Over half a million people signed a petition against the government’s plans to sell off the public forest estate in 2012, with countless local groups rising from the Forest of Dean to Morpeth to save their woods. The forest sell off fiasco encapsulated everything that is wrong with the Conservatives approach to nature, thinking about the cost of everything but the value of nothing. Today, Maria Eagle will set out Labour’s plans for the natural environment, starting with a firm commitment to both protect and create more woodland.
Maria Eagle will make the point that we should be concerned about nature both for its intrinsic value and for the benefits it brings to us in our wellbeing. It is an issue we should be concerned about. The latest State of Nature report suggests that 60 per cent of wildlife species in the United Kingdom have declined over the last 50 years. There is no single threat to UK wildlife, but the destruction or degradation of habitats is high on the list.
Britain’s beautiful natural environment and heritage has provided inspiration, enjoyment and work throughout our history. But the pressures of economic growth, changing weather patterns and our use of natural resources has put a constant strain on nature and wildlife. Labour also has a good record on protecting our natural environment, and opening it for the public to enjoy. The Attlee government legislated for our first national parks, nature reserves and Sites of Specific Scientific Interest. The last Labour government created two more national parks in the New Forest and South Downs. We established the right to roam, and gave better protection to wildlife, through the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (2000) and coastal areas through the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2010). When it comes to government, actions speak louder than words.
The current government’s record stands in stark contrast. On almost all indicators the state of nature has retrenched over the last five years. David Cameron has gone from promising to lead the greenest ever government to cussing about ‘green crap’. The husky was quickly ditched for arch-climate sceptic environment secretary, Owen Paterson, who replaced scientific evidence with environmental prejudice when it came to managing Defra or looking after the environment.
Last September, the cross-party environmental audit committee found that the government had failed to make progress on the 10 environmental areas that it had studied and that in some major areas it has deteriorated. The environment scorecard was clear: air pollution, red; biodiversity, red; flooding and coastal protection, red. From cuts to flood protection and the abolition of the Sustainable Development Commission, to the ignorance of the badger cull and cuts to Natural England, the natural world has been neglected under the Conservatives.
But it does not have to be this way. Britain’s obsession with nature and wildlife remains strong. Over one million people are members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the ramblers and walking groups remain popular, and countless families took part in Big Garden Birdwatch last month. Climate change and public health worries all require better public access to the countryside and protection of our natural assets. Our forests have the potential to be our largest carbon sinks, capturing and storing carbon in wood and soil. England’s coastal path and public access to woodlands and natural trails opens up more places for healthy walks and for children to learn about the great outdoors.
Maria Eagle will outline an ambitious 25 year Labour plan for the recovery of nature. It will place environmental protection alongside bringing nature closer to people. It will set out a future for Britain as a leader in Europe on environmental protection that can provide clean air, beaches and wildlife protection, in stark contrast to the Eurosceptic Owen Paterson or his successor Liz Truss. There will still be difficult challenges ahead, not least on the interaction between habitats and development, but in setting out a long term plan it gives all the partners – the scientists, conservationists, environmental groups and the public – a stake in getting the balance right. When we talk about building a recovery that lasts, we should also be thinking about the quality of life and natural world we want around us.
Andrew Pakes is the Labour and Co-operative parliamentary candidate for Milton Keynes South, and SERA executive committee member
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