Every household will be within a 15-minute walk of a green space or water, under a major environmental improvement plan for England set out by the government on Tuesday.
The long-awaited measures will include commitments to restore at least 500,000 hectares (1.2m acres) of wildlife habitat, and 400 miles of river. This 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 target some of the most threatened wildlife, including hedgehogs and red squirrels.
Sewage spills are to be tackled with upgrades to 160 wastewater treatment works by 2027, and a plan – to be set out in detail later in the year – to tackle the increasing pressures on the water system from pollution, new housing developments and the climate crisis.
From November every government department will also 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, set out in 2018, to “improve the environment within a generation and leave it in a better state than we found it”.
Ministers were criticised, however, for a lack of clear funding for the plans. A target for 65-80% of landowners and farmers to adopt nature-friendly farming practices on 10-15% of their land by 2030 would depend on how the schemes were funded, experts told the Guardian.
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.”
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.”
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. Currently, 2.8 million people in the UK live more than 10 minutes from a green space.
“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,” Ashbrook warned.
Green campaigners also noted that, unheralded by ministers, the number of environmental laws that could be scrapped owing to the retained EU law bill had more than tripled, from 570 to 1,781. Ruth Chambers, of the Greener UK coalition, said: “The government wants to make this about reclaiming sovereignty, but these are important laws already on our books. They provide certainty for the UK public and for UK businesses.
“Aiming to scrap or reform so many environmental regulations in 11 months is not only reckless but a huge waste of public resources. Drafting errors will appear, and vital laws will go missing. It is impossible to see how continuing with such a cavalier approach will meet the prime minister’s stated goals of integrity and accountability.”
While environmental regulations may be lost now, some of the commitments in the EIP are decades in the future, such as creating or restoring 30,000 miles of hedgerows a year by 2037, and 45,000-miles of hedgerows a year by 2050.
Others are intended to put into action commitments made years ago, such as new schemes to reduce emissions of ammonia from farming, a major contributor to air pollution.
There will be improvements in the way information on air pollution is communicated with the public, and new targets on reducing waste. Building regulations will be reviewed to address water waste from new developments and home refurbishment, to prevent the installation of toilets that leak and poorly performing dual-flush buttons.
The government said the plans would boost green growth and create new jobs.
Last week, the Office for Environmental Protection, the watchdog set up under the Environment Act, found that the government was failing or showing no progress on nearly every environmental measure.
Paul de Zylva, a nature campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “At a glance these measures sound impressive, but on closer inspection it seems that many are just rehashed commitments the government is already late on delivering – and it’s unclear how others, such as ensuring everyone can live within a 15-minute walk of green space, will actually be met.
“There’s also a big emphasis on improving air quality, which is completely at odds with the government’s £27bn road-building agenda, raising serious questions over whether councils are being set up to fail.”