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Our general secretary Kate Ashbrook reflects on the current attack on the environment.
‘… now it is time unequivocally to act’ wrote Louis MacNeice in Autumn Journal in 1938. And so it is in this autumn, when government has suddenly made a full-frontal onslaught on the environment, nature, and our enjoyment of them.
First there was the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill on 22 September to determine which of more than 2,400 pieces of European legislation will be scrapped—nearly one quarter of these belong to the environment department, and many are vital to the protection of our wildlife habitats, and to human health.
The next day the treasury published the Growth Plan, which proposes 38 investment zones where planning rules will be relaxed. The zones potentially affect seven national parks and 29 areas of outstanding natural beauty. The plan also trailed the Planning and Infrastructure Bill to accelerate major infrastructure projects, ‘minimising the burden of environmental assessments’.
On 24 September the Guardian reported that one victim of ‘growth’ would be the environmental land management schemes (ELMS), to be ‘reviewed’—though ministers had promised to pay farmers for providing nature and public access benefits.
We do not yet know the fate of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, on which we are working as part of the Better Planning Coalition of 29 national bodies to achieve improvements in planning, and to prevent excess centralisation and loss of democracy. It may be emasculated or lost in the current political confusion. What hope for green spaces then?
Nature and environmental organisations have reacted swiftly to this dire set of announcements, arguing, under the hashtag ‘AttackOnNature’, that the environment is crucial to growth. User bodies must shout about the importance of public access for our health and well-being, and for growth. Did the pandemic not show its massive importance?
It is much better in Wales. The Agriculture (Wales) Bill, published on 26 September, will provide support for ‘maintaining and enhancing public access to and engagement with the countryside’. In England we have achieved only ministerial promises which seem set to be broken.
Where is the hope? It lies in our united voices and in the voice of youth. The young wilders who gathered at Knepp in West Sussex, just as the announcements came pouring out, were full of optimism despite the desperate times. Their five-metre-long manifesto says it all. Government must listen to them. They are the future.