Farmers will be key to plan to restore England’s green spaces and wildlife
It has taken years of campaigns and mass trespasses for the government to put access to green space in England at the top of its agenda, as it has today in the environmental improvement plan.
During the pandemic, the importance of nature for our physical and mental wellbeing became ever more apparent – as did the inequality in access, with the poorest in society less able to access green space.
Now, the government has made this issue a key plank of its five-year plan to improve biodiversity and the environment, which also includes ambitious pledges including restoring 500,000 hectares of wildlife habitat, including 25 new or expanded national nature reserves and a plan on sewage later this year, including improvements to sewage works.
One of its headline pledges is for everyone to be within a 15-minute walk of a green space or water: for some of England’s most marginalised communities, this would be a huge step forward. Access to nature is a key part of protecting it, as Labour’s Jim McMahon told the Guardian last week: “If people don’t have a stake in their environment they won’t fight to protect it.”
Access to green space has become a hot political topic – with McMahon saying in the same interview that Labour would pass a right to roam act, while the Liberal Democrats are proposing a bill that would allow wild camping in national parks.
But what of the rest of the government’s aspirations? They do seem to hinge on uptake from the farming community, with the agricultural sector expected to make most of these environmental improvements. This is no surprise as most of our land in this country is farmed, but it may cause some grumbling in a sector already hit by Brexit trade deals, climate breakdown and an unfair supply chain.
Some of the farming-related pledges include a commitment that 65% to 80% of landowners and farmers will adopt nature-friendly farming practices on at least 10 to 15% of their land by 2030. The government also aims for farmers to create or restore 30,000 miles of hedgerows a year by 2037 and 45,000 miles of hedgerows a year by 2050. The water targets also include farmers, with an aim to restore 400 miles of river through the first round of Landscape Recovery projects, taken part in by farmers and other land managers under the new post-Brexit payment schemes.
These policies will be supported through the new farming payments scheme, the details of which were announced last week. Though it has been simplified, and more ways to get paid by the government to protect nature have been added, some farmers think that the costs of changing the way they farm may outweigh what they are paid under the scheme, which is due to replace the EU’s area-based payments system. It remains to be seen whether the new scheme will be a success.
While the government has been loth to suggest using less of England’s land for livestock farming, despite the recommendations of its food tsar Henry Dimbleby, it appears ministers may hold the meat and dairy industry to account for pollution.
On Tuesday, the environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, will reveal she is considering expanding environmental permitting conditions to dairy and intensive beef farms, which means making them accountable for pollution in the same way industrial factories and mining waste operations are.
Some farmers have welcomed the ambition to regulate more. Martin Lines, chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said: “I welcome the ambitious roadmap and recognising farmers need to play their part in delivering more nature-friendly practices across all farmed landscapes. It will be imperative that government get the right balance of using public and private money to be able to start delivering solutions for halting nature’s decline. This needs to be alongside regulation enforcement. We all can then start delivering solutions for not only halting nature’s decline but start seeing his recovery.” It is not likely that the whole sector will share his view.
The plan also includes a multimillion pound Species Survival Fund to protect our rarest species – from hedgehogs to red squirrels, but those interested in rewilding will notice that there is no mention of reintroducing locally extinct species. The Boris Johnson government promised to “build back beaver”, releasing the rodents to reduce the effects of flooding and drought, but perhaps Sunak’s administration does not share this aspiration.
All in all, the targets do look promising. But the Conservative government has been good at setting itself environmental goals, as we saw at Cop26. It is less good on taking the action to meet them and this may end up being another example. It is concerning, perhaps, that so much of the strategy hinges on the success of the new farming payments regime. Our agricultural sector is now more crucial than ever in restoring biodiversity loss – and saving the planet.