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"More than half of Brits say their community has poor air, water or nature quality" – experts demand new legal right to a healthy environment for all

28 July 2023

Environmentalists are urging all political parties to commit to a new Environmental Rights Bill – which would give the public legal rights to clean air and water, and local access to nature, and enable communities to hold the Government to account for the quality of their local environment.

The calls come on the one-year anniversary today (28 July) of the UN declaring a human right to a healthy environment, and alongside new research which shows high public concerns about the impact of an unhealthy natural environment for British communities.

New research from Wildlife and Countryside Link reveals that 55% of Brits (and two-thirds of Labour and Lib Dem voters) say their local neighbourhood is poor on air quality, water quality or access to/quality of nature, or a combination. 30% of Brits say air quality where they live is bad and 44% say local water quality is poor, 27% say the amount and quality of local nature is inadequate and 18% say they have poor local access to nature.

British voters say politicians are not doing enough to tackle the poor state of these aspects of our environment, with 68% saying not enough government action is being taken on water quality, 52% think more is needed on air quality and 45% believe too little is being done on access to nature. Labour and Lib Dem voters feel even more strongly, with more than three-quarters (76% and 80% respectively) wanting stronger action on water quality, 70% and 72% wanting more done on air quality and 58% and 57% saying more action is needed on access to nature.

The findings follow hot on the heels of the launch of a major new Nature 2030 campaign, supported by 82 charities. The campaigners are calling on all political parties to commit to 5 big proposals for nature ahead of the general election. The Nature 2030 asks include a commitment to an Environmental Rights Bill, which is well supported by Brits, with 75% (including 69% of Conservative and 82% of Labour and Lib Dem voters) saying they would support the Government introducing legally protected rights to clean water, clean air and local access to nature.

Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said:
“A healthy environment shouldn’t be a privilege for a lucky few, but a right that everyone can enjoy. On the anniversary of the UN’s recognition of the right to a healthy environment, we’re calling on our Government to make good on the commitment it made last year and uphold it for the British people.

“It’s hardly a radical thought and it’s important to remember that not a single country, including the UK, voted against the UN resolution last year. People should expect clean air, unpolluted water, and access to greenspace. Yet somehow we’ve learned to tolerate a world where people’s lives are shortened and darkened by environmental injustice.

“Any political party that says it cares about the NHS must recognise that good health and a good environment go hand in hand. In our Nature 2030 campaign, we’re challenging all parties to commit to the legal right to a healthy environment.

Beccy Speight, CEO of RSPB said:
“We all stand to benefit from a vibrant and healthy natural world, proven to help us live healthier, happier and more prosperous lives, tackle climate change and underpin our economy.

The first anniversary of the UN’s declaration on environmental rights, for which the RSPB campaigned as part of the global network of Birdlife, should be a moment where we look back on how our political representatives have been galvanised into action by fulfilling their commitments that recognise the health and economic benefits of everyone being able to access spaces where nature is allowed to thrive.

We are in a nature and climate emergency and people from across the UK have said that they want to see decision-makers investing in protecting and restoring the environment. It is time for our decision-makers to act and deliver an Environmental Rights Bill that makes guarantees today and for future generations.”

Jayne Manley, CEO of Earth Trust said:
“Our environment – biodiversity, climate change and the NHS are making headlines and it’s obvious that there needs to be a better vision for the future and one where nature and people thrive. The Environmental Rights Bill will make this reality. What would the UK be like if people had a legal right to clean water, unpolluted air and access to natural engaging green spaces? Imagine if people had the right to access environmental information, the right to participate in decision making and the right to challenge. When people have a human right to a healthy environment, decision making will be easier and focused on what is really important to our health and that of the natural world that supports us all.

“The status quo is not sustainable; our health and the health of green spaces cannot continue to be sidelined in decision-making. That is why we need politicians of all parties, ahead of the next election to commit to an environmental rights bill.

Miriam Turner, co-executive director of Friends of the Earth, said:
"Stark inequalities across our society have been brought into sharp focus over the last few years, first with the pandemic and now the cost of living crisis. And yet the decline of our natural environment only stands to further exacerbate the glaring injustice levelled at people in the most vulnerable situations.

