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James Cullimore: Challenges facing the new Environment Secretary

James Cullimore (Nature Programme Manager at CEN)

Before looking ahead, I’d like to pay tribute to the outgoing Secretary of State and his team for the tremendous progress they have made on the environment - from commencing the biggest reforms to farm policy in a generation to passing the historic Environment Act. The legislation and policies put in place by George Eustice will underpin the recovery of our depleted natural fabric and reverberate for generations to come.

The new Environment Secretary, Ranil Jayawardena, takes office at a critical moment for British agriculture and against a backdrop of heightened public anxiety about the impacts of climate change. We look forward to working with the new Secretary of State and his team on the immediate challenges set out below.

Halting nature’s decline

The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, with almost half of our species in long-term decline. Voters are strongly supportive of action to restore nature, with almost 40% of undecided voters in now-marginal Blue Wall seats saying they would be more likely to support a political party that has ambitious plans for protecting our environment.

The Environment Act requires the government to set targets for water, waste, biodiversity and air quality by next month. This means that setting ambitious and deliverable targets will be one of the first tests for the new Secretary of State. The Prime Minister’s pledge to honour our legal deadline to halt species decline this decade, and her commitment to leading on the world stage at the UN biodiversity summit later this year, are very welcome. The suite of Environment Act targets should reflect this ambition.

Cleaning up our rivers and tackling drought

The new Secretary of State will also need to continue the excellent progress in cleaning up our rivers. Significant new legislative commitments have been made recently to tackle sewage pollution, and the government has recently published a plan to unlock £56 billion of capital investment in our sewage infrastructure by 2050. To hold water companies to account and make sure the plan is delivered, the new Secretary of State could remove the cap on fines for water companies in civil cases for breaching their permits to ensure that these penalties are not just seen as the cost of doing business.

But the government can’t just focus on treatment - this summer’s drought has shown we need action on water supply too. The National Infrastructure Commission has said we need 30 new reservoirs to meet our requirements in the coming decades. We haven’t built one for three decades - highlighting the scale of the challenge. The new government should accelerate plans to streamline the process of gaining planning permission for nationally significant water infrastructure projects.

The new Secretary of State will also inherit growing disruption to new housing development caused by nutrient neutrality requirements. This prevents new housing near protected habitats that are in an unfavourable condition unless they can demonstrate they will not make a net contribution to nutrient pollution.

Post-Brexit, we can make these EU-derived rules work better to deliver improvements to the natural environment while overcoming barriers to new housing. This will require a greater onus to be put on the primary sources of pollution - like agriculture and wastewater treatment works - and an accelerated push on nutrient trading so that developers can offset harm by purchasing improvements elsewhere, either on farms or through upgrades to sewage treatment works.

The new Secretary of State will need to set out a plan in response to the Nature Recovery Green Paper consultation. There will be significant interest from environmental groups in the government's response, and the new Secretary of State will need to achieve the delicate balancing act of fixing problems like nutrient neutrality while improving the condition of our most important nature sites. Scrapping nutrient neutrality altogether, as has been mooted, would likely trigger a public backlash and undermine the delivery of our legally-binding targets.

Boosting food security

The new Environmental Land Management scheme will help to cut nutrient pollution and get Britain building again by rewarding farmers for reducing runoff on their holdings. But our new agricultural policy is also essential for the long-term viability of food production in this country. Rising fertiliser prices - and the temporary closure of the UK’s only fertiliser plant due to rocketing gas prices - have shown the need to transition away from manufactured inputs linked to international gas prices.

The new Sustainable Farming Incentive - focused initially on improving soil health - has been popular. Future standards and schemes should help farmers deploy nature-based solutions to pest management and recover habitats on unproductive land. This will improve farm profitability and protect food security by tackling environmental threats to food production.

One of these threats is drought, as we have seen this summer. Healthy soils and wetland features like ponds can hold more water on farms, improving drought resilience. The government could go even further and review planning policy to make it easier to build on-farm reservoirs. As well as helping farmers irrigate their crops, these can reduce river abstraction in the summer months and provide a haven for wildlife.

Delivering on the Prime Minister’s commitment to turbocharge domestic food production by removing red tape could also support environmental improvements, as Sam outlined in his CEN blog yesterday. And emerging offset markets for biodiversity, nutrients and carbon could further improve farm profitability at a time of high input prices and mounting pressure from climate change.

Rallying international partners to secure a new global framework for biodiversity

Time is running out to secure a new deal for nature at the UN biodiversity convention in Montreal, with significant gaps remaining between countries on finance and ambition. The Prime Minister’s commitment to personally lead a delegation to the summit would add important political weight to the negotiations. The UK must muster all its diplomatic might and experience from COP26 to help get a deal over the line.

Whether it be setting and delivering our environmental targets, developing a holistic plan for water treatment and supply, improving the long-term productivity and resilience of British farming, or securing a new global deal to restore our natural world, the tasks ahead for the new Defra team are significant. I look forward to working with them as they deliver on these challenges.


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