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Keeping the 25 Year Plan alive for 25 years

The 25 year environment plan must be more than a token gesture. It is essential to ensure future governments can be held to account if they don’t deliver. For this reason, the plan must have a robust governance framework.

October 2016

25 years is a long time

25 years ago, the Soviet Union had just collapsed, the Rio Conference was yet to take place, and Brian Cox was about to form D:Ream. A lot can happen over a quarter of a century.

To make sure that the 25 year environment plan (25YP) is not just gathering dust in a drawer by 2040, it needs to include clear and ambitious targets and milestones.

It also needs mechanisms by which the Government can be held to account if those targets and milestones are not achieved.

Ensuring longevity

A simple way to enhance the longevity and robustness of policy targets is to enshrine them in legislation. We believe that rooting the 25YP and the actions it sets out in legislation would improve its ability to leave the environment in a better state than it is in now. But we have not seen any ambition to do this from Government.

This is a missed opportunity. The 25YP must remain meaningful and influential to future Governments. We are used to hearing how politicians only think about what’s round the corner (and certainly no longer than a 5 year parliament). A plan that by its nature must last another quarter century cannot fall into this trap. Governments will change, but ambitions for nature must stay on track.

Setting targets is the first step

A first step towards this is for the 25YP itself to contain clearly defined and appropriately ambitious targets. The Biodiversity 2020 Strategy can serve as an important guide for this, as can global ambitions such as the Sustainable Development Goals. But the plan should go beyond these by including meaningful targets at appropriate scales, and by extrapolating and extending biodiversity targets beyond 2020.

Setting these targets will shape the focus, direction, and potential achievements of the plan. Numerous targets will be needed, including those covering the state of the natural world itself, the quality of people’s relationship and interaction with it, and the effectiveness of measures taken to protect and enhance it. Determining these will be challenging, and it is clear that such a process requires extensive public consultation.

The plan must also make clear how progress towards these targets will be assessed and monitored. There must also be a way that Government can be held to account if it is not making sufficient progress at various points over the period: to last 25 years, the plan must remain meaningful and influential over two and a half decades.

Influence and accountability

The framework must not only be meaningful and influential over time, but across Government departments too. Without involvement and engagement across Government, the plan will have limited impact. As such, it should see all Government departments commit to making decisions that are ecologically informed and seek to work with, rather than against, natural processes.
The value of nature-based solutions is starting to become clear in areas such as flood management and mental health. These are the easy wins. But all Government departments – including HM Treasury who should pay careful heed to the Natural Capital Committee’s advice that the declining state of nature is a very real economic loss – must take their obligations to biodiversity and the natural world seriously.

The 25 year plan could achieve this by setting out guiding principles for Government departments to follow, such as:

  • ensuring that policies that negatively impact on the natural world follow the mitigation hierarchy, avoiding any harm as a priority
  • ensuring that nature based solutions are considered
  • using emerging techniques to understand the full value (both economic and otherwise) of the natural world and policy impact on it.

New and existing policies must at best contribute towards meeting the 25YP’s targets, and at least not hinder progress towards them. It is essential that the plan sets out how this will be assured.

Again, there needs to be some oversight of this to ensure accountability. These two oversight roles regarding meeting targets and cross-departmental compliance could be usefully combined. An independent mechanism or committee could be established in order to assess progress towards the 25YP’s targets.

Like the Committee on Climate Change, it could set short-term 5 year milestones that delineate a pathway to the 2042 targets. It could also provide advice to other Government departments, and a forum through which Government departments can work together to ensure these targets will be met.

Tom West

Economics and Law Researcher, environmental lawyers ClientEarth

Find ClientEarth on Twitter @ClientEarth

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership

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