There was a moment during the Prime Minister’s highly anticipated environment speech when something quite unexpected happened. For the majority of the 25 minutes, Theresa May attempted to communicate the contents and commitments of the 151-page Environment Plan (PDF, 11MB). Emphasis was given to the recent progress in banning microbeads as well as the nine billion fewer plastic bags used following the introduction of the 5p charge in retail outlets across the UK. Yet, what stood out was not so much the bedazzling spread of content. Instead, it was a rare admission.
Seeming to go momentarily off script, May described how commonly today ‘we look back in horror at some of the damage done to our environment in the past,’ citing the historical dumping of toxic chemical into rivers. ‘In years to come,’ she added, ‘I think people will be shocked at how today we allow so much plastic to be produced needlessly.’
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The PM could easily have been talking about how we’ve allowed 97 per cent of wildflower meadows to be lost in the UK, or how our insatiable desire for private transport contributes to 40,000 air pollution-related mortalities annually. Either way, a key tenet of serious environmentalism – that apathy today will seem like moral bankruptcy tomorrow – was being aired at the highest level of British politics. The concept’s application to future environmental governance is arguably more encouraging than any of May’s ambitious promises.
And there were plenty of such promises. A central component of the 25-Year Environment Plan is to get more people into the natural environment. Early in the speech, May highlighted the rich tradition of poetry, art and music that the ‘green and blue spaces’ of the British Isles have inspired. Getting closer to the natural world, the Prime Minister prompted, is ‘good for our physical and mental health, as well as our spiritual and emotional wellbeing.’ Young people from more deprived backgrounds are disproportionately unlikely to enjoy these benefits. To tackle this ‘social injustice’ May launched the Nature Friendly Schools programme, with an albeit modest £10million budget.
Next came the promise of economic growth. Michael Gove, who introduced May at the London Wetlands Centre, had begun the day by eagerly putting the Conservative in conservation, during a BBC Radio 4 interview. Gove’s recent appointment as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, put him at the helm of the DEFRA-produced Environment Plan. ‘You cannot have a healthy economy,’ he insisted on the Today programme, ‘without a healthy environment.’ The ‘harmony’ achieved by pursuing both goals, was seconded by May, stating that ‘new clean technologies have the potential to deliver more good jobs, and higher living standards.’
Yet both the Prime Minister and Gove were not completely in concert when it came to the big headline announcement on plastic. Quantifying the unrecycled waste problem, May explained that ‘in the UK alone, the amount of single-use plastics wasted every year would fill 1,000 Royal Albert Halls.’
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The Prime Minister also drew on recent footage of animals tangled in plastic as seen in Blue Planet II, labelling the problem one of the ‘great environmental scourges of our time.’ Gove, however, seemed off-key with May’s reduce-and-recycle message while on the BBC programme. Arguing that continued demand for premium plastic bags shows that ‘people are already prepared to pay more in order to help the environment,’ the minister seemed to confuse habituated behaviour with concern for the natural world. The announcement by the Prime Minister that the 5p charge would now be extended to small-scale retailers, was the only actual policy change announced during the speech.
Other anomalies included the increased animal cruelty sentences, announced by the same government that offered a vote on bringing back fox hunting in its election manifesto (recently dropped following May’s claim to have heard a ‘clear message’ from the British public). A separate plan unveiled at the start of the week, announced a new 120-mile ‘Northern Forest’ linking Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire. May’s claims of creating a new space of play, discovery and a carbon sink capable of absorbing eight million tonnes of carbon are commendable environmental steps in their own right – but come from a government whose HS2 rail link currently threatens 98 ancient woodlands.
The plans to protect British Seas receives its own chapter in the six-part plan. May described in her speech that, ‘once we have taken back control of our waters, we will implement a more sustainable fishing policy.’ Despite the jingoistic allusion that everything will be better after Brexit, the existing barriers to creating tighter, self-imposed fishing policies – were not made clear.
Open, consistent and transparent?
Experts vary in the amount of praise they afford to May’s speech, the 25-year plan and the government’s budding environmental concern in general. ‘We have been very impressed with the way Michael Gove has engaged with environmental issues,’ comments Ben Stafford, Head of Campaigns at WWF.
May concluded her speech by touching on the challenges presented by climate change, pointing to how the plan addresses the need for reduced carbon emissions and improved air quality. Highlighting the cross-party consensus on the 2008 Climate Change Act, Stafford told Geographical, that such unanimity would be useful now in agreeing an Environment Act.
Professor Andrew Jordan of the University of East Anglia, who currently researches the impact of Brexit on environmental policy is more circumspect. ‘The EU’s Environmental Action Programmes are open, consistent and transparent,’ he explains of the existing model. The UK’s new 25-Year Environment Plan, he believes, ‘undersells and under appreciates what the EU has done, and how it has done it over the last 40 years.’
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May has committed to keeping all existing EU environmental policies after Brexit. However, Professor Jordan predicts that for the employee-stripped DEFRA, ‘securing political agreement… to implement this new 25-year plan will be a huge ask for such a beleaguered department.’ A further challenge will be creating the independent watchdog the government wants to oversee the implementation of its plan.
At worst, the commitments launched at the London Wetland Centre this week by May will not be fulfilled. In hindsight future generations would – in the Prime Minister’s own prophetic words – look back in horror at the leader’s failed environmental legacy. At best, we will now begin the long journey of turning ambitious action points into robust and independently monitored policy. If we get it right, the next generation in 25 years’ time might not judge us quite so harshly. The right words have now been used by May to guide British environmental policy. Deciding the future, will be determined next by action.
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