Tag Archives: Defra

Environment Agency “invested £1.3bn on the environment in 2017-18”

Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management accounts for almost two-thirds of EA spending

Annual Report measures Environment Agency performance

July 25th 2018

The Environment Agency published its annual report this month, together with its financial accounts for the 2017-18 financial year. [1] The annual report reveals that the Environment Agency’s total expenditure for the financial year ending 31 March 2018 was £1,315.2m, roughly the same as the previous year’s expenditure. Defra funding accounts for 65% of this total expenditure, with 35% coming largely from fees and charges. Breaking down the expenditure by business area, the figures show that the Agency spent £826.5m of the £1.3bn total on Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management (known as FCERM), whilst the remainder (£488.7m) is attributed to “environment and business.” The latter includes a multitude of activities such as regulation of industry (environmental permits, licensing, enforcement and so on), monitoring (including water quality), investigations under the Water Framework Directive, and incident management. Over a third of the FCERM spending falls into the category of capital expenditure associated with flood and coastal erosion risk management (£298.1m).

The Environment Agency is a non-departmental public body which was created under the 1995 Environment Act. Under Section 45 of the 1995 Act, the Agency is legally obliged to prepare a statement of accounts for each financial year in the form set out by a direction from the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. Although the Agency is independent of the Government, it carries out functions on behalf of Defra, its sponsoring department, and helps to develop Defra’s strategic objectives. Defra monitors the Agency’s performance and oversees the environmental policy that determines its operational framework. The Environment Agency is consequently the leading public body for protecting and improving the environment in England.

“Creating a better place for people and wildlife”

The Agency describes its vision as “the creation of a better place for people and wildlife,” and its three main areas of activity as flood and coastal erosion risk management; water, land and biodiversity; and regulation of industry. The Agency employs around 10,000 full-time staff and works with government, local councils, businesses, local communities, and groups such as the Rivers Trust. Local offices work closely with local communities to improve the environment and encourage sustainable development.

The Agency is currently working to achieve the goals set out in an Action Plan, titled Creating a better place: our ambition to 2020, and defines those objectives as: a cleaner, healthier environment which benefits people and the economy; a nation better protected against natural threats and hazards with strong response and recovery capabilities; and higher visibility, stronger partnerships, and local choices. [2] The Agency says three principles inform all of its choices: putting people and wildlife first (in line with its vision of creating a better place for people and wildlife); 80/20: “focusing on the 20% of things that make 80% of the difference;” and supporting local priorities, recognising that “every place and community has its own needs.”

New challenges

The Agency says that its Action Plan recognises the challenges of budget pressures, more extreme weather, and a growing population, and that these challenges require the Agency to innovate, “focus on the things which make the biggest difference,” and work more closely with its partners. The Agency’s CEO Sir James Bevan says in the annual report that the purpose of the Agency has not changed since it was first established in 1996: namely, to protect and enhance the environment and promote sustainable development. However, he continues:

“But the context in which we operate has changed dramatically. Climate change, the single biggest factor affecting our environment, is now better understood and starting to bite. Our country is more developed and more populous, putting greater pressure on the natural world. There is greater public awareness of the environment, and higher public expectation of us and the rest of the public sector. The 2016 referendum has brought a new challenge: to ensure that the UK’s exit from the European Union delivers a cleaner and greener country and a better environment.”

The CEO says that the Environment Agency was closely involved in shaping the Government’s 25 year Environment Plan, and delivering the plan is now one of the Agency’s main responsibilities. [3]

The latest challenge: Defra transformation “continues to pose risks and opportunities”

The annual report reveals that the Agency’s CEO and its Chair, Emma Howard Boyd, meet regularly with the Secretary of State and other Defra ministers. The topics discussed in those ministerial meetings have included the 25 Year Environment Plan; flood risk management and related issues; the future management of navigation waterways; illegal waste and the targeting of major problem sites; the UK’s anticipated departure from the EU; and supporting economic growth through prompt responses to planning enquiries and permissions for shale gas exploration and large infrastructure projects; specifically, HS2, Hinckley Point nuclear power station, Crossrail, and the Thames Tideway Tunnel.

Another major topic of those discussions has been the transformation of Defra, which has meant changes to the Agency’s structure. The annual report reveals that in the last financial year, the Environment Agency transferred the responsibility for most of its corporate services functions to Defra. This involved the permanent transfer of around 1,000 staff to Defra under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2016. The transfer is “part of a wider Defra group transformation programme initiated in response to Defra’s spending review settlement for 2015 to 2020.” The annual report says that the transfer, which took place on 1st November 2017, presented logistical and procedural challenges, requiring significant preparatory work to make the transition successful, and to ensure that “the Environment Agency continues to receive the services it requires to effectively discharge its responsibilities, operational requirements, and statutory duties, including as a Category One responder to incidents.”

