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It's an environmentalist's dream – but will May's green plan ever be reality?

Prime Minister Theresa May unveiling the government’s 25-year plan for the environment.
Prime Minister Theresa May unveiling the government’s 25-year plan for the environment. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

The government’s new 25-year plan conjures up an environmentalist’s dream, from huge new nature reserves to protecting our long-neglected but life-giving soils. The nation’s beleaguered wildlife, toxic urban air and polluted waters certainly need it.

The question is whether turning the plan into reality will become a political nightmare when confronted with vested interests or lack of Treasury funds. Such ghouls have shattered far less ambitious goals in the past.

The vision itself is an important moment, categorically stating that a healthy environment is essential to both our happiness and wellbeing as well as to a thriving economy. Theresa May’s speech to launch the plan on Thursday was the first green speech by a prime minister in the UK in 15 years, finally elevating the environment to its required place as “a central priority”.

Countryside, conservation and business groups all welcomed the plan – a potential “game-changer” according to WWF’s Tanya Steele. But all had the same concern as Steele: “These commitments will only become a reality if they are backed by the force of law, money and a new environmental watchdog.”

A strong watchdog will be vital after Brexit, as the EU currently regulates most green issues. The pledge on this was one of the firmer commitments in the plan – the problem is that is not saying very much. Environment secretary Michael Gove promised to “consult on plans to set up an independent, statutory body”.

There are other big, important ideas in the plan, such as “developing” 500,000 hectares of new wildlife-rich habitat on top of existing nature reserves and, crucially, aiming to join them up to create networks that can thrive.

Another is “seeking to embed” a new planning principle of “net environmental gain” so that the building of new houses results in an overall benefit by restoring other neglected or degraded land. That appears to be a radical departure from the slash-and-burn approach to planning regulations under David Cameron’s government, but the plan gives no clue as to how it will win over powerful and cost-averse developers.

There are also plenty of eye-catching suggestions, such as delivering environmental therapies through mental health services, a treatment approach already showing results. Getting children away from screens and into trees is one of the few initiatives backed with new money: £10m to support “nature-friendly schools”.

The plan recognises the national soil crisis – 84% of the fertile topsoil in East Anglia has been lost in the last 200 years – and aims to have all of England’s soils managed sustainably by 2030. Tackling the pollution that pours off many farms into rivers is also taken seriously, as is reform of older water licences that allow the holders to drain as much as they like, whatever the environmental cost.

These and many other proposals make the 25-year plan a good one, but what happens when the hard choices arrive? An examination of the Conservative track record since 2010 is not encouraging.

Cameron showed far more green zeal than May ever has, even if a key goal of both was attracting younger voters. But when gas prices pushed up energy bills, Cameron opted to ditch the “green crap” rather than take on the energy giants and double down on cost-saving insulation.

May promised cleaner air on Thursday. But last year, when confronted with the illegal levels of air pollution killing 40,000 people a year, she refused to implement the solution her government itself judged most effective – charging dirty cars – and deal with the anger of motorists.

Past double-dealing also damages confidence in many of the new plan’s proposals. The pledge to end the plastic pollution that plagues the oceans comes as recycling rates have stalled in England, with more than ever now burned instead. Confidence in grand plans for new northern forests are undermined by just 700 hectares of new trees being planted in England in 2016, just 14% of the national target, and HS2 being set to bulldoze through ancient woods.

There are also a few areas where even the vision of the new plan falls short, most worryingly on adapting the UK to the impacts of climate change. In 2016, the government’s official advisors warned that the nation is poorly prepared for the anticipated deadly annual heatwaves, water shortages and difficulties in producing food.

Floods are the biggest risk and the new plan wisely recommends “putting in place more sustainable drainage systems”, but omits the fact that Tory ministers have imposed a seven-year freeze on on implementing legal requirements to do just that. The plans also wants “high environmental standards for all new builds” – ministers killed the zero-carbon homes plan in 2015.

One bright spot, however, is tackling the rising risk of drought. The plan says water companies will be expected “to reduce leakage by at least an average of 15% by 2025”. Today, many companies in the south and east of England have reduction targets for 2020 of zero, despite 20% of all water leaking away.

The plan acknowledges that “long-term action requires us to take difficult choices, some with considerable economic consequences, about conservation”. So far, May and Gove have taken the easy choices, from extending the 5p plastic bag tax and banning microbeads from cosmetics to banning ivory sales and imposing bigger penalties for animal cruelty. The lobbying against those decisions was near non-existent.

But perhaps there is one omen that implies the lofty vision of the plan may survive a collision with the reality of big vested interests. Gove has insisted he will dismantle the £3bn-a-year farm subsidy scheme, replacing rewards for simply owning land with support for enhancing nature. Yet even this remains no more than a pledge and the National Farmers’ Union warned on Thursday against putting environment above food production.

The new laws, regulations and Treasury funds needed to make the government’s 25-year plan a reality also remain to be delivered. As Gove himself remarked: “There is much more still to do.”

This article titled "It's an environmentalist's dream – but will May's green plan ever be reality?" was written by Damian Carrington Environment editor, for The Guardian on Thursday 11 January 2018 05.35pm

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