Environment Secretary George Eustice announces £9m for policy pilots as he promises to 'build back greener' after Covid-19 and Brexit
Environment Secretary George Eustice has insisted the government's promises build back greener and protect UK nature and biodiversity after Covid-19 "means what it says", as he announced further details of post-Brexit plans for oversight of environmental laws and local planning.
Eustice, who was promoted to head up Defra in February after several years as a minister in the Department, delivered a speech at an event organised by Green Alliance this morning with a heavy emphasis on boosting innovation and data collection in environmental policy.
Firstly, he said a consultation would be launched shortly setting out plans for a new method for Environmental Impact Assessments in a bid to realise the government's target for new buildings and developments to deliver "biodiversity net gain".
"Nature rightly deserves protection, so if we are to protect species and habitats and also deliver biodiversity net gain, we need to properly understand the science to inform crucial decisions," he said. "We should ask ourselves, for example, whether the current environmental impact assessment processes are as effective or efficient as they could be."
Coming in the wake of ambitions recently announced by the Prime Minister Boris Johnson to simplify planning law in order to fast-track building amid the looming recession, Eustice said there was "scope to consolidate and simplify the process" of green impact assessments for new developments.
"We can set out which habitats and species will always be off-limits, so everyone knows where they stand," Eustice explained. "And we can add to that list where we want better protection for species that are characteristic of our country and critical to our ecosystems that EU ignored - things like veteran trees, ancient woodland, water voles, red squirrels, adders, and pine martens."
Eustice also announced £4m funding for a two-year pilot "to bring green prescribing to four urban and rural areas that have been hit the hardest by coronavirus" that would see patients struggling with mental health issues offered treatment involving spending time out in nature and the countryside.
With growing evidence people benefit both physically and mentally from being in nature, Defra said the pilot, set to kick off in the autumn, would help better understand how to connect patients "with the beautiful British countryside" and that if successful it would be scaled up across the country.
Elsewhere in his speech, Eustice unveiled further details of the government's post-Brexit green governance plans, as the UK prepares to sever its membership ties with the European Union when the transition period draws to a close at the end of December 2020.
He said the government would "shortly" publish a paper setting out its approach to setting long-term targets on biodiversity, waste, water, and air quality through the new Environment Bill, which he said would likely return to Parliament to being committee stage in September.
The aim, Eustice said, was ensure the new legally-binding green targets are "established in time by October 2022", adding that Defra would shortly start the appointment process to have a chair in place to lead the new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) to oversee these targets in 2021.
The Defra Secretary said leaving the EU marked "an important moment" for UK policymakers to chart a new course on the environment, as he reiterated the government's pledge to "not only stem the tide of loss, but to turn it around - to leave the environment in a better state than we found it".
But while he claimed Brexit opened up opportunities for the UK to improve upon EU environmental laws and governance, Eustice said the UK would have "new responsibilities" and "would not be able to hide behind EU law when there are difficult decisions to make or indeed blame the EU when things don't work".
"When it comes to our new approach to the environment, we must have an appreciation of what worked in the EU in the past, and also what didn't work," he said. "Where there were approaches inside the EU that helped our environment, we should recognise these and be willing to borrow features from them.
But there is no point leaving the EU to keep everything the same," he added. "The old model has not stopped the decline in our natural world. We must therefore challenge ourselves to think creatively, to innovate and to consciously avoid clinging to processes and procedures just because they are familiar. On environmental policy, we can do better or differently, and I want to open a discussion in this space today."
However, Eustice again declined to give legal backing to the government's promises to maintain strong environmental standards in law and trade policy after Brexit by including the pledge in the Environment Bill, which has repeatedly been called for by green groups.
As such, environmental groups gave Eustice's speech and pledge to build back greener after Covid-19 a cautious welcome. Rosie Hails, director of science and nature at the National Trust, said that amid an ongoing biodiversity and climate crisis the government "would be judged on its actions".
"If the government wants to turn around the decline in nature in a generation, then weakening planning protections for nature and heritage, and delaying the Environment Bill would not be a good way to get started," she said.
Hails also questioned whether any changes to the existing environmental assessment processes for planning new developments were needed. "The government's own assessments have repeatedly shown that concerns that ‘newt-counting' causes delays are unfounded," she said. "We are happy to work with the government on considering change, but this must be grounded in evidence. The planning system is a key tool for preserving the UK's countryside, caring for our cultural heritage and restoring nature, not simply an obstacle to be overcome for developers."
Nick Molho, executive director of green business body the Aldersgate Group also emphasised that businesses needed the government to get its environmental legislation and policy agenda in place this autumn before the Brexit transition comes to an end in December.
"Rapid progress will need to be made in the autumn to finalise the Environment and Agriculture Bills and develop a system of ambitious targets, all of which are essential to drive long-term private investment towards environmental improvement projects," he said.
It follows Saturday's announcement of £16m investment from the government to support environmentally-friendly farming and replanting projects in the Amazon rainforest, taking the UK's total support for protecting tropic forests in Latin America to £80m.
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