Every household will be within a 15-minute walk of a green space or water, and sewage spills will be tackled with upgrades to wastewater treatments works, under a major environmental improvement plan for England.
The plan has been set out by the government on Tuesday (31 January) and will include commitments to restore at least 500,000 hectares (1.2m acres) of wildlife habitat, and 400 miles of river.
It will include 25 new or expanded national nature reserves and 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of new woodland along England’s rivers.
A new species survival fund will also target some of the most threatened wildlife, including hedgehogs and red squirrels.
While sewage spills, an issue which shocked the public after damning reports, will be tackled with upgrades to 160 wastewater treatment works by 2027. The plan is to be set out in more detail later this year and aims to lessen pressures on the water system from pollution, new housing developments and the climate crisis.
From November every government department will have an obligation to consider the environmental and climate impacts of each new policy and piece of legislation.
The environmental improvement plan (EIP) is required under the Environment Act, and is meant to translate into policy the commitment made in the 25-year Environmental Plan, which was set out in 2018 to “improve the environment within a generation and leave it in a better state than we found it”.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said protecting the natural environment was fundamental to the health, economy and prosperity of the country. He said the plan provides “the blueprint for how we deliver our commitment to leave our environment in a better state than we found it.”
However, ministers have been criticised for a lack of clear funding for the plans.
‘Complete waste of paper if there are no farmers left’
The plan includes a target for 65-80% of landowners and farmers to adopt nature-friendly farming practices on 10-15% of their land by 2030.
However, this would depend on how the schemes were funded, experts told the Guardian.
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesperson, said: “These environmental targets will be a complete waste of paper if there are no farmers left to put them into practice. The government’s plans will lead to hundreds of farmers leaving the industry due to huge cuts in funding this year, vague promises of new schemes in the future and a complete lack of any acknowledgement that the UK has to be able to produce more of its own food, not less.
“This plan feels like it’s been written in Westminster by those with little grasp of farming, food production or rural Britain.”
Mark Tufnell, the president of the Country Land and Business Association, said: “The government is right to be ambitious for the environment, and the green economy. As landowners we are determined to play an even greater role in the fight against climate change and nature decline.
“But the more government asks of us, the more we need guarantees as to the long-term budget, and the more we need confidence that government will provide clear, timely guidance as to what it wants and how it is to be delivered.”
‘We don’t want to see yet another broken promise’
Kate Ashbrook, the general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, said more detail was needed on how the commitment to ensure every home was within 15 minutes of green space could be achieved.
She said: “It is vital that the new access is protected in perpetuity, for instance by registering land as a town or village green, and recording new public highways. Government has made numerous pledges about paying for public access under the environmental land management scheme but hardly any new access has yet been forthcoming. We don’t want to see yet another broken promise”.
Speaking on the new commitments, Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey, said: “Our Environmental Improvement Plan sets out how we will continue to improve our environment here in the UK and around the world. Nature is vital for our survival, crucial to our food security, clean air, and clean water as well as health and well-being benefits.
We have already started the journey and we have seen improvements. We are transforming financial support for farmers and landowners to prioritise improving the environment, we are stepping up on tree planting, we have cleaner air, we have put a spotlight on water quality and rivers and are forcing industry to clean up its act.
“Whether you live in a city or town, in the countryside or on the coast, join us in our national endeavour to improve the environment.”