has for moving towards a green economy, and questioned commitments to infrastructure projects which will not help the UK hit its legally binding 2050 net zero emissions target.
“Is this a path to recovery, or actually a crossroads where that path isn’t ambitious enough?, she asked.
Following Mr Eustice’s speech she said: “While it’s always welcome to hear the government talking seriously about its commitment to a green recovery and world-leading farming and environmental standards, we are now at the point where we need to see those words converted into urgent action.
“A credible green recovery must have our nature and climate commitments fully integrated with spending, planning and trade decisions.”
Greenpeace UK’s executive director, John Sauven, also said the amount of money the government had earmarked was not enough and voiced concerns over plans to review and “simplify” the Environmental Impact Assessments currently required for some developments.
“George Eustice may have pledged to build back better and greener, but now is the time for action, not just warm words masking backdoor attempts to deregulate. Over £900m of additional funding per year is needed for a UK-wide programme of nature recovery and protection projects on land and at sea.
“Simply ripping up the rulebook is no route to recovery.”