This past week, and to an equal mix of fanfare and apprehension, the government released its long-awaited 25-year plan to improve the environment. A full outline of which can be found here, for those interested. I would advise all to have a read.
The plan, launched in style by the PM herself, sets out a long-term plan designed to help the natural world regain and retain good health; aiming to deliver clean air and water, protect and restore threatened wildlife populations, provide better habitat and cut pollution. Altogether it calls for an approach to agriculture, forestry, fishing, land-use and, of course, Brexit that emphasises the value of a healthy natural environment. Even going as far as to stress the importance of engaging people in their natural ecosystem and making a number of promises with regards to international conservation.
Now, despite the (arguably) good intentions underpinning the plan, many people – hailing predominately from the environmental field – have been quite critical of it. Some, like young conservationist and campaigner Georgia Locock, have branded it underwhelming. Highlighting the government’s avoidance of controversial (yet important) issues such as illegal wildlife crime, the current badger cull and fracking. Others, notably Ben Stafford, head of campaigns at WWF, have pointed out the absence of any mention of the hard legislation necessary to enforce new measures, a sentiment echoed by Stephanie Hilborne, Cheif Executive of the Wildlife Trusts. This view of the plan, as fundamentally lacking in substance and a tad vacuous, appears to summarise the general reception of the strategy, with others also taking issue with the time-span at the heart of it.
All of these concerns are perfectly valid and I, personally, share many of them. Particularly the worries regarding time-span – how likely are we to have a Tory government in two years, nevermind twenty-five? Who is to say the plan, in its entirety, will not be abandoned upon the next general election? I cannot say for certain, nor can anyone else. Similarly, the lack of mention of any specific legislation raises some question and, until such is given, the plan itself is only hypothetical. Perhaps the omission of such is due to the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, but either way, the lack of anything concrete leaves environmentalists two choices: wholeheartedly believe the promises of reigning politicians (fat chance), or view the plan with scepticism. Most will air on the latter side, as will I.
I also have some serious reservations regarding the creation of the New Northern Forest mentioned in the plan; though I discussed this at length in a previous blog post.
While I share the worries voiced regarding the government’s plan, I still cannot help but feel somewhat positive following its publication. The fact that the Tory party has dedicated the time and effort to form a relatively comprehensive report on nature can be viewed as a monumental leap in the right direction. Especially given their track record on the environment – ignorance towards wildlife crime and peat degradation, the flawed nature of the UK badger cull, fracking, HS2, failure to manage our forests and the like. The fact that the environment, an issue consistently overlooked during election campaigns, is now garnering such attention is outstanding. Heck, even the involvement of our embattled Prime Minister is positive – normally these things are left to the secretary of state or the various minions associated with him/her. Is this increased emphasis on the environment merely a tactic to appeal to voters, particularly younger ones? Undoubtedly, but it works for me and long may it continue.
While some of the report gives cause for concern, it would be remiss of me not to highlight its positive aspects – there are an awful lot and, as such, I could not possibly outline them all. However, for me, perhaps the most important aspect of the plan is the apparent realisation that nature is, in fact, important to a great many people – providing benefits to both physical and mental health. There is mention of natural therapies for, a (sort of) plan for urban greenspaces – vital for those within the population confined to an urban setting – and even a note on the importance of engaging young people with nature. All of this focuses on the human side of nature and, if implemented correctly, may well play a pivotal role in changing societies view of the natural world. Painting the great outdoors as an important part of daily life, as opposed to a mere fringe interest.
Additionally (as I touched upon in last weeks post on Michael Gove) I am also quite taken with the governments apparent commitment on tackling plastic pollution. This has been much discussed elsewhere so I will refrain from talking too much on the matter; though I will say that plastic pollution, namely in our oceans, is one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. I welcome any and all attempts to curb our reliance on non-biodegradable refuse and recognise the value of the government’s suggestions on this issue. It will not be easy – we do, after all, rely heavily on plastics – but I am at least optimistic given recent developments.
Some other points of the plan worthy of a mention include the vaguest hint that a new environmental watchdog could be formed to monitor environmental decisions post-Brexit. This, in my opinion, is a necessity; though I will not hold my breath. As writer Ben Eagle points out, the government has only suggested that they will consult on the matter. Not exactly a firm promise but mildly encouraging. As is mention of creating room for species reintroductions and talk of biosecurity measures designed to halt the spread of invasive species. Non-native, alien plants, animals and diseases are an issue I care very strongly about – having witnessed the collapse of the Red Squirrel population in my local area and the rampant spread of damaging botanicals – and I really do welcome any and all action on this front.
So yes, I find myself torn on the May governments 25-year Environment Plan. On one hand, it lacks substance and omits much with regards to just how ministers intend to enact the bold plans set out in the document. It also fails to mention a number of issues close to my heart and does not really do all that much now to tackle many of the problems listed. Focusing too heavily on the prospect of future action without taking into consideration the possible demise of the party behind the plan. Similarly, it is clearly an attempt to bolster the Tory parties public image and relies heavily on the outcome of Brexit in order to deliver any and all of the promises included. I agree with the sentiments of others than the plan is lacking; though I don’t think I can go as far as to brand it underwhelming.
On the other hand, the plan paints a picture of positivity by showing that the environment is, in fact, an issue that should find itself at the heart of politics. The very existence of the plan shows a shift in governmental attitudes and a realisation that voters, from all backgrounds, care for nature. The previously mentioned aspects regarding our own relationship with the world around us likewise provide cause for optimism, while the mention of issues ranging from soil degradation and biosecurity to reintroductions and habitat enhancement at least show that the government is on the right track. They are saying the right things, promising to tackle many of the issues which I, as an environmentalist, care about and prioritising approaches that will actively benefit our countryside. Whether these things come to pass is another story – it could all be bluster – though, given the tendency for things like this to fall somewhere in the middle, it at least looks as if nature will, in some capacity, benefit from the plan.
Like many, I am sceptical of this plan, but I do feel a palpable sense of hope which, only a few weeks back, did not exist at all.