Theresa May deserves plaudits for delivering the first dedicated speech on the environment, by a sitting Prime Minister, for over ten years. Together, with the re-energised Michael Gove at the helm of Defra, the Government is determined to bring the degradation of our natural environment to a state of public consciousness- and act on this decline.
The 25 year plan sets a framework to ‘be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it’. Within this overarching framework, Theresa May’s speech had a clear philosophical underpinning: making the case that conservatism and conservation are natural allies, rejecting the notion that economic growth and sustainability are mutually exclusive- concluding that this was a ‘false choice’.
Valid points indeed, but the key question –as always -is whether the strong rhetoric is matched by substantive policies. The headline policies/announcements are examined below.
1) Single use plastics and marine plastic pollution featured heavily in media outlets before the speech, thanks in part to programmes such as Blue Planet for globally broadcasting the plight of our oceans- evoking visceral reactions in large swatches of the public polity.
In response, the Government has pledged to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042, reducing the demand for plastic, reducing the number of plastics in circulation and improving our recycling rates. Welcome proposals include extending the 5p carrier bag charge to all retailers in England, a policy that has already seen 9 billion fewer plastic bags being used. Further pledges to inject new funding into plastics innovation through a bid into the government’s £7 billion research and development pot is welcomed, mirroring the policy suggestion that Government should “foster innovation in the recycling and reuse of goods and materials” made in Policy Exchange’s Going Round in Circles: Developing a new approach to waste policy after Brexit.
However, little attention is given to the fact that recycling rates have stagnated in recent years or how supporting the development of markets for secondary materials will be crucial in rectifying this. Ironically, plastic pollution is both the subject the Government majored on and the one where it could do more. Less than concrete proposals “to explore introducing plastic-free aisles” and “encourage” manufacturers to “take responsibility for the impacts of their products” fall short. Given the impending ban by China on plastic waste imports from the UK, it is vital we drastically improve our recycling infrastructure so we can move towards greater self-sufficiency.
Whilst emphasis was and should be placed on extended producer responsibility, there is also a need for shared collective responsibility for the decisions we make; how we buy and how we use products. One action the Government has taken that will aid this is the plan to rationalise packaging formats echoing the recommendation “to define common standards for the labelling of packaging” in our report.
2) The Government will embed the principle of ‘net environmental gain’ for development, including housing and infrastructure. This is a likely pre-cursor to the introduction of biodiversity offsetting, a policy previously advocated in Policy Exchange’s Farming Tomorrow which stated that “biodiversity offsetting could play an important role in the transition from the current CAP regime to a new policy framework defined around ecosystem services”.
Biodiversity offsetting is a mechanism whereby if habitat is lost in one area then this loss can be offset through the replacement, restoration or enhancement of habitat elsewhere – on the basis that overall there is a net gain in habitat. For example, if a particular piece of land including habitats is developed for housing, then a separate area of agricultural land, previously of low environmental value, could be enhanced to create a new habitat. Whilst this is a somewhat simplistic view of the way ecosystems operate, there are circumstances in which this approach could be helpful as a way of optimising land use and quantifying biodiversity losses and compensating for them. However, as noted in Farming Tomorrow, a biodiversity offsetting approach needs to be clearly bounded, and there are circumstances where it simply will not be appropriate – for example areas with high levels of biodiversity (such as Sites of Scientific Interest and ancient woodlands) simply cannot be replicated elsewhere, and should not be built on. How such a policy is reconciled with any additional costs placed on developers will be an important factor in the success or otherwise of embedding the principle of ‘net environmental gain’
3) The Government will set out plans for a new, world leading independent statutory environmental body to hold government to account, bolstering the Prime Ministers claim that “Brexit will not mean a lowering of environmental standards”. Details on the precise functions, remit and powers will be provided following a consultation in 2018. It is worth noting that this bares a resemblance to the Sustainable Development Commission, established in 2000 and disbanded in 2011, owing to the ceding of powers away from ministers to non-elected bodies.
Given that the introduction of a statutory body is largely seen as a response to public concern, be it the ‘youth vote’ in the 2017 election or the popular interest raised by programmes such as Blue Planet, ministers will require it to continue reflect societal views. Any departure from this may see it encounter difficulties.
Like the Clean Growth Strategy, the 25-year plan is ambitious in its scope and breadth. Yet questions remain about how ambitious the timeframes are and whether some of the grander ideas will be realised. For example the Government has pledged just £5.7 million of the £500 million required (over 25 years) to deliver the 50 million trees needed for the Northern Forest project. Will this initial investment be enough to leverage the private investment needed to deliver the scheme in its entirety? Definitive support for a Deposit Return Scheme was also absent although the Defra has set up a working group to examine how a reward and return schemes for drinks containers could work in England with the group due to report their findings in early 2018.
As one reporter questioned, this new environmental conversion could be perceived as a ploy to appeal to younger swathes of the electorate. But, the Prime Minister delivered her address with an ease that is not often observed- perhaps a sign of true conviction. For this, praise should be given whilst greater adulation is reserved, pending further concrete policy proposals and the conclusion of a number of public consultations in 2018.