Kirsty Finlayson: The Government is making good progress on green issues, but there is much more to be done

4 Jan

Kirsty Finlayson is Director of Communications for the British Conservation Alliance, which launches today. She is a solicitor and has previously stood as a Conservative candidate in the 2017 General Election and the 2019 European Election.

My first school, in rural North Nottinghamshire, had a beaver as its mascot. Despite understanding the symbolism – valuing hard work and aspiring to be “as busy as a beaver” – my four-year-old self was perplexed at never having seen the rodent, despite living on the River Trent.

Nevertheless, living in the countryside close to Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest inspired a lifelong love of nature. Studies have shown that a child who experiences nature before the age of 12 years old is more likely to be motivated to protect the environment in adulthood.

Yet over 90 per cent of the UK population will be city dwellers over the next decade.

With Brexit being the focus in 2019, the word “wildlife” was mentioned just once in our Party’s Manifesto. There were, however, several encouraging commitments to conservation, including pledges to tackle deforestation, introduce a new £500 million maritime preservation programme, ensure farmers farm in a way that protects and enhances our natural environment, plant an additional 75,000 acres of trees a year by the end of the next Parliament, and create new National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The Environment Bill reintroduced in January 2020 has helped re-establish conservation as a Conservative cause. It introduced a mandatory requirement for “biodiversity net gain” during planning, an essential addition to planning rules, given the “requirement” for 300,000 new homes each year.

The Bill went some way to improving long-term conservation with the creation of “conservation covenants”, which allow a landowner and “responsible body” (such as a conservation charity or public body) to fulfil conservation objectives. In the past, conservation obligations were only personal agreements which failed to bind successors in title; conservation bodies had to acquire the freehold of land to secure long term conservation. Now, conservation covenants – as legal commitments – can ensure more permanent preservation of our previous wildlife.

The Bill also introduced a “Duty to Consult”, giving the public an opportunity to understand why an urban tree is being felled and to express their concerns, whilst also strengthening the Forestry Commission’s power to clamp down on illegal tree felling across England – which will be welcomed by right and left wing tree huggers alike.

The improvements in air quality that are brought about by more vegetation are clear; but if Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that the benefit of outdoor greenery is not just precious, it is crucial; trees not only help clean and cool the air, but improve people’s mental and physical health too.

A recent National Trust survey revealed that 80 per cent of the happiest people in the UK have a strong connection with the natural world, compared with less than 40 per cent of the unhappiest. The opportunity to enjoy nature can no longer be a luxury enjoyed by privileged garden owners. A pandemic poll by the RSPB showed that 84 per cent of people in England support the suggestion that the Government should increase the number of accessible nature-rich areas in the UK as part of our pandemic recovery. Links to nature are also associated with far-reaching positive effects on the brain. Studies have shown that a window with a view of green space can reduce the crime rate by as much as 50 per cent.

Returning to the busy beaver, the water flow control that natural habitats provide is essential for our flood defences. With the number of extreme wet days in the UK increasing and costing the UK economy around £2.2 billion a year and causing stress and hardship for homeowners, as well as unprecedented challenges for businesses, councils and the insurance industry, the beaver is just one example of a self-sufficient water management resource.

In 2015, beavers were reintroduced to the countryside in Devon; the Devon Wildlife Trust found that the beavers’ effects on the surrounding area was profound. They not only reduced flooding through dam-building, but they caused plant life to flourish (boosting other types of wildlife), held water in dry periods which prevented sediment and inorganic fertilisers from being washed from farmland, and even reduced erosion and improved water quality. Since 2017, 13 beaver licenses have been issued by the Natural England, most recently to the rewilding project at Knepp in Sussex.

Despite the positives to be drawn by the Environment Bill, however, there is still so much more that individual local activists and large lobbying groups can campaign on.

The Government has set out how developers should protect much-loved British wildlife, but we must do the same on agricultural land, encouraging areas of re-wilding which have a positive impact on both land use and surrounding nature. This does not need to come at the expense of farmers and their livelihoods.

There are huge opportunities to rethink how farmland is managed with the overhaul of the Common Agricultural Policy. Farmers currently benefit from subsidies such as Agricultural Property Relief. Whilst conservation covenants are a start, why not give farmers a tax benefit for re-wilding? Let’s give businesses economic incentives for wilding land, which can provide long-term public benefit through physical activity and education. Brexit has afforded us the opportunity to view farming and conservation as mutually compatible; improving the quality of our land, which includes reversing land degradation, will also boost our nation’s food production in the long term.

Post-Brexit, we must take the lead in environmental legislation; previously, it took EU subsidies to change soil quality. With a relatively small land mass, we cannot afford to be complacent. The Government has supported the ban on pesticides to protect bee pollination, but has yet to oppose the herbicide glyphosate. Some local authorities such as in North Somerset, Bristol, and Lewes have decided not to wait for Government intervention, and have already imposed restrictions on the herbicide, which various studies have labelled as having serious health implications.

And we must not ignore international cooperation in the wake of Covid-19. Whilst the UK government has implemented a far-reaching furlough scheme, many of the world’s inhabitants do not have such government support, leaving them vulnerable to exploit natural resources (primarily precious forests and oceans) to survive. In the Global South, this is likely to have a devastating long-term impact on the natural world. The Prime Minister’s commitment to cooperate internationally in order to introduce wildlife corridors, cut deforestation and protect 30 per cent of the world’s oceans will be welcome.