The report says that one consequence of the transfer is that “some risks to the Environment Agency are now managed on our behalf by Defra. This has required us to develop new relationships between those who own risks on behalf of the Environment Agency and those who are managing them.” In a governance statement, the report says:

“The scale of the Defra group transformation continues to pose a variety of risks and opportunities for our day-to-day business. These include: failing to realise financial and non-financial benefits; not managing our people’s capacity for change and thereby adversely affecting morale; and not pacing change to ensure we maximise opportunities to learn and work better together with more consistent shared systems and processes. We continue to oversee the planning, scheduling, and delivery of change to manage risks and dependencies, maximise opportunities, and ensure that employees and employee relations groups are engaged appropriately… A partnership agreement between Defra and the Environment Agency has been established to guide working relationships and the delivery of services post-transfer… As plans are developed for transforming Defra Corporate Services to reduce expenditure and improve efficiency, the Environment Agency will be consulted and these agreements will allow the services to be monitored and ensure that any negative impacts are minimised.”

The governance statement says that the transformation “may also affect transferred staff and increase turnover.” The Agency says it is working with colleagues in Defra “to mitigate any potential loss of corporate knowledge, effectiveness and efficiency,” including the possible re-employment of staff to continue doing corporate services work in the Agency. In particular, it wants to ensure that the staff who have been transferred “continue to feel part of the ‘Environment Agency team.'” The statement says that similar messages from the leadership of Defra Corporate Services are emphasising the importance of transferred staff continuing to prioritise Environment Agency activity as well as activity for the Defra group.

The Agency completes the transition to Open Data

The Agency says that during the 2017-18 financial year, it completed its plan to remove all charges for the commercial re-use of Environment Agency data. This means that since April 2018 users have been able to use the Agency’s data for free with minimal licence restrictions. The annual report states:

“The removal of charges is part of the Open Data commitment we made in 2014 to publish more freely available data. Since 2015 we have progressively removed charges from almost 100 datasets including LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). LIDAR provides high resolution maps of data that can be used for a variety of purposes such as geo-spatial environmental management. Our datasets have been downloaded over a million times since being published. We have seen free of charge data benefit communities, for example by the Pang Valley Flood Forum and by the Red Cross in its emergency mobile telephone application alerting users to localised emergencies. We also witnessed surprising uses of our open data, for example archaeologists using our LIDAR data to find lost Roman roads.”

The Agency’s commitment to make more data freely available for public use was reported in our news story towards the end of 2014, “Environment Agency’s Open Data Initiative will make more data freely available for public use”.

“A cleaner, healthier environment”

In her foreword to the annual report, the Chair of the Environment Agency Emma Howard Boyd says that the Government’s 25 year Environment Plan pledges to deliver the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, “and to make sure all policies, programmes and investment decisions take into account the possible extent of climate change this century.” She says that the Environment Agency is already moving towards many of the UN’s goals. In particular, Goal 6, Clean Water and Sanitation, is reflected in the Agency’s work on enhancing watercourses and reducing pollution; Goal 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities, is reflected in the Agency’s work on flood protection; and Goal 15, Life on Land, is reflected in the Agency’s work on habitat creation.

The Environment Agency’s current Action Plan includes performance criteria that measure the Agency’s success in achieving those goals. The annual report describes five categories of performance measures, which include four measures for a cleaner, healthier environment, and three measures for a nation better protected against floods. Under the category of “a cleaner, healthier environment, benefiting people and the economy,” the Agency lists the following four measures of success:

1 “The water environment is healthier.”
2 “We protect people, the environment and wildlife by reducing serious pollution incidents.”
3 “We create new habitats.”
4 “We reduce the number of high-risk illegal waste sites.”

On the water environment, the Agency had a target of enhancing 1,500km of England’s watercourses in 2017-18 and succeeded in exceeding the target by enhancing 2,038km. The Agency says this includes work done with and by catchment partners and other stakeholders. The work has been concentrated on locations identified for improvement in updated River Basin Management Plans, which set out measures to restore and enhance river habitats. The annual report says that the Agency has been working with partners in improving water quality and biodiversity through a range of work programmes, including advice to farmers and landowners on a range of issues; for instance, the reduction of pollution run-off into waterways through the countryside stewardship and other schemes. The Agency has also been working to reduce the impact of invasive species, “such as floating pennywort and Himalayan balsam on the Upper Witham River in Lincolnshire.” The Agency says this work has prevented deterioration and maintained the quality of the water environment, whilst “improvements by water companies have reduced pollution in many catchments across the country.” The Agency has set another challenging target for 2018-19 of enhancing 2,000km of watercourses, in order to move towards the goal of enhancing at least 8,000km by 2021.

