Has Defra’s environment plan been ‘kicked into the long grass’?

Opposition party politicians have expressed concern that the green business community has been "fobbed off" over the multiple delays of the Government's proposed 25-Year Environment Plan.

The comprehensive Plan, led by Defra and the UK’s Natural Capital Committee, was initially due to be released last year. But delays have left green groups concerned about exactly when the full document – which covers key areas such as biodiversity and air quality – will be released.

At an All-Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group (APSRG) event in Westminster yesterday (5 July), Liberal Democrat Peer Baroness Parminter suggested that the contents of the Plan will provide an early indicator of the Government’s post-Brexit green policy approach.

Parminter warned against a pathway based on “deregulation, low tax and changes to our environmental policy”, and said that the adoption of an ambitious 25-Year Plan would help the UK take an alternative route that taps into low-carbon and resource efficiency markets.

“Our early priority in this parliament is to ensure that we get this environment plan for the Government,” Parminter said. “Because that’s going to be the surest sign of which of those two routes we are going to go down. They [the Government] fobbed us off by saying that they didn’t have time to publish it before the election, and they’re fobbing us off now by saying it might come by the end of the year. Our job is to say we want it now because that will set the vision.” 

Brexit demands

The implementation of the 25-Year Environment Plan could provide significant economic benefits to the UK, with businesses said to be currently missing out on a £7bn windfall by ignoring the natural capital potential of their land. An array of sustainability and environmental experts have said the Government must “stop dithering“, after a leaked version of the document was criticised for providing “grand promises with zero detail”.

Yesterday, Labour MP Angela Smith told the Westminster audience that she believed plans to release the paper, alongside a separate 25-Year food and farming strategy, had been shelved. “It’s my understanding that both of those plans have effectively been kicked into the long grass,” Smith said. “So, we need to dig them out of that place and hold Government ministers to account on that.”

The former Defra Shadow Minister said that her parliamentary activities over the next two years will likely be dominated by the scrutiny of Brexit negotiations. With an estimated 80% of environmental laws deriving from the EU, the ongoing talks will be closely followed by green groups and politicians alike. 

Smith said that MPs will need to be “very alert” to ensure that environmental protections are maintained and strengthened in the new parliament. She warned of the “temptation” for Government to use secondary legislative powers to avoid full parliamentary scrutiny regarding the EU’s Great Repeal Bill.

‘Very concerned’

An area of particular concern will be the UK’s future role in the EU’s proposed Circular Economy Package, which contains legally-binding targets for areas such as waste, packaging, and landfill. Smith alleged that current ministerial apathy within the UK Government could slow down the UK’s transition towards a circular economy.

“It is at risk because of our potential withdrawal from the EU,” she said. “I know that at least one of our ministers doesn’t even like the term, and I’m not convinced that she even likes the concept. So I am very concerned… because it is important to our future.”

Resource Minister Therese Coffey has previously spoken of certain elements of the Circular Economy Package that the Government is “less keen on” – in particular weight-based recycling targets. But according to Smith, business investment in resource efficiency could be hindered if the Government turns its back on the Package.

“Business needs certainty on this,” Smith said. “If businesses are going to start working together on the circular economy concept – which makes sense environmentally and in business terms – then they are going to need encouragement from Government to believe it is worth their while investing in the concept.”

George Ogleby

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