An Environment Act for the 21st Century

The Wildlife Trusts are calling for an Environment Act - an ambitious and visionary piece of ‘framework’ legislation to bring about the recovery of wildlife and the natural environment in a generation, for the benefit of people and wildlife.

Why do we need an Environment Act?

Because our actions as a society over the past century have undermined the natural world’s ability to support us and to support the wildlife we love. Never have we or wildlife needed that support as much. Habitats, plants and animals have declined consistently across the vast majority of the country and so has our mental health and sense of wellbeing.

We have reduced the ability of our environment to soak up extreme rainfall, absorb carbon, and provide clean water. We have battered our soils, our fish stocks and populations of pollinators. This affects how we can adapt to climate change, the liveability of our cities and the productivity of our countryside.We have also become more remote from wildlife, so that it is less present in our daily lives. Over the same period, conditions such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and depression have increased. We need to reverse both trends and bring nature back.

We need to invest more time, energy, commitment, and money into nature’s recovery – because wildlife and wild places need it, and because our health, wellbeing and prosperity depend upon it.

What would the Act involve?

It would place nature at the heart of how decisions are made about health, housing and other development, land management, education, economic growth, flood resilience and social cohesion.

Healthy woods, rivers, meadows, parks and wild land around us, joined up to form ecological networks would help achieve objectives in all these areas. Decisions by Government at all levels would place a greater value on the environment, driven by a framework of long term ambitions like those we have to reduce climate change gas emissions.

The Act would make sure we all have more wildlife where we live and work. And by learning about nature at school our next generations will build understanding from an early age.

Why do we need new legislation?

Our existing laws have been vital in protecting what wildlife we have left and as we face departure from the EU it is more vital than ever to keep these. But they were never designed to help reverse wildlife’s decline.

We need legislation that explicitly does this, and recognises the fundamental importance of the natural environment to our society and the economy, as well as its intrinsic worth and the value placed in it by the people of England.

What will it cost?

A large and growing body of evidence shows that nature is a cost-effective contributor to good public health – both by helping to keep us mentally and physically well and by helping to cure us when we fall ill. Contact with nature helps to develop competent, confident, productive citizens.

It increases the quality of the neighbourhoods in which we live. Research shows that access to semi-natural green space could save the NHS £2.1bn annually due to the health benefits it provides.

Research shows that access to semi-natural green space could save the NHS £2.1bn annually due to the health benefits it provides.

The National Ecosystem Assessment calculates that the wrong kind of economic growth between now and 2060 would cost the UK £20.7bn per year because of the damage it would cause. By contrast, putting nature at the heart of development would save £33bn per year. Well managed and wild natural places provide lasting and substantial benefits to the economy and are ultimately the root of all our productivity.

It’s time to act for nature’s recovery – we can’t afford not to: we, the people of England need wildlife back in our lives!

© Matthew Roberts

Want more information? Here's more detail about the Environment Act we're calling for:

What the Act would do...

  • Set ambitious, measurable milestones for rebuilding the country’s natural assets. 
  • Create a powerful independent statutory committee to monitor progress.
  • Establish an effective new approach to environmental regulation, a robust enforcement plan and accountability for the state of nature across all government departments.
  • Ensure local frameworks deliver positive spatial planning for nature’s recovery and access to nature. Stimulate the creation of a national network of places for nature, planned and built from the local level up
  • Ensure integration with agricultural and fisheries policies to secure investment in rebuilding our environmental assets.
  • Reconnect people with the natural world, bringing fair access to nature and teaching our children about the world we live in

1. Set ambitious, measurable milestones for rebuilding the country’s natural assets.

Our existing environmental laws provide essential protection for wildlife but now we need to go further to ensure a future where nature is recovering – not just about hanging on. An Environment Act would include a government commitment to nature’s recovery within a generation (like another recent Act with a big ambition for positive environmental change – the Climate Change Act).

2. Create a powerful independent statutory committee to monitor progress.

For too long, nature’s needs and our need for nature have remained peripheral in most Government thinking. An independent public body is needed be established to ensure nature is at the heart of political decision making, planning and business.

This might be a statutory and empowered version of the current Natural Capital Committee or perhaps an Office for Environmental Responsibility equivalent to the existing Office for Budgetary Responsibility.

This body would shine a light on whether the health of nature is improving or continuing to be undermined. This could include oversight of an annual set of national environmental ‘accounts’ or statistics to show the status of our ecosystems and wildlife and to help us live within environmental limits. For example, these could show tonnes of carbon stored in peatlands and other habitats, cubic metres of water held in floodplains, soil health, as well as showing an economic value for some of the natural processes we depend on – but not for wildlife itself.

This approach would also mean that the status of our nature and ecosystems could then be measured alongside other socio-economic indicators that guide national decisions. A new body like this would help to make nature’s contribution to society more visible and easier to integrate nature and nature-based solutions into government decision-making which tends, on the
whole, to undervalue and ultimately destroy natural habitats.
This would make it easier to consider protecting and creating natural habitats as flood defences rather than destroying them to create artificial defences.


3. Establish an effective new approach to environmental regulation, a robust enforcement plan and accountability for the state of nature across all government departments.

