Long-term government environment plan could be shelved until 2018
The government’s much-delayed 25-year plan for the environment may not be published this year, after new Environment Secretary Michael Gove reportedly halted its publication in order to give it more personal oversight.
The industry has been baying for an idea of how the government regards the future of waste and resources for some years, and with Brexit on the horizon, the need for some semblance of long-term certainty or policy has grown.
With no indication of how the government sees its waste policy developing as the UK leaves the EU, which has provided much of its direction on the subject in recent decades, the industry has been left in limbo, with many long-term plans being put on hold while it waits for more information.
The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) was meant to publish its 25-year plan for the environment last year, following the launch of a five-year plan that drew criticism from the industry for only fleetingly mentioning waste or resources management, an area that is not only key to protecting the environment but can also play a large role in developing sustainable growth in Britain.
However, publication of the longer plan was pushed back throughout the year, ostensibly due to disruptions within the department caused first by the result of the EU referendum and then Theresa May’s cabinet reshuffle in July.
Since then, most of the department’s resources have been focused on Brexit, but it is understood that the long-term policy document was agreed and signed off by Prime Minister May prior to her calling of a snap election in April.
Now, the Independent has reported that Gove is likely to push back publication once more, potentially until 2018. The news came on the morning that the Conservative party agreed a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland – which has previously blocked attempts to introduce measures against climate change and did not mention the environment in its pre-election manifesto – that will see it form a minority government.
The Independent says Gove, who himself has a spotty history with climate change and environmental protections, is ‘keen to put his own personal stamp on the document’, despite pleas from a number of environmental groups to hasten its publication.
Parliament’s green watchdog – the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) – wrote to former Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom earlier this year to criticise the obfuscation surrounding the plan and the damage that further delay could cause to the environment with Brexit negotiations beginning.
On seeing the draft, commentators told the BBC that the 46-page document featured ‘good thinking on the framework for environmental management’ but was ‘lacking in practical solutions’.
Following the broadcaster’s report, a Defra spokesperson said that the department retained its “ambition is to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it” and that it was “committed to publishing a long-term plan that builds on our long history of wildlife and environmental protection, and sets out a new approach to managing the environment”.
The spokesperson admitted that the decision to leave the EU meant the department ‘needed to take stock and consider its long-term approach to managing the environment’, but that since then it had been working closely with a range of environmental and conservation groups and businesses to develop initial proposals, which will form the basis of its wider engagement.
While this latest reported delay will irk many in the industry who thought the belated document might finally be close to publication, Amy Mount, Head of the Greener UK Unit at the Green Alliance think tank, suggested to the Independent that there may be room for optimism in the delay: “We think there is an urgent need to tackle some of our environmental problems … the sooner we do that the better. The government has already been rapped on its knuckles for failing to produce an adequate air quality plan. Nature is in decline still and we need to be turning this around.”
“[But] Gove has been certainly very charming over the past week from an environmental perspective. He’s said a lot of good things about his ambitions for the environment. He’s also known for his reforming zeal and may want to shake things up. That could go either way from an environmental perspective.”
Shadow Environment Secretary Sue Hayman was less circumspect, blaming the “chaos and disarray” created by Theresa May's minority government for the “unacceptable” delay, adding: “This news does very little to allay concerns about Mr Gove's environmental credentials and suitability for the Defra role.”
The Green Party has previously charged that Gove is “entirely unfit” for the role of Environment Secretary, suggesting that his appointment “is further evidence of both Theresa May’s complete disregard for the environment and her desperation to hold together a government in chaos.”