We know that marginalised communities are being desperately underserved in their local areas through lack of access to green space, dangerous levels of air pollution and poor water quality, all of which are associated with increasingly negative health outcomes. By introducing an Environmental Rights Bill, the government can show that it is listening to calls for meaningful action on the dual nature and climate crises, and begin to restore the environment to the benefit of us all."

Please see additional quotes from the Rivers Trust and The Wildlife Trusts in the notes to editors.

The statistics on air and water pollution and lack of access to nature in the UK speak for themselves.

Around 36,000 deaths each year are attributed to long-term exposure to air pollution, and the cost of wider health impacts has been estimated to reach up to £20bn. The UK annual average level of PM10 particle pollution is 13.9μg/m3, against a recognised health standard of 10μg/m3 – a level the Government does not expect to meet for another 17 years. Water pollution is widely recognised as one of the most contentious issues for the UK with 389,000 discharges of raw sewage into UK waterways in 2022 and known harmful chemical cocktails found in 81% of rivers. Despite the proven mental and physical health benefits of local access to nature, one in three people in the UK have no nature near their home and disadvantaged communities are twice as likely to be nature-poor. This is recognised to contribute to poorer health and ultimately shorter lifespans in these communities.

With so many burning environmental problems and just seven short years for the Government to meet nature restoration commitments by 2030, now is surely the time to bring environmental rights back on the political agenda.

In addition to enshrining a legal right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, an Environmental Rights Bill would require public bodies to consider that right in decision making. The Bill also strengthens people’s ability to hold public bodies to account when it comes to the environment, pollution and climate change by fully incorporating the key pillars of the Aarhus Convention into UK law, more than 25 years after the UK signed up to the global agreement. These pillars would give people the right to know (where our environment is failing), the right to engage (with greater public participation in planning) and the right to challenge (empowering people and communities to hold authorities to account in court on environmentally damaging decisions).

The coalition of charities is encouraging political parties to get ahead of voter dissatisfaction on these issues, by including an Environmental Rights Bill, and other key nature policies, in their manifestos for the general election. They are also urging the public to add their name to an open letter being sent to all the main political parties to call for more radical nature commitments, including a legal right to a healthy environment. Members of the public can add their name here:


Notes to Editors:

1. Details of the 80+ supporters of the Nature 2030 campaign can be found here along with embargoed Nature 2030 polling findings and policy report.

2. The key advocates behind the 2022 UN vote were awarded the United Nations Human Rights Prize for their work

3. Additional Quotes:

Kathryn Brown, director of climate change at The Wildlife Trusts, said:
“Politicians have often made grand pledges about protecting nature but failed to deliver on that promise. The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, with communities suffering from polluted air and dirty rivers. Worse still, so many people don’t even have access to natural green space where they live.

People and wildlife deserve so much better. Helping nature to recover is not something that’s nice to have – it is fundamental to all our futures.”

Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of The Rivers Trust said: 
“The UK Government’s recognition of the right to a healthy environment last year was an opportunity not only to give our blue and green spaces a fighting chance but also to ensure that communities across the country were empowered to be part of the decision-making around nature’s recovery.

But in that year, we have seen how the government has failed to safeguard our environmental rights, with a sequence of missed targets and a lack of strategic government policy to address the systemic issues standing in the way of the landscape transformation we need to see.

People are rightly frustrated with the apparent absence of political will to restore nature, the lack of transparency and commitment from public bodies to act on environmental destruction and the muddled approach to governance which stands in the way of taking part in local decision-making. If we are secure nature’s recovery by 2030 we need political parties to stand up for our right to nature.”

4. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2136 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 29-30 June 2023. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

5. Full polling figures are available upon request.

6. Wildlife and Countryside Link is the largest environment and wildlife coalition in England, bringing together 76 organisations to use their strong joint voice for the protection of nature. Our members campaign to conserve, enhance and access our landscapes, animals, plants, habitats, rivers and seas. Together we have the support of over eight million people in the UK and directly protect over 750,000 hectares of land and 800 miles of coastline.

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