The Government’s vision for protecting England’s environment over the next 50 years was criticised yesterday by environmental groups and rural campaigners, who said the plans were too vague and over-reliant on volunteers to repair the damage previously done to nature.
The Department for the Environment’s first natural environment white paper for twenty years said that a dozen large-scale conservation zones across the country, new local nature ambassadors and voluntary biodiversity “offsets” for businesses are needed to protect England’s environment.
Ministers also promised to give communities more power to protect local green spaces, cut bureaucracy which stops children from being taught outside, phase out the use of peatlands for horticulture and promote conservation volunteering.
But the coalition pledged just £7.5m towards the 12 new “nature improvement areas,” which it is hoped will restore connected habitats for wildlife.
Paul Wilkinson, head of Living Landscape for The Wildlife Trusts – which manage more than 2,000 nature reserves across the UK - said he was concerned that the paper did not describe how the 92 commitments within it would be achieved. “Although we hugely welcome this vision within this White Paper, it is disappointing that a commitment to enshrining the aspirations in statute has not been made,” he said.
Conservation groups including the World Wildlife Fund, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace were particularly concerned with the paper’s failure to address marine conservation, global food production and the impact of the government’s planning reforms on biodiversity issues.
Margaret Ounsley, head of public affairs at WWF, said: “The trouble is a lot of the report seems to be underpinned by the ideology of the Big Society, which is fine if we assume local communities will do the work. We have reservations about whether it will deliver in the end.”
Concern was voiced over the biodiversity “offsetting” mechanism recommended in the paper, in which developers will be encouraged to compensate for habitat destroyed in one area by improving it elsewhere. Greenpeace’s chief policy adviser, Ruth Davis, said: “How many badgers or hedgehogs do you save, to offset one dead otter? It’s madness.”
The government also announced they would set up an independent body that will report to the government’s economic affairs committee and advise ministers on environment issues. Paul de Zylva, head of Friends of the Earth England, said: "The economic valuation of nature has a role and it is certainly the new game in town, but the natural world is on the brink. It doesn't need more clever accounting and arithmetic to know we need to do something about it - it needs the right regulation used in the right way."
Environment Minister Caroline Spelman said: “What I’d really like to see happening as a result of this White Paper is more children enjoying nature and continuing that interest into adulthood, so that they pass that passion for the environment down through the generations. That would be a legacy well worth leaving.”