The country needs to ensure a re-birth of strong independent environmental regulation. Our current agencies have massive strengths but have been subjected to cuts and curbs that have reduced their impact. There is inadequate ambition and inadequate investment in building the skills and confidence of our regulators to make good firm judgements and build trust with those they regulate.

Local authorities and national government departments should have a core duty to promote nature’s recovery. We are currently be setting out the key principles for future regulatory frameworks and institutions on departure from the EU.


4. Ensure local frameworks deliver positive spatial planning for nature’s recovery and access to nature.

We need to stimulate the creation of a national wildlife network, planned and built from the local level up but endorsed and empowered by national government.

Many of our current protected areas are struggling to retain their diversity, surrounded by land that is inhospitable for wildlife. These last wild places are becoming isolated - both from habitats nearby and from people too. An Environment Act would enable the mapping and creation of ecological networks through the planning system, to put wildlife back on the map and into the landscape and to link them up.

This approach would guarantee Nature in walking distance.

Imagine if the starting point for our planning system was identifying our precious green and wild places – our woods, meadows, river corridors, wild land, parks - and then designing housing and development around them, along with ways to reconnect and recreate habitats where needed. A wild place for nature and people in every neighbourhood should be a realistic ambition. A commitment to the creation of ecological networks is already law in several countries, including France and Germany, along with ways to ensure their delivery through planning systems. We should follow their lead with a credible plan for England’s nature networks.

This approach would guarantee Nature in walking distance. As wildlife habitats have disappeared, people are becoming more disconnected and isolated from nature. Many previous studies have found that our children are more disconnected from nature than ever before. The chances today of a child discovering a wildflower meadow by chance are virtually zero in most places. There is a clear link between income-related inequality in health and exposure to nature in parks and natural areas. In England, the most deprived communities are 10 times less likely to live in the greenest areas. Those with close access to green space live longer than those without, even when adjusted for other factors like social class, employment and smoking.

Having access to nature is also about social equality. Natural England has published a set of standards for access to nature near our homes. However the standards are not mandatory. We believe this is so fundamentally important to our quality of life – rich and poor – that the Government should go further and commit itself to increasing the amount, accessibility and quality of natural green space in and around our settlements. This requirement would be straightforward to introduce for all new developments and raise the quality of new settlements across England. It would also challenge local authorities to find new ways to provide existing settlements with increased levels of accessible natural green space over time, so that we can all enjoy the benefits than nature brings.

5. Ensure integration with agricultural and fisheries policies to secure investment in rebuilding our environmental assets. 

Fishing, agriculture and planning decisions are the most significant impacts on the natural world. It is absolutely vital that the direction the UK takes in these areas after it leaves the EU will contribution to nature’s recovery.

Delivering sustainable fisheries management: A sustainable future for UK seas

A griculture at a crossroads: The need for sustainable farming and land use policies

6. Reconnect people with the natural world, bringing fair access to nature and teaching our children about the world we live in.

Nature in healthcare - As wild places have disappeared, with them so has our sense of connection to the natural world, and levels of physical inactivity, obesity, heart disease, depression and Type 2 Diabetes have all risen. One in four of us will experience a mental health problem at some point in our lives. Pressures on the NHS are growing and costs are forecast to rise inexorably.

Childrens’ development can be positively affected by contact with nature, and the future protection of the natural world is entirely in the hands of future generations.

Physical inactivity alone costs us £20 billion pounds every year. There is a role, alongside other treatment methods, for a low tech and preventative approach with nature and natural spaces at the fore. Ecotherapy projects have seen organisations like Mind and The Wildlife Trusts collaborate to use outdoor settings and nature to help improve mental wellbeing. Quality is key: spending time in varied habitats, full of wildlife such as birds, butterflies and plantlife is good for us. Halting the decline of wildlife and starting its recovery is good for us all.

Nature in schools - Creating a bond between children and nature is vitally important. Childrens’ development can be positively affected by contact with nature, and the future protection of the natural world is entirely in the hands of future generations.

Yet the number of children who have hands-on experience of nature is in sharp decline. Only 21% of 8-12 year olds in England have a connection to nature that could be considered realistic and achievable for all children. There are already inspiring examples where teachers and organisations are bringing nature into the classroom or taking learning outdoors – making it effective and fun for children. So we’re proposing an amendment to Section 78 of the Education Act: to make caring for nature a key purpose of schooling. This builds on curriculum reform proposals in 2011 that suggested the curriculum should ‘contribute to environmental stewardship’. A legislative change like this should create the context and momentum for action in other areas such a greater focus on eco-literacy within the curriculum and provision of natural areas in school grounds for learning and for wildlife.

Nature in perpetuity - Our current wildlife laws help to protect many species and habitats from threat and harm. We have really strong national laws and European laws like the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive that have helped safeguard nature for 30 years. The Environment Act would act as the best route to ensure that this protection is not removed or weakened once EU laws have been transposed by the Great Repeal Act. But it would do more than this, providing a new impetus towards recovery, and recognise the importance of wildlife and wild places in every aspect of our lives.

Read more about our work leading up to the General Election here.

© Paul Harris/2020VISION

(Image credit: Swan at Oxbow pond woodhouse washlands, Ray Holden)

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