On pollution, the Agency reports that the number of serious and significant pollution incidents (known as Category 1 and Category 2 incidents) in 2017-2018 fell to 402 from 477 in 2016-17, which represent its lowest pollution levels since 2011. The fall was achieved “by targeting sectors showing the poorest performance for pollution incidents, and using this information to prioritise where to allocate our resources. We then used pollution incident reduction plans to manage the primary causes of pollution for individual pollution sectors.” The top three regulatory sectors, which accounted for 40% of all Category 1 and 2 incidents in 2017-18, were water companies, illegal waste sites, and agriculture, but the total number of pollution incidents for the top three sectors saw a 28% reduction when compared to the previous year. The Agency says that this “top sector approach” has reduced incident numbers in all of the prioritised sectors apart from agriculture, which saw a 13% increase in pollution incidents in 2017-2018. To address the issue of agricultural pollution, the Agency has been working with Defra on a set of new rules for farmers, which came into force in April. [4]

The challenge of plastic pollution

The annual report also includes a special mention of plastic pollution. The Agency says that “plastics in our rivers and oceans has been described as the greatest environmental challenge of our time.” Following Sir David Attenborough’s highlighting of the issue in the BBC’s Blue Planet series, the Agency has established a team to focus on reducing plastic pollution and improving sustainability as part of the Government’s 25 year Environment Plan. The Agency says that plastic pollution is a threat to our natural environment which cannot be tackled in isolation. By working together, however, “we can reduce the amount which enters our land, rivers and the sea, and protect wildlife for future generations.” The team will bring together charities, community groups, academics, and representatives from industry and water companies, and will work on the issue holistically. The areas of work will include: reducing plastics reaching land, waterways and shorelines; promoting better environmental practices in business and a reduction in plastic waste from the start of the manufacturing process; increasing local engagement to change public behaviour and encourage more community action to tackle pollution; and monitoring and research into the ways plastics enter and affect the environment.

Habitat creation

The third performance measure in the “cleaner, healthier environment” category is the creation of habitats. The Agency reports that it exceeded its target of creating 530 hectares of new priority habitats in 2017-18 by delivering 619 hectares. It defines priority habitats as “those most threatened, and requiring conservation action under the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework.” As well as river restoration and maintenance projects, the work of habitat creation is also an integral part of flood risk management projects (see ‘Natural Flood Management’ below). The Agency says that “habitat creation projects reduce soil erosion and provide recreation and climate change adaptation in addition to their primary role.” One such project is the Pennine Peat Partnership, involving work with water companies to reduce downstream flood risk by slowing the flow, whilst also filtering the water which reduces the amount of chemical treatment needed for the water companies. The project has created 125 hectares of blanket bog, which will help to increase biodiversity and to store carbon to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Illegal waste sites

The fourth performance measure in the “cleaner, healthier environment” category is the number of high-risk illegal waste sites. On this measure, the annual report reveals that the Agency failed to meet its targets. The report states:

“It remains a priority to reduce the impact of waste crime on local communities and ensure a level playing field for legitimate businesses. However, in spite of our efforts we have been finding more illegal waste sites than we are able to close down. The total active high-risk illegal waste sites rose slightly to 259, up from 253 in 2016-17. Whilst we have not hit our target for this year, we stopped a large number of waste sites from operating and we have a good prosecution record. In 2017-18 we made 93 successful waste crime prosecutions resulting in 17 prison sentences. Total fines were in excess of £380k, with some of the highest fines for individuals being issued. To ensure we hit our target for next year, we have been given new powers to help enforce against illegal waste activity and further reviews of legislation are anticipated. The Government has also provided more funding to tackle this serious problem and we shall continue to work with the legitimate waste industry and with other enforcement bodies, particularly HMRC, to tackle the problem.”

More details of the Government’s response to waste crime are given in the governance statement. The report says that a consultation has been carried out on proposals to raise the barriers of entry to the waste permitting system and to reform the exemption system. As well as new regulations that give the Agency stronger powers of enforcement, the Government announced additional funding of £30m to tackle waste crime in its November 2017 budget, “which extends current funding for two years beyond April 2020 and adds an additional £5m for each of the four years starting April 2018.”

