Government's 25-year environment plan to tackle peat, water, emissions, plastics, woodlands

The Government has threatened further measures to cut peat use if there is not sufficient movement to peat-free by 2020, as part of its comprehensive new environment plan.

Among other policies in the plan are more tree planting including a Northern Forest and other woodland as well as a national tree champion, measures to tackle flooding by creating wetlands, tackling of soil degradation, plant biosecurity, integrated pest management, water abstraction reduction, and support for parks.

Defra secretary of state Michael Gove said he wants to "set gold standards in protecting and growing natural capital". This includes embedding an ‘environmental net gain’ principle for development, including housing and infrastructure.

There are targets for restoring vulnerable peatlands and ending peat use in horticultural products by 2030.

Successful bids for a £10m peatland grant scheme will be announced in February 2018. Defra will publish an England Peat Strategy in late 2018. It will continue to jointly fund research with the industry to overcome the barriers to peat replacement in commercial horticulture to report in 2020, and will continue to support the industry as it puts the Responsible Sourcing Scheme for Growing Media into practice.

The strategy said: "In 2011 we introduced a voluntary target for amateur gardeners to phase out the use of peat by 2020 and a final voluntary phase-out target of 2030 for professional growers of fruit, vegetables and plants. If by 2020 we have not seen sufficient movement to peat alternatives, we will look at introducing further measures."

It adds: "By 2030 we want all of England’s soils to be managed sustainably, and we will use natural capital thinking to develop appropriate soil metrics and management approaches."

On biosecurity, aims are "reaching the detailed goals to be set out in the Tree Health Resilience Plan of 2018", and "ensuring strong biosecurity protection at our borders, drawing on the opportunities leaving the EU provides", as well as "working with industry to reduce the impact of endemic disease".

On plant health, the strategy states: "We should put Integrated Pest Management (IPM) at the heart of an in-the-round approach, using pesticides more judiciously and supplementing them with improved crop husbandry and the use of natural predators. More can be done in the way we breed our plants for traits beyond productivity, making better use of genetics and the resources held in gene banks to ensure their natural resilience to pests and diseases.

"For too long, IPM has simply been viewed as good practice for farmers to do voluntarily. By making IPM central to our approach we will encourage wider investment in research and development. By reducing the use of pesticides in the round and deploying them in a more targeted way, it is possible to reduce the impact on the environment while keeping open a sufficient diversity of options to avoid the build-up of resistance and the need for higher doses.

"We recently announced that the UK supports further restrictions on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides because of the growing weight of scientific evidence they are harmful to bees and other pollinators. Unless the scientific evidence changes, the Government will maintain these increased restrictions after we leave the EU."

The Government will review the UK National Action Plan for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides in 2018.

On water abstraction, the plan is to reduce "the damaging abstraction of water from rivers and groundwater, ensuring that by 2021 the proportion of water bodies with enough water to support environmental standards increases from 82% to 90% for surface water bodies and from 72% to 77% for groundwater bodies".

The strategy also pledges to support the Parks Action Group in its work to help England’s public parks and green spaces meet the needs of communities now and in the future.

The Government will continuing work with Exeter University to update the Outdoor Recreation Valuation Tool (ORVal) in 2018.

Plans also include establishing a cross-government project, led by Natural England, that reviews and updates existing standards for green infrastructure by summer 2019, and supporting local authorities to assess green infrastructure provision against these new standards.

The strategy says it will be working with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to see how commitments on green infrastructure can be incorporated into national planning guidance and policy.

Other plans include £10m for helping primary schools create nature-friendly grounds and creating or restoring 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat outside the protected site network and increasing woodland in England in line with the aspiration of 12% cover by 2060: this would involve planting 180,000 hectares by end of 2042.

The Government will also consult on plans to set up a "world-leading" environmental watchdog, an independent, statutory body, to hold Government to account for upholding environmental standards.

Another policy is achieving zero avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042, including ending plastic bags being given for free by retailers with fewer than 250 employees. A mooted 25p tax on plastic coffee cups is not included.

General aims are: Clean air; Clean and plentiful water; Thriving plants and wildlife; A reduced risk of harm from environmental hazards such as flooding and drought; Using resources from nature more sustainably and efficiently; Enhanced beauty, heritage and engagement with the natural environment. In addition, we will manage pressures on the environment by; Mitigating and adapting to climate change; Minimising waste; Managing exposure to chemicals; Enhancing biosecurity.

Prime Minster Theresa May said goals of the new strategy are "cleaner air and water; plants and animals which are thriving; and a cleaner, greener country for us all".

Defra secretary of state Michael Gove said: "We will support farmers to turn over fields to meadows rich in herbs and wildflowers, plant more trees, restore habitats for endangered species, recover soil fertility and attract wildlife back. We will ensure broader landscapes are transformed by connecting habitats into larger corridors for wildlife, as recommended by Sir John Lawton in his official review."

Reaction:

Growing Media Association chairman Steve Harper said: "There is potential for taxation or an actual ban [on peat]. We're still working with making the Responsible Sourcing Scheme auditable over the next few months. We've raised [£30,000] funds from businesses and organisations [including HTA, GMA, Defra, Bord na Mona, Erin, Scotts] for it and I still believe once it is up and running...it is the best way to go forward rather than a ban."

HTA horticulture head Raoul Curtis Machin: "Defra said to us late last year that Responsible Sourcing Scheme progress has been good but Michael Gove wants to see progress and changes in use of different materials. Once the scheme is up and running and people make decisions, we will see progress. We hope to introduce it in April/May but we won't see results until the tail-end of the year. The next step is how we market the idea to consumers. The idea is it will be driven by consumers but there's some work to do there. It took years to raise awareness of biosecurity with ash dieback and there is a similar job with peat and peat production. We don't have many reports of consumers asking about peat. We're talking about labelling. There's going to be some type, whether that is colour codes, a list of ingredients or an A-E we've not got that far yet."

