In the UK, nature is in crisis. Therefore, to secure a sustainable economy and meet international commitments, it must be conserved for future generations. David Alexander investigates Nature Check 2013, which acts as the Government’s natural environment conscience.

Background

Published by the Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL) in November 2013, and supported by 41 leading environmental groups, Nature Check 2013 builds on comparable findings in 2011 and 2012, and is an assessment of the Coalition Government’s progress against its stated commitments to the natural environment in England. WCL began life as Wildlife Link in 1980 to improve co-operation between voluntary organisations with similar core objectives. It merged with Countryside Link in 1990 to provide greater breadth of wildlife and countryside expertise.

The UK relies on the natural environment for material, social and spiritual well-being, but this green and pleasant land is under significant threat, with more than half of UK species in long-term decline, along with habitats such as lowland meadows. Climate change will exacerbate matters with, for example, major floods increasing the levels of pollutants entering rivers and lakes. Nevertheless, wildlife and landscapes remain secondary to economic growth, rather than a fundamental prerequisite of economic success. Advice to the Government has consistently stressed that economic growth must be (environmentally) sustainable.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) business plan does not integrate the value of nature into policy development or support Local Nature Partnerships. Of Defra’s 24 headline actions, only one is dedicated to biodiversity. Similarly, the 2013 business plan for the Department of Communities and Local Government omitted reference to the environment or nature, and the 2013 spending review reduced the department’s budget to nearly half that of 2010 in real terms.

However, there are some positive actions on ash dieback — the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy and the development of a Cross-Departmental Task Force to combat illegal wildlife trafficking. The Government also has a preference for taking the maximum 15% of Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) funds out of agriculture and into wider environmental measures.

Government commitments

Using traffic light ratings, the report identified 12 out of 25 of the Government’s environmental commitments as amber, with 9 red and 4 green. Of those rated in 2012, only 10% have improved, while 20% have worsened.

Green ratings = good progress

  • A continued strong stance on banning the international sale of ivory.

  • A continued strong stance against commercial whaling.

  • A strong approach to reforming the Common Fisheries Policy, including overfishing, discarded fish and the achievement of maximum sustainable yields.

  • A strong approach to establishing an ash dieback control strategy.

Amber ratings = moderate progress

  • Reforming the water industry to enhance competition and improve conservation. Moving forward.

  • Influencing European reform to support a strong, sustainable agricultural industry, with a robust position of CAP reform. Moving forward.

  • Planting one million trees by 2015 and putting English forestry on a more sustainable footing, building in the report by the Independent Panel on Forestry. Moving forward.

  • Implementing EU regulations to prevent trade in illegal logging. This is undermined by a lack of transparency over UK procurement. No movement.

  • Creating a presumption in favour of sustainable development in the planning system. Without up-to-date Local Plans, planning has not always correctly balanced economic, environmental and social needs. No movement.

  • Radical reform of the planning system to give neighbourhoods much greater ability to shape the places where people live. There is variable support for this, with concern over the transparency of weight given to the environment. No movement.

  • Tackling the smuggling and illegal trade of wildlife through the new Border Police Force. There is a lack of long-term funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit and the necessary drive and resources to roll it out nationwide. Moving backward.

  • Commitment to the right of coastal access under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. There has been some progress on the England coastal path, but problems remain over funding and timing. Moving backward.

  • Protecting and enhancing urban and natural environments to improve public health and well-being. Improvements to rights-of-way legislation must be supported with access infrastructure and support for Local Nature Partnerships.

  • Improving water quality. The catchment-based approach is promising, but there are concerns over long-term delivery of environmental outcomes.

  • Tackling the illegal trafficking of protected or endangered wildlife species. The establishment of the Illegal Wildlife Trade Task Force should have a positive impact.

  • Introducing primary legislation to ban travelling circuses from using performing wild animals. A draft Bill is welcome, but the introduced licensing regime is inadequate and inappropriate.

Red ratings = failings

  • Implementing the Biodiversity Strategy and building natural capital through Local Nature Partnerships. The Strategy is underfunded and behind schedule, with the partners insufficiently supported to deliver it.

  • Maintaining Green Belts, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and protecting important green areas for local communities. Protection remains uncertain under revised planning policies and is not a priority.

  • Implementing recommendations from the EU Habitats and Wild Birds Directives Review. There is a danger of weakening compliance with the directives.

  • Promoting high standards of farm animal welfare. Little progress has been made, particularly over continued support for intensive dairy farming and its significant land management implications.

  • An unrelenting deregulatory approach to farming will harm environmental protection and animal welfare.

  • Delivering a new framework for achieving both increased food security and enhancing the environment. This has suffered from failure to tackle greenhouse gases from agriculture, and build on green food production.

  • Taking forward the Pitt Review on flood defences and unnecessary building in areas of high flood risk. There is some danger to river ecosystems.

  • Implementing a carefully managed and science-led policy of badger control for bovine TB. The policy has little focus on badger vaccination.

  • Designating Marine Conservation Zones, reducing regulatory burdens of marine licensing and maintaining a high level of protection for the marine environment. The proposed network is too small to be ecologically coherent.

Conclusion

This annual non-governmental organisation (NGO) health check on Government nature credentials has run since 2011 and is more than simply opinion. There are few areas where the Government has done the right thing for nature, but reform of the Common Fisheries Policy is one of them. Extensive financial cuts to Defra, Natural England and local authority funding will not help the Government to recognise that existing measures under the England Biodiversity Strategy are insufficient to address the critical state of nature. It was deeply disappointing that only 31 out of the recommended 127 Marine Conservation Zones will be put forward for designation.

The Government must focus action on:

  • accepting and working with the professional expertise of WCL

  • elevating the natural environment agenda

  • empowering Natural England as a critical champion for nature

  • implementing and enforcing environmental laws and regulations

  • transferring the maximum CAP funding from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2, with the Rural Development Plan (2015-22) given an environmental focus.

The environment remains secondary to economic growth throughout the current Coalition Government, but Liberal Democrat leaders are against allowing green credentials to be watered down. The Government seems unable or unwilling to see that protecting the planet and building a strong economy are two sides of the same coin. The importance to people of UK natural assets and nature are likely to prove significant factors in the run-up to the 2015 general election.

Last reviewed 18 February 2014