In her foreword to the annual report, EA Chair Emma Howard Boyd says: “Unfortunately, environmental crime persists despite the work of the courts implementing the sentencing guidelines. We closed 57 high risk illegal waste sites in the first three months of 2018 and in March we were given new powers to lock up sites and force rogue operators to clean up all waste. I have publicly called for higher fines for pollution incidents and stronger sentences as a greater deterrent to waste crime.”

Capital spending on flood protection

The second category of performance measures concerns flood protection. First, we look at the Environment Agency’s spending on flood and coastal erosion risk management, as revealed by the figures in the annual report. The Agency says that the Government has made a long-term financial commitment to flood protection via the Agency’s six-year capital programme, designed to reduce the likelihood and the impact of major flooding. Also, the Agency was allocated an additional £76m of funding in the 2017 autumn budget, “of which £36m is for bringing new schemes into the capital programme and £40m is for flood defence schemes that help support economic regeneration in deprived communities.” The accounts reveal where the funding for flood protection has been spent in 2017-18. As regards capital expenditure, the Agency spent a total of £298.1m on capital works in 2017-18, compared to £291.4m in 2016-2017. The accounts list nine types of capital works, and the expenditure breaks down as follows, with the figures in brackets indicating the 2016-17 spend:

• £9.2m [£11.3m] on beach replenishment, which involves “sand and shingle replacement on beaches to retain the integrity of a coastal defence.”
• £14.7m [£19.4m] on culverts and channel improvements, involving “work on repairing or replacing culverts under land, roads and properties, and channel improvements that assist the flow of watercourses.”
• £44.6m £[43.5m] on embankments (“the creation, improvement, or heightening of embankments to reduce the risk of water escaping from a river channel”).
• £35.3m [£39.7m] on the Agency’s flood risk management strategy (“long-term flood risk management options for fluvial catchments out of which individual flood risk projects are developed”).
• £3.8m [£4.3m] on flood mapping (“the production of multi-layered maps which provide information on flooding from groundwater, rivers and the sea. Flood maps also have information on flood risk management assets and the areas benefiting from those assets.”)
• £2.6m [£2.5m] on piling: “This relates to the installation of piles (normally steel) along riverbanks to strengthen them and secure the adjacent land, and prevent landslips into the river causing obstructions. These works are largely below ground.”
• £157.5m [£130.1m] on restoration and refurbishment: “This involves carrying out works to ensure that flood risk management assets are in the appropriate condition and restored to that condition.”
• £2.3m [£1.9m] on rock groynes and sea walls: “Rock groynes and sea walls are built as part of sea and coastal flood risk management assets and are often used in conjunction with beach replenishment activity to prevent sea flooding. The responsibility for maintenance often resides with the local council.”
• £28.1m [£38.7m] “other” (the details are not specified).

In addition, the Agency awarded £77.2m of capital grants to local authorities and Internal Drainage Boards, and £20.0m was spent on reservoir operating arrangements, with the largest payments payable to Northumbrian Water (in relation to Kielder reservoir) and Severn Trent Water (in relation to Lake Clywedog and Lake Vyrnwy reservoirs).

“A nation better protected against floods”

Returning to the Agency’s performance measures, there are three measures of success under the general category of flood protection:

1 “We reduce the risk of flooding for more households.”
2 “We maintain our flood and coastal risk management assets at or above the target condition.”
3 “We have a first class incident response capability,” as measured by a) the number of staff who are trained and ready to respond to incidents; and b) the percentage of staff who feel confident in the role.

On flood risk reduction, the Agency says it has completed a number of flood risk management projects in 2017-18, resulting in better protection for 45,864 homes. The Agency reports that 142,850 homes have now received better protection since the start of a six-year capital programme in April 2015, and it expects to achieve a six-year target of better protection for 300,000 households by March 2021. Some “notable examples” of completed projects include the Anchorsholme coast protection scheme, which has reduced flood risk to 4,800 properties in Blackpool and also provided “increased protection to vital infrastructure and safeguarded Blackpool’s iconic seafront tramway.” [5] A second example is the Salford flood alleviation scheme, which “has seen the development of a flood basin and reduced flood risk for 1,400 homes, as well as providing a recreation area with a nature reserve.” A third example is the Sheffield Lower Don Valley scheme, which is “the first in the UK to have business owners contributing to the costs of flood protection. It has led to the reduction of flood risk for around 500 businesses and 600 homes as well as helping to safeguard around 5,000 jobs. All of these projects were completed in partnership with the local authorities.”

