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Professor Ian Bateman: 'Future generations will be right to condemn us if we fail them now'

Only half of England’s nature reserves in ‘favourable’ state, as committee reports widespread environmental decline

Just half of England’s nature reserves are in a ‘favourable’ condition, according to a Natural Capital Committee (NCC) report revealing serious decline across England’s natural environment.

Natural assets including plants and wildlife, soils, land and waters are deteriorating despite a government pledge to improve the environment within a generation, according to the expert committee, which was set up in 2012 to advise the government on environmental policy such as its 25 Year Environment Plan.

Its members include Professor Ian Bateman, director of the University of Exeter Business School’s Land, Environment, Economics and Policy Institute (LEEP) and member of the Economics department.

The committee has developed a new framework that divides environmental resources into seven categories and outlines each group’s progress against the government’s environmental objectives.

But the committee’s Final Response report found that, to date, none of these areas were showing progress.

Among a raft of failed objectives and missed targets, the committee highlighted that only 51% of England’s 224 National Nature Reserves are in a ‘favourable’ condition.

The government is also not meeting its Biodiversity 2020 Strategy target of having 90% of priority habitats in a ‘favourable’ or ‘unfavourable recovering’ condition.

A ‘favourable’ conservation status is when the habitat of a designated area is stable or increasing, and is able to maintain itself on a long-term basis.

In five of the seven areas examined, the Natural Capital Committee found a deterioration in the natural environment (freshwater, marine, soil, plants and wildlife and land).

The UK’s bee and hoverfly population was found to have declined 30% between 1980 and 2016.

And in the atmosphere, ammonia levels are currently too high to realistically meet the target 8% reduction of 2005 levels.

Household waste recycling rates were also found to have plateaued since 2013 at around 44%.

Professor Bateman said: “The Government set out high ambitions in both its 25 Year Environment Plan in 2018 and its previous White Paper on the Environment, way back in 2011. These set out a vision and plan to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better condition than it inherited. These ambitions are laudable, however we have to say that, to date, things are generally getting worse rather than better.

“This is of great concern – the promise of the Environment Bill plus the opportunity provided by the UK leaving the Common Agricultural Policy means we really do have a once in a lifetime chance to change the course we are on. Future generations will be right to condemn us if we fail them now.”

The committee highlighted the need for urgent action to reverse these declines, and recommended the government encourage the public to take part in environmental monitoring, such as nationwide surveys that identify the state of the country’s insects.

It also advised that the new independent environmental body, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), use the NCC Natural Capital Framework once it is established in 2021, so it can scrutinise government’s progress towards improving the natural environment and meeting the goals of the 25 Year Environment Plan.

Commenting on the report, Professor Dieter Helm, Chair of the Natural Capital Committee, said: “Nearly a decade has passed since the government committed to leaving the environment in a better state for the next generation. Our report highlights the limited evidence of progress and some worrying declines.

“It is vital that we measure the state of our natural assets and then target interventions to improve the environment in a coherent way. We can be green and prosperous, but it will not happen by default.”

Date: 26 October 2020