How well is the UK government delivering its environmental promises?

Yesterday saw the release of Wildlife and Countryside Link’s Nature Check:2013 report which reviews the progress the UK government has made towards its natural environment commitments. The result? Whilst some positive action has been taken regarding the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy and Ash dieback, there has been significantly slower progress in areas relating to natural capital, agricultural policy and greenbelt land.

Wildlife and Countryside Link is an umbrella body that represents 42 environmental organisations, including the British Ecological Society, and works to promote the environment within the government’s agenda and act as a common voice to influence environmental policy. The Nature Check report released builds upon previous annual reports published in 2011 and 2012 and reviews how the government is currently delivering against its environmental commitments. The assessment spans over 8 areas: nature and access to nature; agriculture, freshwater; forestry; plant and animal health; marine environment; protection of animals and land use planning. By considering the commitments within these areas, the report looks at how the government has met or is meeting them through their action such as in funding, engaging stakeholders, implementing programmes with appropriate monitoring or science evidence bases and developing policies or legislation.

Out of the 25 commitments assessed using a traffic light system, only four were rated as green (good progress), whilst 12 were given amber status (moderate progress) and 9 given red (failing).  10% have improved since last year’s assessment but 20% have declined. As such, the government which claimed to want to be the greenest government ever, currently has a long way to go. Some of the commitment ratings given can be seen below (2013 status only):

  • ‘We will negotiate reform of the EU Common Fisheries Policy to support sustainable fish stocks, a prosperous fishing industry and a healthy marine environment’
  • ‘We will implement the Ash Dieback Control Strategy and consider the findings from the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce.’
  • ‘Protect and enhance our urban and natural environment to improve public health and wellbeing.’
  • ‘Improve water quality.’
  • ‘We will plant a million trees by 2015 and put English forestry on a more sustainable footing, building on the report by the Independent Panel on Forestry.’
  • ‘We will implement the Biodiversity Strategy and build natural capital through Local Nature Partnerships.’
  • ‘We will maintain the Green Belt, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and other environmental protections, and create a new designation – similar to SSSIs – to protect green areas of particular importance to local communities.’
  • ‘Deliver a new framework for achieving the dual objectives of increasing food production and enhancing the environment.’
  • ‘We will designate Marine Conservation Zones in 2013 and reduce the regulatory burden of marine licensing while maintaining a high level of protection of the marine environment.’

The positive steps made in some of these areas are encouraging and show that the government is willing to take action in often tricky political situations, such as the recent reform of the Common Fisheries Policy which involved much EU political debate. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many areas like natural capital and implementation of EU directives, and as such the government is lagging. Despite Owen Paterson defending the work of the government yesterday on Radio 4, saying the report is ‘unfair and opinion based’, the current lack of action in many areas contradicts this view. An independent survey released at the same time of the report also confirms the views voiced in the Nature Check: of over 2,000 adults surveyed only a quarter believe that the UK government is protecting landscapes and wildlife well enough.

The Nature Check report calls out to the government to better meet its environmental commitments and provides recommendations relating to 1) having stronger leadership and clarity of purpose relating to environmental commitments, 2) properly support and fund nature conservation bodies and 3) enforce rules and regulations that protect our environmental public goods. The biggest challenge perhaps is for how to best ensure that the government will do this, particularly given the funding cuts Defra received earlier this year. As such, bodies such as Wildlife and Countryside Link and the work they do are important in strengthening the voice of environmental organisations in addition to pushing the environment into government decision making at all levels.