The Agency’s Flood Warning Service

The annual report includes an update on the Agency’s flood warning service, which it says continues to grow, “sharing information with customers before flooding so that people have time to prepare and take action.”

“The flood warning service is now able to reach more people, in a shorter timeframe, in the event of severe weather. Improvements in technology have helped this and at the end of March 2018 over 1.4 million customers were registered for the service in England. We want to make those at risk of flooding more resilient, and to achieve this we have refreshed our five-year flood incident management plan. The Plan describes the activities carried out to help individuals and communities prepare, respond to, and recover from flooding. We have already made significant progress towards implementing the plan. By focusing on objectives to increase the quality and availability of information, our customers are better placed to understand the risks and respond to impending flooding.”

In a governance statement, the Agency says that 1.4 million people have now signed up to its flood warning service, an increase from 1.2 million in the previous year. The increase is attributed “largely to mobile phone companies coming on board with our Flood Warnings Direct service for their customers in flood risk areas and the impact of our 2017-18 Flood Action Campaign, ‘Prepare, Act, Survive,’ which informed people what they should do if they live in an area at risk of flooding.” The campaign resulted in 67,000 new registrations to Floodline Warnings Direct, over 32,000 visits to the Agency’s ‘Floods Destroy’ campaign website and an estimated social media reach of 4.6 million. The Agency says it is also continuing to work on “implementation of the National Flood Risk Review measures in partnership with other government agencies.”

Natural Flood Management

The annual report highlights the importance of natural flood management (NFM) in managing flood risk and coastal erosion. The report states that NFM “protects, restores, or emulates the natural function of floodplains and the coast. NFM can offer a wide range of benefits in addition to reducing flood risk and coastal erosion: it can create important wildlife habitats, improve the local environment, and create recreation opportunities.”

The Agency reports that, in July 2017, the Government announced funding for 60 projects in a £15m NFM programme. Four criteria were adopted to select the projects: firstly, the project would need to reduce flood and/or coastal erosion risk; secondly, it would improve habitats and increase biodiversity; thirdly, it would contribute to research and development, thereby reducing the evidence gap for NFM; and fourthly, it would promote partnership working. The Agency says that the programme started in the 2017-18 period and will continue until 2021, with monitoring arrangements put in place in order for a greater understanding of the flood risk and environmental benefits of the programme.

Further funding for NFM projects has been made available in the form of £3.4m of research funding allocated to the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) for spending on research projects. The Agency says it collaborated with Defra in designing the call for research proposals. The funds have been awarded to three proposals: one on the Upper Thames, proposed by Reading University; a second in Cumbria, proposed by Lancaster University; and a third in the Peak District, proposed by Manchester University. The Agency says that the research will improve understanding of the effectiveness of different NFM measures for a range of flood risk scenarios.

In October 2017, the Environment Agency published the ‘Evidence base for working with natural processes to reduce flood risk,’ which compiles existing research into a directory for flood and coastal risk managers. The Agency says “this easily accessible directory will help to ensure that potential NFM measures can be assessed and used where they are effective.”

Flood risk management assets

The second performance measure in the flood risk category is asset management. The Agency reports that it achieved a national target “by maintaining 97.7% of flood risk management assets at the required condition for high consequence systems.” Flood risk management assets include embankments, storage areas, flood gates and sluices, whilst a high consequence system is defined as a group of flood risk management assets in a location where there would be significant impacts to people and property if the assets failed. The Agency says it increased the number of assets above the required condition by over 1,600 in 2017-18, which is a result of increased funding in asset management and “directly allocating this funding to where it has the greatest benefit, such as assets that are below the required condition.” Assets identified as being below the required condition indicate that work is required, but “does not mean that they have structurally failed or that their performance in a flood is compromised. If the performance of an asset is reduced, we will take action to ensure that flood risk is effectively managed until the asset is repaired or replaced.” The annual report states that the Agency has 40km of temporary flood barriers and 250 high-volume pumps available for deployment during flooding incidents: “these temporary measures work in tandem with the more permanent structures that have been or are under construction or may be used where more permanent measures are not practicable.”

