Our take on the environment secretary’s speech

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Last week the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice, made an end-of-term speech.  It did not inspire confidence.

A few bits of new money were promised.  For instance, he announced £4m for a two-year pilot to bring ‘green prescribing’ to four urban and rural areas that have been hit the hardest by coronavirus.  Of course, the notion of green prescribing has been around for many years and makes absolute common sense, improving people’s health and well-being and saving money from the health budget.  But £4m is very little, particularly when compared with, say, the £27bn which the government has decreed for road building—which will have the opposite effect on our health and well-being.

Chadderton Field, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, registered 2011

Then there is a £5m pilot on establishing a new capital and ecosystem assessment, to improve the baseline understanding of habitats and species abundance across the country in every planning authority.  But when the prime minister’s message is ‘Build, build, build’, together with a criticism that ‘the newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and the prosperity of this country’ one wonders whether habitats and species will get a look in.  Besides, £5m won’t go very far when spread among around 365 local planning authorities in England.

Our particular concern is the lack of mention of public access and enjoyment, an important part of Defra’s remit which too often gets squeezed to one side.  Mr Eustice mentions the all-important Environment Bill (see here), but government has stalled this urgent legislation until September, having already delayed it because of the pandemic.

Voluntarily-registered in 2020, Whimbrel Green in Kent

Our case officer, Nicola Hodgson, comments: ‘The Environment Bill falls far short of what is needed to set targets for public access across the country.

‘The bill enables targets to be set for people’s enjoyment of the natural environment.  With minor amendments the government could make a significant difference to the provision of public access opportunities.

‘It could do this by requiring:

  • targets to be set relating to people’s enjoyment of the natural environment, alongside the other priorities of air, water, biodiversity and waste;
  • the inclusion of steps to improve enjoyment of the natural environment within Environmental Improvement Plans;
  • habitat maps, a component of Local Nature Recovery Strategies, to show how biodiversity can contribute to people’s enjoyment of the natural environment.

‘It is deeply regrettable that George Eustice failed to mention these opportunities in his speech.  The society will be lobbying for these amendments to the Environment Bill.’

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