There must be an ambitious Environment Act in the next Parliament or all this is simply the government saying what the voluntary sector has been saying for a long time.
Campaigners are calling for tough laws to back up nature protection proposals outlined yesterday by the government in its 25-year environment plan.
The plan was a 2015 Conservative manifesto pledge, but publication was delayed by the vote to leave the EU and last year’s election.
It proposes a plethora of policies covering waste, the natural environment, air pollution and improving health through access to nature. There is also a plan to create a “nature recovery network” delivering 500,000 hectares of new habitat to protect and restore wildlife.
The government’s headline announcement was on plastic waste, which Prime minister Theresa May called “one of the great environmental scourge of our time.”
“Avoidable” plastic waste would be eliminated by 2042, May said. “We look back in horror at some of the damage done to our environment in the past and wonder how anyone could have thought that, for example, dumping toxic chemicals, untreated, into rivers was ever the right thing to do.
“In years to come, I think people will be shocked at how today we allow so much plastic to be produced needlessly,” she said.
In the UK alone, the amount of single-use plastic wasted every year would fill 1,000 Royal Albert Halls, she added.
Plastic waste will be slashed through measures including extending the 5p single use plastic bag charge to all sizes of retailer, and encouraging cafés and transport hubs to offer free water refill hubs to cut plastic bottle use, the government said. It is also considering a deposit scheme to encourage recycling of plastic bottles.
But Friends of the Earth waste campaigner Julian Kirby said that the government’s record did not match its rhetoric: “If it’s avoidable waste, why is it taking us a quarter of a century to get there?”
Under the Conservatives, English recycling rates have stalled and the nation is burning ever more recyclable waste, even though in 2010 the party committed to a zero waste economy, he said.
Other environmental campaign groups were disappointed with the lack of new legislation to ensure that promises made in the 25-year plan were followed through and enforced.
Karla Hill, director of programmes at legal campaigners ClientEarth, which has successfully taken the government to court over its flawed air pollution strategies, said: “The 25 year plan makes the right noises about how our environment will be protected in the coming years. But it makes no solid commitments to new law and it lacks any detail about how we will enforce environment laws once we leave the EU.”
Stephanie Hilborne OBE, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, said that the plans ambitions “raised the spirits”, but that the lack of legal underpinning of the plan was a fundamental flaw. For example, the plan wants to encourage development to include green infrastructure such as sedum roofs to encourage wildlife and prevent flooding, but there was no plan to prevent development without it gaining planning permission, she said.
“There must be an ambitious Environment Act in the next Parliament or all this is simply the government saying what the voluntary sector has been saying for a long time,” she said.
Martin Harper, director of global conservation at the RSPB, said that the first environment speech from a prime minister in a generation was a sign of personal commitment from May. But he added that the only way to ensure that the ambition in the plan was met and momentum sustained was to create legislation for the restoration of nature in the way the Climate Change Act has done for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“Within the plan there is a very clear reminder of why voluntary targets just don’t work – we have yet another target to end the use of peat in horticulture, this time by 2020. This, I think is the third such voluntary target in 20 years but they have clearly failed: recent monitoring suggests 56% of all growing media still contains peat,” he said.
Co-leader of the Green Party and MP Caroline Lucas said: "The very fact that the prime minister is making this speech is a step forward, and the announcements within it are welcome, but we should be very clear that its contents simply aren't commensurate with the scale of the crises we face.
“It is deeply disappointing that the government has failed to put their vague ambitions in concrete legislation,” she said.
Catherine Early is regular contributor to The Ecologist.