Response capability

The third measure in the flood risk category is response capability. The annual report says that the Agency is continuing to embed a new incident response capability framework, following a ‘Major Incident Ready’ initiative in 2016. The measurement of its success is given by, firstly, the number of staff who are trained and ready to respond to incidents; and, secondly, the percentage of staff who feel confident in the role. The Agency reports that 6,568 staff are now trained and ready to respond to incidents, exceeding its target of 6,500. [6] Additionally, the Agency trained around 1,200 soldiers “before this winter to be able to support flood response if needed and joint exercises were undertaken.” The incident response staff includes 700 flood support officers, and the Agency says that “during the most severe storm this winter, Storm Brian, we protected 1,250 properties in Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, through our actions and defences.”

However, in a sample of incident staff surveyed in 2017, only 69% felt confident responding to an incident, which failed to meet the Agency’s target of 80%. As a result, the Agency says it has taken steps to improve capability and confidence by introducing a new capability standard for incident staff to ensure they are fully trained and capable of responding. In addition, the Agency issued new guidance in November 2017 to clarify its role in responding to surface water flooding, groundwater flooding, and reservoir failures.

As well as flooding events, the Agency says that in 2017-18 it also responded to “serious chemical incidents, very large fish kills, animal disease outbreaks, major fires, and numerous other environmental incidents.” It is currently working with industry and water companies to reduce the number and severity of environmental incidents, and has set an ambitious incident reduction target for the current year “which will be the lowest in decades.” The Agency reports that it has also prepared for an approaching drought.

“Value for money” and responses to planning consultations

The annual report includes three other categories of performance measures. The first concerns “value for money” criteria, as measured by efficiency in financial management and by a prompt response to planning application consultations (i.e., within 21 days). On the efficiency measure, the Agency says “we report this measure by monitoring the percentage of our budget that we have invested,” on the assumption that expenditure is a proxy for the delivery of environmental outcomes. The Agency says the higher the percentage of budget invested, the more it can achieve for the environment. It reports that it invested £1.3bn on the environment in 2017-18, “with expenditure on both our grant-in-aid and charge-funded activities closely matching our available funding.” The result of regular reviews in the last financial year meant that the figure represents an investment of 99.8% of the Agency’s full-year budget.

On planning application consultations, the Agency says it responded to 95.4% of planning consultations within 21 days, exceeding its target which was set at 95%. The percentage represents a small drop of 0.2% from last year, but the Agency says “this is set against an increase in demand for our service and reduced resources.” Prompt responses have been helped by the Agency’s offering a pre-application advice service. This has meant that potential issues can be worked through with developers before planning applications are submitted, which reduces the amount of time needed for consultation at statutory stages. The Agency says that, at application stage, it prioritises commenting on planning proposals where the risks to the environment, or the opportunities for enhancement, are the greatest.

Other performance measures

A further category of performance measures is labelled somewhat vaguely as “an organisation continually striving to be the best, focused on outcomes and constantly challenging itself.” However, the measure of performance here is more concrete, which is a reduction in the Agency’s carbon footprint. In her foreword to the annual report, Environment Agency Chair associates this measure with Goal 13 of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, ‘Climate Action.’ “Making the country more resilient to storms, floods and droughts is our priority,” she writes, “but we are also involved in climate mitigation.” On this measure, the Agency reports that in 2017-18 it reduced its carbon footprint by 45% to 32,450 tonnes against a 2006-07 baseline year, compared to a target of 43%. The reduction was achieved through energy efficient measures such as boiler replacements, the closure of old buildings, and the gradual replacement of its fleet with low-carbon alternatives.

The final category of performance measures is mainly concerned with diversity in the workforce, as measured by the proportion of Agency staff who are from a black, Asian, or minority ethnic background, and by the proportion of its executive managers who are female. The Agency is currently not meeting its targets on either measure. On the former, the Agency says that because it has relatively low external recruitment levels, only 3.8% of its workforce are from minority backgrounds, set against the demanding target of 14%, “which reflects the minority proportion of the working population of England, rather than a lower one reflecting the mix of the Agency’s locations across England.” On the latter measure, the Agency says the proportion of its executive managers who are female has increased from 32% three years ago to 34%, but this is set against a target of 50%.

Overall, the Environment Agency has met or exceeded the majority of the targets it set itself for 2017-18. However, the development of plans mentioned above “for transforming Defra Corporate Services to reduce expenditure and improve efficiency” raises the spectre of departmental spending cuts in the drive for efficiency savings. The issues prompted by the Defra transformation, together with the Government’s preoccupation with an EU departure, all raise the question whether the next twelve months will be just as successful.


Photograph: The beach and promenade at South Shore, Blackpool. © Copyright Steve Daniels and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. The Environment Agency has announced that the coastal protection scheme for the Anchorsholme area of Blackpool was completed in the 2017-18 financial year, one of a number of notable flood protection schemes to be completed in the last year. Blackpool Council first adopted a Coast Protection Strategy in 1995, and the Anchorsholme scheme represents the final stage of the strategy. The photograph was taken on Monday, 9th November 2009. See Note [5] below.