NFU vice president Guy Smith: "Over the past four decades, farmers have carried out a huge amount of work to encourage wildlife, as well as benefitting the landscape, soil and water and reducing their impact on the climate. Farming also offers innovative solutions to wider environmental challenges. For instance the Government’s current concern with plastics highlighted by the BBC’s brilliant Blue Planet series could be met with substituting synthetic plastics with farm produced biodegradable starch-based packaging. But there must be a coherent approach. British farming has a unique role in producing a safe, affordable and high quality supply of food as well as protecting, maintaining and enhancing 70% of the nation's iconic countryside.

"That only remains feasible, however, as long as farmers run sustainable and viable businesses. We provide the raw materials for a domestic food industry that employs 3.8m people and which, as the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, generates £112bn in value for the UK economy.  This is why we welcomed the Secretary of State’s commitment last week to create a national food policy and his recognition that food is at the heart of viable farming businesses. It’s vital therefore that a holistic approach is taken and the environment plan must go hand-in-hand with a future food policy, where measures for protecting and enhancing the environment are joined up with policies to improve productivity and manage volatility to ensure that we have profitable, productive and progressive farm businesses post-Brexit."

RHS director general Sue Biggs: "The RHS welcomes the government’s commitment to the environment today – any effort to leave the UK in a better state for future generations should be applauded and is at the heart of what we do. Our scientific research and school and community outreach programmes, including Britain in Bloom and Greening Grey Britain, have long proved that the benefits of plants and gardening extend far beyond the environment; helping to improve health and wellbeing and fostering stronger communities.

"For many, particularly those living in urban areas, gardens are just as much a part of the natural world as landscapes and national parks. That’s why we’ve spent the last 10 years supporting the next generation of horticulturists by inspiring more than 34,000 schools and youth groups to get children growing through our Campaign for School Gardening. While we’re delighted that the government has announced plans to engage even more young people in the environment there’s also 27 million active UK gardeners and domestic gardens that are willing to stand on the frontline when it comes to greening our towns and cities."

The Woodland Trust: "We welcome the government’s further commitment to increasing protection of our irreplaceable ancient woodland. We need stronger protection for our ancient woodlands."

The Soil Association: "The 25 Year Environment Plan addresses important areas – including the vital need to restore soil health, reduce pesticide use, deliver the highest levels of animal welfare and restore farmland biodiversity – but we need to see further detail on the practical measures that will turn these aspirations into reality in the near future. A fundamental shift in farming systems is required as part of that: agroecological systems, such as organic, exemplify many of the agricultural practices described in the Plan and we urge Government to recognise this by harnessing the full potential of these systems in the forthcoming command paper on the Agriculture Bill."

Confor chief executive Stuart Goodall: "It's great to see forestry at the heart of Government thinking and to see its triple environmental, economic and social benefits recognised. The renewed commitment to tree planting is welcome, to deliver the timber needed to support a £2 billion industry providing more than 80,000 jobs. However, planting in England is at a modern-day low and we must increase it quickly. In Scotland, the appointment of former Chief Planner Jim Mackinnon to look at the bureaucratic barriers to planting has had a very positive impact and I'm pleased to see Confor's idea of carrying out a similar exercise in England will be taken forward.

"It is vital the right person is entrusted with this key role. The commitment to use more home-grown timber in domestic construction is very welcome. The UK is the second-largest net importer of wood products in the world after China - a shameful state of affairs we must address. The new Tree Champion must understand the value of trees to our economy as well as our environment and communities, and encourage the planting of productive species to reduce our long-term reliance on importing wood from fragile global forests. Overall, this is a positive strategy for forestry and promises much. The challenge is to make rapid, effective progress. Confor looks forward to working closely with the government and its agencies to deliver on the potential of the strategy."

London Mayor Sadiq Khan: "It's high time this Government stepped up to protect our natural environment. Whilst I’m glad the government have responded to my call to maintain environmental standards post-Brexit, today’s plan lacks the commitments or the pace of action required to deliver its ambitions. The government had a great opportunity today to confirm that London could access the £475m in air quality funding that the rest of the country can access but it failed. We need a Government that will take real action to protect our environment – including tackling toxic air pollution in London – which this Government shamefully continues to ignore. And we need these measures to be delivered much faster than the Government’s feeble 25-year target."

Groundwork: "It contains an array of existing commitments and future aspirations, fully cross-referenced across departments and with all the right nods to devolution and multi-sector working. The overriding challenge is the amount of work that now has to be done to develop the multiple plans, strategies and programmes that will be needed to turn motherhood and apple pie aspiration into decisive and measurable action. Crucially the plan recognises that our environment will only improve and be better managed in the future if more people of all ages and backgrounds feel more connected with it in the present."

Buglife: "Welcomes the great intentions of the Government’s new 25 Year Environment Plan, particularly in relation to restoring pollinator populations, and urges the Government to bring forward the enabling legislation before Brexit. For the bugs and bees the most significant commitment in the Plan is to restore wildflower habitats and a ‘Nature Recovery Network’ involving 500,000 hectares of additional wildlife habitat."

Friends of the Earth senior nature campaigner, Paul de Zylva: "The long-awaited environment plan is full of ambition but short on detail and action. Ministers say they recognise the importance of our peat land for wildlife, climate action and holding back flood waters, but they have wasted the past decade hoping the horticultural sector would take voluntary action to end peat-use and to give customers proper choice of quality alternatives. Ministers now say they’ll wait another two years before deciding what else to do. That’s more like a plan for inaction."


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