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Mr Gove, sound the starting gun for an environmental race to the top

The UK Government’s renewed commitment to produce an ambitious 25 year plan to restore our environment for future generations could be the start of a race to the top- leading the world in environmental protection.

July 2017

The UK could take many paths as Parliament hurries toward its two-year Brexit finish line. If Government prioritises short term deal-making over sustainability, this may be the start of an environmental ‘race to the bottom’. But if Government delivers the actions commensurate with its commitment to restore our environment for future generations, this Parliament could be the start of a race to the top—leading the world in environmental protection.

There are many policies and laws affecting the environment that will need to be redesigned as we exit the EU, which will not be without controversy. For agriculture this means a real opportunity to replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy with a policy that delivers far better outcomes for both the environment and the economy. But it also presents risks that environmental standards and protections will be unwound.

Indeed Ministers must resist the pressure to lower standards in the face of competition to expedite trade deals with third countries with lower environmental standards than the EU - unless we want to become the dumping ground of Europe. Politically expedient but environmentally damaging quick fixes will cost us dear in the long run.

So although the UK Government says it remains committed to being the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it, it will be important to hold the Government to account on this. To fulfil its commitment, Government must find time in its busy agenda to lead on environmental protection and restoration. 2017 must be the start of the UK’s race to the top.

That’s why we welcome the Government’s commitment, restated in its recent manifesto, to produce a ‘comprehensive 25 Year Environment Plan that will chart how we will improve our environment as we leave the European Union and take control of our environmental legislation again’. This Plan should set out clear objectives for improving our environment along with associated indicators for measuring performance, and should provide the right framework and set of goals against which policy decisions and environmental outcomes can be judged.

This Plan has been promised for a long time, and we look forward to seeing it brought forward without further delay. This is important, firstly to guide policy decisions at this crucial juncture, and secondly to provide greater clarity on the Government’s aspiration and direction of travel to stakeholders who will essentially be implementing the Plan. This includes regulatory bodies, local authorities, landowners, farmers, NGOs and the private sector, whose engagement—and investment—will be crucial if we are going to achieve the turnaround in environmental fortunes we so desperately need. That is why it is also important that the Government holds a public consultation on the draft Plan, to ensure maximum buy-in of important players.

This Plan will also only ever be successful if it engages both the private sector and local communities, so it is essential that the Plan provides the tools and incentives to empower those working to improve nature in their area. This approach should be based around an understanding of the economic and social benefits that natural assets provide, relating to the provision of food, water and materials that underpin the local economy, flood risk reduction, and health and recreational benefits. Preserving and restoring those assets is in our own direct interests. If designed well this kind of approach could potentially yield innovative new financing mechanisms for investing in nature that could generate a step change in environmental improvement.

This Plan is a great opportunity for the Government, and particularly the new Environment Secretary, to show real leadership on the world stage, by adopting a joined-up, natural capital-based approach to managing the environment. This could ensure that, for the first time ever, the value of nature is properly recognised across Whitehall and the business community.

The Plan should also take account of the UK’s impact overseas through its imports, particularly as Brexit means developing new trading relationships. Therefore the UK must adopt measures that promote responsible trade and investment to ensure we don’t just export environmental damage elsewhere.

This is a critical juncture for the environment. An ambitious Plan with clear goals to fulfil the Government’s commitment to restore the environment can guide decision-making as new legal and policy frameworks are developed to meet the challenges and opportunities presented by Brexit. We stand ready to work with government on this exciting endeavour—you can read our briefing about the 25 Year Plan here.

The Queen’s Speech has sounded the starting gun on the two-year dash toward Brexit. Let’s make sure that, for the environment at least, this race into the unknown really is a race to the top.

Karen Ellis Chief Advisor, Economics & Development, WWF-UK

Richard Benwell Head of Government Affairs, WWT

Find Richard on Twitter @RSBenwell

Find WWF on Twitter @wwf_uk

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