[1] The Environment Agency’s annual report is available as a PDF document from the GOV.UK website. Follow the link on the web page titled “Environment Agency annual report and accounts 2017 to 2018”. The annual report and accounts were published on the 12th of July 2018. For the corporate highlights, see the GOV.UK news story “The Environment Agency publishes Annual Report 2017 to 2018”.

[2] The Environment Agency’s Action Plan, developed in the 2014-15 financial year, includes more than 1,400 flood defence schemes. It came with the Chancellor’s announcement in the autumn of 2014 that £2.3 billion would be allocated to flood defences to be implemented over the next six years, in response to the increasing incidence of extreme weather and winter floods. See the ENA news story published on January 14th 2015, titled “Environment Agency looks forward”. Later that month, the Environment Agency warned that 7,000 homes will be lost to coastal erosion in the next 100 years. For more details of that, and news of some of the flood schemes announced by the Agency in 2015, use the search facility on this website using the term ‘Environment Agency’.

[3] On the 25 year plan, see the ENA article “UK Government publishes its 25 year plan for the environment”.

[4] On the new rules for farmers, see the ENA article “New rules for farmers ‘will help to protect the water environment'”.

[5] The coast protection scheme for the Anchorsholme area of Blackpool forms part of the Fylde Peninsula Coastal Programme, which also includes a flood protection scheme for the Rossall area of Fleetwood. See the ENA article published in October 2015, titled “Blackpool’s twenty-year coastal defence strategy nears completion”. The Environment Agency was expecting to complete the Anchorsholme project by the end of 2015 and the Rossall project by the end of 2017. However, work on the Anchorsholme project has been subject to a number of delays. In December 2014, BBC News reported that the foundation area for a new promenade had collapsed during the initial construction work by the contractors Balfour Beatty, though the contractors still expected to complete the work by the end of 2015. In July 2017, Blackpool Council reported that the work needed constant maintenance but was expected to be completed by the end of 2017. Finally, on the day of the official opening in October 2017, it became apparent that the sea defences needed further repairs owing to damage caused by recent storms, as reported by BBC News, but not in the news story on the contractors’ website.

[6] In a governance statement, the figure is given as “6,626 staff fully trained and ready to respond to flooding and other incidents, against a target of 6,500, including corporate services staff now employed by Defra,” which suggests that 58 incident staff are now employed by Defra.


New rules for farmers “will help to protect the water environment”

New rules for farmers in England came into force last month

The rules are designed to prevent fertilisers and manure from seeping into watercourses

May 16th 2018

New rules for farmers came into force last month, designed to protect water quality and prevent soil erosion. The rules, which came into force on April 2nd 2018, apply to all farmers in England. The new rules were announced by the Government in a news story last November, which said that the rules would standardise good farming practices, help to protect the water environment, provide a new approach to regulation, and would also help farmers to save money through improved resource efficiency and resilience. [1]

In summary, the rules require farmers to match nutrients to crop and soil needs, and prevent fertilisers, manure, and soil from seeping into watercourses. The Government said the rules “were drawn up with farming and environment stakeholders to recognise and build on the good progress that a great many farmers have made in trying to tackle pollution.” The rules apply to farming and horticultural practices such as planting and harvesting; soil management, which includes ploughing and planting cover crops (“any crop with leaf cover that stops rain falling directly onto the soil”); using and storing manure or fertiliser; and managing livestock.

Assessing the risks of pollution

The Government has published guidance for farmers and landowners on what they must do “to manage manure, fertiliser, and soil to prevent runoff, erosion, and leaching.” [2] There are nine sets of rules. One is a general rule that requires farmers to assess the risks of pollution from the sorts of activities outlined above, taking into account a number of factors that can have an effect on soil erosion or increase the risk of runoff. The guidelines list five factors: distances to inland freshwaters, coastal waters, wetlands, springs, wells and boreholes; the angle of slopes; the presence and condition of land drains; the amount of ground cover; and the type of soil and its condition.

