Can we have the Bill please?

© David Phillips

The Wildlife Trusts have been calling for an Environment Act for a long time and, with Brexit coming, we especially welcome today’s draft Bill. But what's in it, is it good and what would it mean for us locally?

Governance - Our most special local wildlife sites: The New Forest, The Solent, the Rivers Itchen and Avon and Thames Basin Heaths are all given protection by European legislation. Indeed we have way over the national average of land in this category. So when we leave the EU we need a strong domestic body of law to give them as good or better protections if they are to be at the heart of securing nature’s recovery. But laws need teeth and the European Court of Justice had big ones! So the conservation bodies have been fighting for an effective regulator and the Bill sets out a plan for an Office for Environmental Protection which we welcome. We need to ask our MP’s to make sure this is properly resourced, governed and independent. 

Furthermore Government as a whole needs to own the full scope of the Bill’s content which the public are rallying behind like never before: Treasury, Housing, Business, Health departments all need to get behind the Environmental  Principles set out in the Bill and work in the same direction. In our area this means a realistic and perhaps radical overhaul of how we view our land and natural resources, especially our approach to housing, economy and agriculture as well as water, fisheries and recreation. Holding this all together will be Environmental Improvement Plans which could be an effective way of providing accountability and scrutiny. We need to push for these plans to be at a meaningful scale so that we can challenge centralised targets such as impossible volumes of house building locally.

Local ecological network map for Hampshire

Local Nature Recovery Network map for Hampshire

Nature Recovery Network - We need to go beyond merely protecting existing wildlife havens to making much more space for nature.  Locally we want the amount of land where wildlife takes priority to be tripled in the coming years.  So we welcome commitment to a Nature Recovery Network enshrined in law because without it, most likely we will see wildlife plummeting locally as nationally. We are very pleased that the proposal for Local Nature Recovery Strategies has been included – something the Wildlife Trusts have been really pushing hard for. Our huge areas of farmland and even built-up areas need to be restored for nature and the environment so that wildlife recovery can take place, at the same time doing our bit to lock away carbon and clean and store precious water. The Trust and its partners locally have already defined what we want the Network to look like and we now want to see detailed commitment to securing and aligning resources to make the Strategies workable.

Biodiversity Net Gain - We are delighted that the draft Bill contains mandated Biodiversity Net Gain – this would require that all new housing developments must not merely avoid harm to wildlife but go further to secure wildlife recovery through measurable gains. Where this is not possible within a development site gains must be meaningfully delivered offsite in Nature Recovery Areas. Developers are already getting behind this voluntarily and are finding that it can be good not only for wildlife but it can create more attractive places for people to live as well. We are concerned, however, that large infrastructure projects are not included, and whilst some may opt-in, there is no requirement to do so. We also want to see these principles replicated in our coastal and marine areas too and need to actively steer the debate in this direction.

Nature recovery network

The Nature Recovery Network

The Nature Recovery Network is a critical part of the Environment Bill and something the Wildlife Trusts and our members have been calling for.  This network can inform decisions and guide investment to restore habitats and bring wildlife back.

Find out more about what this means for Hampshire and the Island

Water -The Act must play its part in ensuring that a clean and abundant supply of water, which is essential for our globally important chalk rivers and wetlands to remain healthy, is ensured through fairly yet robust regulation; once again Europe has been a major force here in cleaning-up our water bodies. We welcome the inclusion of Regional Water Plans so that water companies must work even more cooperatively and with long-term objectives, as well as reform of water abstraction so that licences are issued where needed and well managed. Nature plays a part in managing past and present water pollution and we are pushing for nature-based solutions to our local pollution burden. As water quantity and quality become increasingly uncertain due to climate change, the need of our rivers and wetlands must be put at the heart of legislation for water in the Act.

Air Quality - The Act must also tackle our air pollution crisis, with Southampton and Portsmouth especially failing to meet healthy standards – local action in reducing the burning of fossil fuels in the increasingly frantic dash to and from work and pleasure is eroding our health, our quality of life, and damaging sensitive wildlife. And yet wildlife in the form of trees and green spaces is part of a nature-based solution to reducing the harmful effects. We want to see ambitious targets for reducing air pollution in our region, and recognition of the part nature plays in cleaning our air.

Plastic Waste - Our local seas bear the burden of plastic waste –everything from huge pieces of floating polystyrene to invisible microplastics permeate our seas and, as we are finding out, our rivers and soils too.  We are delighted that the Bill responds to the overwhelming public sentiment that we should end the production of single-use plastics which end up in our environment and cause untold impacts on our marine and aquatic wildlife.

Plastic litter in our oceans

© Shutterstock

So is the Environment Bill what we’ve been asking for?  It certainly has many of the constituent parts that we have all campaigned for, but it has to work together and the debate must now address those areas where we believe it needs to go further. The sum of the individual measures must be enough to tip the balance in favour of nature's recovery.

It has to be strong enough to create change throughout Government, industry and society.  It can't be watered down and implementation must be effective and well resourced.

This is our once in a generation chance to get the legislation that nature deserves.  

And there is still everything to fight for.  The biggest risk today is that with the on-going Brexit shenanigans, this Bill could just sit on the shelf.  When it comes to the imminent General Election, we will be asking you all to make sure that these issues are the ones that are being discussed on doorsteps across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight! 

Nature's recovery can't wait for calmer political waters and this must be a priority for all parties to push forward. 

Updated version 21/10/19