Government sets out vision for cleaner, greener UK

Government sets out vision for cleaner, greener UK

  • 16 January 2018
  • Posted in: Energy & Environment

The 25 Year Environmental Plan sets out the long-term government approach to protecting the environment promising that important areas of policy will return to UK shores following Brexit.

The Prime Minister helped launch the plan setting out the government ambitions for cleaner air and water; plants and animals which are thriving; and a cleaner, greener country. The headlines focused on plans to get rid of avoidable plastic waste within 25 years, reporting that May has declared 'war on plastic', something the Prime Minister called "one of the great environmental scourges of our time".

The government aims to achieve zero avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042 with an extension of the 5p plastic bag charge, alongside plans to urge supermarkets to introduce aisles without any plastic packaging, fund new research for 'plastics innovation' and provide aid to help developing nations manage their plastic waste.

The plans were criticised by some environmental groups for being too vague and for not being backed-up by legislation. The campaigns director of WWF, Ben Stafford, responded by saying more comprehensive and ambitious legislation with far-reaching targets was needed "if you're going to get into a position where you're actually improving the environment in the longer term."

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Rt Hon Michael Gove will lead government action to deliver what the plan calls a "Green Brexit".

"We need to replenish depleted soil, plant trees, support wetlands and peatlands, rid seas and rivers of rubbish, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, cleanse the air of pollutants, develop cleaner, sustainable energy and protect threatened species and habitats."

Although government action must be welcomed, delivering a green Brexit will be more challenging than the plan appears to recognise. There appears to be some contradictions within current government policy to resolve in the first place. In the plan Gove states that the government will support farmers to "turn over fields to meadows rich in herbs and wildflowers, restore habitats for endangered species and attract wildlife back." The focus clearly is on conservation rather than commercial agriculture.

In October the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling argued in a television interview that the UK could just grow more food to keep prices down, saying he hoped that Britain could become more self-sufficient in food and less reliant on imports post-Brexit. Quite how UK food production can be increased alongside policies to reduce the environmental impact of pesticides, fertilisers and sustainable drainage is unclear. That is also without factoring in the aims to expand land use for tree planting, flood protection, conservation and home building - thus leaving less land available for agriculture and raising the possibility of making farming more intensive on land used for agricultural purposes.

The plan is vague in detailing how the 25 year plan will be funded. In the current payment system UK farmers receive £3bn a year from the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). It is proposed once CAP ends farmers will instead be paid for "public goods" such as protecting and improving the countryside and boosting access to it. Gove has labelled the current payment system "unjust", with subsidy based on how much land is owned, and has promised to "end payments to wealthy landowners". However the subsidy landscape is more complicated than this, often the amount of land owned does not equal wealth. Scottish, Cumbrian and Welsh hill farmers could not survive without the CAP subsidy - annual incomes would fall from an average of £13,000 to £4,000 a year.

Alongside the reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy Gove promises that "leaving the EU means taking back control of the waters around these islands and developing a fishing policy that ensures seas return to health and fish stocks are replenished." In a pre-Brexit survey, 92% of UK fisherman voted to leave the EU with little to lose if overfishing restrictions were managed by UK and EU vessels restricted from fishing in UK waters. The government makes clear in the environmental plan its position on leaving the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), worth over £200m in EU subsidies, is to continue to extend marine protected areas around the UK coasts and promote sustainable fishing in line with international laws.

The European Union committee have warned it will not be plain sailing for the industry "untangling UK fisheries from the EU will be challenging and require political will and resources, both in the wider Brexit negotiations and beyond." An independent report from the Institute for Government also predicts choppy waters ahead for restricting vessel access.

"The UK's ability to restrict access to its waters may be limited by historical claims by European fishermen. In the past, tribunals and international courts have often ruled in favour of historic access rights to waters and against those looking to limit access."

Perhaps on firmer ground are the plans earmark £5m of government funding to support the development of a new Northern Forest, a belt of 50 million planted tress stretching from coast-to-coast. It encompasses five community forests and would provide a timber industry, leisure opportunities and environmental benefits. However, the government policy of planting trees is at odds with tree felling plans for HS2, The Woodland Trust claim almost 50 areas of ancient woodland will be lost or damaged due to construction of HS2 line.

"If the government really cared about woodlands it wouldn't be routing a high-speed train through them. And it wouldn't be allowing this weight of this project to be carried by charity." Paul de Zylva from Friends of Earth commented.

The 25 Year Environment Plan sets out the aims to safeguard cherished landscapes from economic exploitation, eliminate all avoidable plastic waste and deliver a greener, healthier, more sustainable future for the next generation. How the government progresses with the environmental policies alongside complex Brexit negotiations, industry pressures and funding shortfalls will be an interesting brief for the new independent environmental watchdog to monitor. How that progress will be measured over 25 year timeline and successive governments will be held to account will be equally as challenging.

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