In the first major speech by a Prime Minister on the environment in 17 years, the Government has vowed to leave the environment in a better condition than inherited. It’s a similar vow to ones we have heard before, and one that hasn’t always been demonstrated by action. But today’s 25 Year Plan gives a sense of longevity and ambition on both a domestic and global front. It marks a big shift from conversations which began its gestation a few years ago (it is running late by a number of years) and recognises that we simply cannot thrive without clean air, water, healthy soils and a vibrant environment. Trees of course have a vital role to play in delivering all of these.
While the publication of the 25 year plan to improve the environment goes some way towards setting out comprehensive and cross government aims and is to be commended for this, there is an urgent need to back up this vision with action. It is short on specific targets, deadlines, mechanisms and funding options.
We particularly welcome the restated commitment in the 25 year plan to increase protection for ancient woodland. The upcoming review of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is the Government's opportunity to make this commitment a reality and make much needed changes to the specific policy regarding ancient woodland. Ancient woodlands are irreplaceable natural heritage assets; they deserve at least the same protection as our man-made heritage already enjoys.
The ever increasing volume of inappropriately placed development threats, including those posed by government-funded projects such as HS2, or the proposed A27 bypass, makes this kind of change crucial. We’re pleased to hear that a new Tree Champion will be appointed to explore ways to deliver further protection after the NPPF is updated.
Sadly, there is little effort by government to formally quantify losses of ancient woodland and no government held datasets or regular monitoring. The lack of centralised records could be cloaking a state of deforestation.
Practical planting action will help England improve on its low rate of woodland cover. It’s a step in the right direction to see the ambition to plant 180,000 hectares of woodland by 2042 – we welcome Government support for the Northern Forest, announced a few days ago, and also the notion of setting up large scale nature networks to create bigger, better, more joined up spaces for nature. Programmes aimed at people being better connected to nature for health and wellbeing are also to be applauded and are vital and we look forward to connecting in our existing community woodland and tree packs work and our work with schools.
However, planting alone is no solution to the continued degradation of our woodland habitats. There must be balance in terms of protecting and enhancing what we already have.
The effective implementation of the 25 year plan will demonstrate Defra’s ability to deliver for the environment in real terms. The plan will be judged by the genuine cross-departmental buy-in it receives and of course, through the future legislation and policy changes required to make it happen. And we shouldn’t have long to wait. The NPPF update is imminent.
The expected Agriculture Bill has the potential to underpin the very welcome words of the Environment Secretary at the Oxford Farming Conference, putting environmental benefits including woodland creation at the heart of future farming payments. The 25 year plan strongly links farming to the state of the environment, and hints at innovative funding sources being sought for nature, taking a comprehensive natural capital approach.
The realisation of the governance gap for the environment post-Brexit and the upcoming consultation around a new body to hold to account progress on the environment and uphold standards is warmly welcomed. This is something the GreenerUK coalition, of which we are an active member, has pushed. In the post-Brexit world the need for a new Environment Act is an absolute necessity.
We stand ready to play our part in making these ambitions a reality and pushing for more change faster. The state of our environment will not wait for us. It’s now incumbent on the Government to provide the follow up action that will embed the 25 year plan into legislation and policy. It must take responsibility to really deliver on its manifesto pledge to “leave the environment in a better state for future generations”.