Defeating Labour in 2024 is the key determining factor for Conservative Party members selecting the next prime minister. Polling also shows the environment is a persistent priority for voters, making it an electoral imperative that the Government continues its leadership on this issue. So here’s a mini-manifesto for a greener and more pleasant land, which enhances our woodlands, rivers, and national parks.
As Stanley Baldwin put it, ‘England is the country, and the country is England’. Our natural environment is ingrained in our national consciousness. But Baldwin’s plea to preserve the sounds, scents and sights of bucolic England is even more pressing today.
Tragically, we have lost more of our biodiversity than any other country in the G7. Most of our wildflower meadows are gone, as are 80% of our chalk grasslands and more than half of our ancient woodlands. Almost half of our species are in long-term decline. If we don’t act, national treasures like the water vole, nightingale and corncrake could be lost.
Brexit has given us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to turn this around. Our Environment Act set the world’s first legal deadline to halt nature’s decline, and our new system of farm payments will support nature-friendly farming, replacing the inefficient land subsidies we inherited from the EU. A recent poll found that more than half of Conservative voters support this policy, with just 11% opposed.
But there is more the next prime minister can do to conserve our natural inheritance. Recent polling of voters in battleground Conservative-held seats showed the environment is third among their list of concerns and environmental protections received strong support. To appeal to these voters, the new leader will need to set out how they intend to build on the party’s record on the natural environment.
Firstly, we need a national plan to restore our rivers, just 14% of which are in good health. The public is rightly outraged that sewage has been frequently dumped in our rivers due to a lack of investment by water companies. The latest Environmental Performance Assessment shows pollution by the water industry has gotten worse. The Environment Agency is now calling for criminal proceedings against executives and board members that oversee persistent and illegal sewage dumping.
The Government should also introduce unlimited fines for water companies which breach their permits, removing the current cap. This money should be set aside in a hypothecated fund to restore our rivers. This should include more support for farmers to restore riverbanks, plant trees and create buffer strips to reduce soil and chemical runoff and create havens for wildlife.
Water companies should also be required to create at least two river bathing water sites in their region to ensure safe swimming. There are currently only two such sites in the whole country.
Leadership candidates could also back proposals to better protect our historic trees. A recent study found there could be more than two million ancient and veteran trees in England – many times more than previously recorded. These living legends are an integral part of our natural heritage – the 2,500-year-old Ankerwycke Yew in Surrey is believed to have been the site where King John decided to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, for example – and are rich in biodiversity.
Most remain unidentified, and only one in five of those that are registered have legal protection from development. This risks our ancient arboreal monuments being lost forever. The Government should develop a national register of our historic trees and give them the same statutory protection as other monuments of historical value.
This plan for ancient woodlands should also include our lost rainforests. It is thought that as much as 20% of western Britain has a climate wet and warm enough for the temperate rainforest. However, only fragments remain. A dedicated fund for rainforest restoration would generate national excitement about the return of these globally important habitats and create new opportunities for nature-based tourism.
Finally, we need to reinvigorate our cherished countryside. National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty were created after the Second World War to preserve our most precious landscapes, but nature in these areas has continued to decline. This is because they are landscape designations rather than areas protected specifically for nature conservation. The Government should deliver on its commitment to update its statutory duty to require them to drive nature’s recovery too.
Nature shouldn’t just belong in remote wildernesses, however. To bring nature closer to where people live and protect it from harmful development, the next prime minister should adopt Claire Coutinho MP’s campaign to establish a new Wildbelt designation to safeguard areas of land on the edges of towns and cities where nature is being restored.
A plan to restore our rivers, preserve our historic trees and better conserve areas for nature would be an inherently conservative offering to the public. In the words of Stanley Baldwin, a rich natural environment ‘ought to be the inheritance of every child born into this country’.
First published by CapX. James Cullimore is CEN’s Senior Nature Programme Manager.