Conservatives accused by their own watchers of failing to deliver on environmental promises

While wildlife is declining at a “tearing” rate, the UK government is not keeping up with its promises to improve England’s environment, according to its own watchdog.

In 2018, ministers pledged a 25-year plan to preserve England’s natural environment and leave it in a better condition than the government found. They identified a number of priorities, including the abundance of wildlife species and habitats, air and water quality, access to the natural world, waste treatment, resource use management and pollution reduction.

For all of this, progress has been made under a series of five-year environmental improvement plans. In an assessment of their progress, however, the Office of Environmental Protection (OEP), which was set up to oversee the targets, found that:

  • Despite a commitment to halt the decline of wildlife by 2030, species abundance is in “relentless” decline.

  • Of the 23 environmental targets studied, the government was clearly not on the right track with any of them.

  • In 14 of the targets, it was decided that they were clearly astray.

  • The government even fails to collect data in many key areas.

  • Only 38% of sites with special scientific interests are “positive,” and there has been “negligible” progress in the last decade.

  • Agricultural policy has failed to focus on the environment.

  • There is no unified approach across government.

  • Only limited progress in improving air quality and steps to reduce emissions, in part in response to Covid-19 restrictions.

  • Concerns about plans to shelve EU laws that could reduce environmental protection.

OEP chief Dame Glenys Stacey said wildlife in particular has been experiencing “tearful” declines. Species abundance is of particular concern, she said, as it is “the basis” for any assessment of the UK’s environmental performance. “The decline of species is conspicuous—the rate of decline is inevitable,” she said. “This needs a lot of intervention, it’s absolutely necessary.”

Stacey said the government has not aligned its farming policies – environmental land management plans – with biodiversity or clean air and water goals. “Farmers play a critical role and we really need to build on that,” she added.

Ruth Chambers, a senior fellow at Greener UK, a coalition of 10 major environmental organisations, said the government needed to take immediate action. “The new green watchdog doesn’t punch. Ministers need to make tackling the nature and climate crises a priority. That means more resources, more focus and better coordination,” Chambers said.

Richard Benwell, CEO of the NGO Wildlife and Countryside Link, added that more funding is needed. “To stop nature’s decline, the days of bloated wish lists and back-seat funding for nature policy must end. “The environmental remediation plan needs scientifically sound distribution plans to stem the decline in wildlife and is backed by funding to make it happen.”

Benwell said there was a lack of coordination across the government and warned of the implications of shelving EU law. While the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) failed to restore nature, the Department for Stabilization, Housing and Communities lingered on planning reform, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy continued to push forward with “disruptive” steps. The deregulation agenda of the retained EU bill”. “The prime minister should sponsor the environmental improvement plan and get the whole government together to make it happen.”

Paul de Zylva, a senior nature campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said the public was losing because of government inaction. “Enhancing our natural world is not only good for the environment, but also benefits our health and our economy,” he said. “Ministers seem obsessed with setting aside current standards despite promises of stricter environmental protection, rather than focusing on the sustained action needed to build a greener future.”

The government said this week that the next five-year improvement plan will be published by the end of this month. It will include an environmental policy statement, which requires that all relevant government policies be evaluated against their environmental impact.

A Defra spokesperson said: “Since the publication of the 25-year environmental plan in 2018, we have funded more than 120,000 hectares of new nature remediation projects. [300,000 acres], we increased our tree planting rates and started to work on the restoration of our peatlands on a landscape scale. Our international efforts, through our Cop26 presidency and our leadership at Cop15, have also placed nature at the center of tackling the twin challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss.”

Shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon said: “The government’s release of such a scathing review of its own eco watchdog highlights the extent of the environmental damage done by the 13-year Tory government. Just three months into her tenure, the environment secretary has changed the situation from bleak to downright dangerous, violating her own environmental targets and announcing a plan that has resulted in more toxic air and sewer discharges for longer periods of time. It is clear that the Tory party has given up power.”

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