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A vision for change?

The proposed actions on plastics are particularly welcome, but we are still waiting for a Deposit Return System. The proposed actions on plastics are particularly welcome, but we are still waiting for a Deposit Return System.

Head of Government and Rural Affairs Belinda Gordon reacts to the Government’s launch of its 25-year Environment Plan

It’s felt to many of us like we’ve waited 25 years for this plan, so the first reaction is surely a sense of relief that we can finally get an insight into how the Government is hoping to deliver the commitment to be ‘the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than that in which we found it’.

There’s much to welcome. The proposed actions on plastics, heralded by the wave of concern generated by the BBC’s Blue Planet 2 revelations on plastic waste in the world’s oceans and an early leak on the 25-year plan itself, are particularly welcome. We are delighted by the emphasis on enhancing the beautiful English landscape, which is such an important source of refreshment and inspiration for people. Actions to enhance National Parks, AONBs and the Green Belt, create a new Northern Forest, as well as to restore nature across the wider landscape, will also bring benefits to the countryside. This, combined with the actions to improve people’s access to green space and address climate change, should bring improvements in the health and wellbeing of all of us.

But there’s a sense of disappointment about lack of detail in some areas while some anticipated announcements were not in the final plan. For example, there’s a recognition of the need to manage noise and light pollution, but there are no commitments to do this – so little of England has truly dark skies (see Night Blight) and we think more is needed to protect them, as well as improve the tranquillity that so many people seek in the countryside.

And despite the Government taking such decisive action against plastics and Britain’s ‘throwaway culture’, there was no announcement on the introduction of a Deposit Return System (DRS) for aluminium cans and glass and plastic bottles as a solution to litter and boosting recycling rates. With the Environmental Audit Committee giving DRS its blessing in its recent report, we had hoped we were finally ‘over the line’ with that.

The new plan is ambitious in its size and scope. CPRE is particularly pleased to see it identify the planning system and built development as having a significant impact on our environment and the aspirations to manage that impact. However, more detail on how this is put into action is needed – and soon. We are keen to work with the Government to ensure that planning policy, which is currently failing to deliver its stated aim of ‘sustainable development’, is improved, and land is treated as the finite resource that it is.

But we are concerned about what will be the result of embedding ‘environmental net gain’ as a principle for development.  While we support the idea on net environmental gain, whether it is positive or not will really depend upon how it will work in practice. It assumes that all environmental assets are quantifiable and replaceable, which is not the case.

CPRE believes there is a golden opportunity to put this right in the forthcoming review of the NPPF. The Government can then really start demonstrating its commitment to prevent wastage of precious farmland and maintain protections for National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  For this to be achieved successfully, the Government needs to stop incentivising local authorities and developers to build homes and workplaces at low densities on greenfield sites in parts of the country that are already overheating, but instead do more to make the best use of suitable previously developed areas in towns and cities across the country. 

The new 25-year Environment Plan, along with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, should be embedded at the heart of the revised NPPF, which must be seen as one of the key mechanisms to deliver the plan’s objectives alongside increasing housing delivery.

We look forward to working with the Government to deliver these, develop metrics to assess progress and to develop a new agricultural policy that will fund improvements to the landscape, soil and other public benefits.

It’s felt to many of us like we’ve waited 25 years for this plan.

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