One of Boris Johnson’s former ministers once said of the Prime Minister’s promises “Get it in writing, then get a lawyer to look at it”.
We need to remember that in response to his pledge, made to the UN’s biodiversity summit this week, to protect 30 per cent of UK land for the recovery of nature by 2030.
This Prime Minister doesn’t have a good track record of delivering on his promises, whether on Covid-19, climate or anything else. Nor does his party. At an earlier UN convention 10 years ago, the coalition government signed up to a Biodiversity 2020 strategy to halt biodiversity loss, support ecosystems and establish coherent ecological networks, with more and better places for nature.
And what happened? Funding for wildlife and environment was cut by nearly one-third and 17 of the 20 targets set have been missed. Worse, the RSPB says we have actually gone backwards on six of them. It has rightly called the last 10 years a lost decade for nature. The long-term picture is bleak too: the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth and more than 40 per cent of species are in decline – 10 per cent face extinction.
But back to the Prime Minister’s promise of protecting 30 per cent of land in the UK. The small print of this pledge reveals that, in his view, 26 per cent is already taken care of because it includes all national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty.
While I love the national park closest to my home, the South Downs, I know that it is not a haven for wildlife. The national parks were never created for this purpose. They were founded to preserve landscape beauty and give the public access to green space – there was no requirement to protect wildlife and many are wildlife deserts because of overgrazing and deforestation.
Several of our national parks include upland peat bogs that are burned to allow for grouse shooting. The burning season began this month – causing huge damage to the peatland, drying out the soil and releasing stored carbon into the atmosphere – all to support the grouse-shooting industry.
Far from banning this destructive practice, the Government actually bent its rule-of-six Covid law to allow shooting to go ahead. One letter writer to a national newspaper summed it up perfectly: the rule-of-six means it is illegal for seven children to feed the ducks but legal for 30 men to shoot them.
Nor will legislation going through Parliament deliver the protection of nature that is so urgently needed. The Environment Bill, which Defra boasts will “lead the world by setting ambitious goals for nature and biodiversity” actually takes us backwards by weakening environmental protections we have had up to now as members of the EU. The proposed environmental watchdog is neither independent, nor will it have the power to levy fines. If this Government is serious about protecting nature, the first step should be to strengthen this Bill and restore funding to existing agencies.
Government promises of action in one area are also meaningless if they are undermined by policies and actions in another, and our environment is under severe threat from a number of sources. The £27 billion road-building programme will see huge areas of countryside concreted over; HS2 is destroying or severely damaging 108 ancient woodlands, 33 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (which are supposed to be legally protected) and five internationally important wildlife refuges; and the proposed changes to planning laws will see local communities powerless to stop development that may rob them of precious green space.
Peatlands legally burned, no progress on the ecological health of our rivers, a massively destructive road-building programme and no meaningful environmental protections written into law. This Government is going backwards on environmental protections. It needs to do much more than deliver grand pledges to the UN.