As for the other sets of rules, five are concerned with managing fertilisers and manures, two are concerned with managing soils, and one is concerned with managing livestock:

“The fertiliser rules require farmers to test their soils, then plan and apply their fertiliser or manure to improve soil nutrient levels and meet crop needs. They include minimum storage and spreading distances from water bodies. They also require the farmer to assess weather and soil conditions to reduce the risk of runoff and soil erosion. The remaining rules require farmers to manage livestock by protecting land within five metres of water and reducing livestock poaching [i.e., compacting soil by trampling]. In addition to these rules, farmers are encouraged to incorporate organic fertilisers into the soil within twelve hours of spreading to significantly reduce ammonia pollution.” [3]

Managing fertilisers and manure

The guidelines advise farmers to plan every application of fertiliser or manure, whether they are spread on the land surface, injected into the soil, or mixed with the soil surface layers. [4] Farmers are told to assess the pollution risks, as outlined above, assess the weather conditions and forecasts at the time of application, and match the quantity to crop or soil needs so that no more is used than is necessary. Farmers are also told to check the organic matter content and moisture level of the soil, and to check that their spreading equipment is calibrated and does not leak. Fertilisers or manure must not be used on waterlogged, flooded, or snow-covered soil, or on land where the soil has been frozen for more than 12 hours in the past 24 hours. Whenever they are applied, they should be worked into the soil within 12 hours or as soon as possible after the application.

An extra rule applies if fertilisers or manure are to be used on cultivated agricultural land, which is defined as land that has been ploughed, sowed or harvested at least once in the last year; or land that has received an application of manure or fertiliser at least once in the last three years. In this case, farmers must plan by using the results of a soil test, which must be no more than five years old at the time of application. The test results must show the pH and levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, magnesium, and potassium.

As for the proximity to watercourses, fertilisers must not be used within 2 metres of inland freshwaters, coastal waters, a spring, well or borehole; while manure must not be used or stored within 50 metres of a spring, well or borehole; or within 10 metres of inland freshwaters or coastal waters. The latter limit for applying manure is shortened to 6 metres if precision equipment is used. [5]

A further exception to the use of manure is where the land is managed for breeding wader birds or as a species-rich semi-natural grassland. In this case, manure (but not slurry or poultry manure) can be applied within 10 metres of inland freshwaters and coastal waters if the land is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) or is the subject of an Environmental or Countryside Stewardship scheme. However, the manure should not be applied to the water surface, and should only be applied from 1st June to 31st October. There is also a limit to the amount that can be applied in any year, which is no more than 12.5 tonnes per hectare.

Managing soil and livestock

On soil management, as well as the soil test for cultivated agricultural land mentioned above, the guidelines advise farmers to take reasonable precautions to prevent soil loss caused by horticultural or farming activities: “soil loss can lead to erosion and allow pollutants to get into watercourses.” In particular, farmers are told to take reasonable precautions to reduce the risk of pollution when they carry out the following activities: creating farm tracks or gateways; establishing seedbeds, polytunnels or tramlines; cleaning out ditches; installing drainage or irrigation; irrigating crops; and spraying crops with pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides.

Examples of good practice are cited as: planting crops in early autumn and in dry conditions; planting headland rows and beds across the base of sloping land; under-sowing or sowing a cover crop to stabilise soil after harvest; breaking up compacted soil; and establishing grass buffer strips in valleys, along contours, slopes, field edges, and gateways.

A further set of rules are concerned with managing livestock to avoid pollution and soil erosion. Livestock feeders must not be placed within 10 metres of inland freshwaters or coastal waters; or within 50 metres of a spring, well or borehole. Farmers are also told to prevent livestock compacting soil by trampling it within 5 metres of inland freshwaters or coastal waters. As examples of good practice, the guidelines cite moving livestock to prevent soil compaction and soil erosion by riverbanks; putting up fences to keep animals away from watercourses; and wintering livestock on well-drained, level fields.

Inspections and enforcement

The guidelines state that the Environment Agency will be responsible for enforcing the new rules, and will do this through its farm inspections work. These inspections may include checking the distance restrictions; checking for soil erosion that affects a single area of more than 1 hectare; checking for soil compaction on a stretch of land, at least 2 metres wide and 20 metres long, next to an inland freshwater or coastal water; checking for signs of fertiliser use in restricted areas, including excessive vegetation growth on the margins of restricted areas; checking fertiliser records, including records on calibrating fertiliser equipment; checking soil test results; checking for evidence of pollution or for significant risks of pollution; and checking the types of crops that are being planted. If the Environment Agency discovers a breach of the rules, it will help farmers by identifying the changes that need to be made, and agreeing a timescale to make the necessary changes. The Environment Agency may follow this up with a return visit or ask for photographic evidence to check that the changes have been made.

New rules are welcomed by the Rivers Trust

Responding to the announcement of the new rules, the Rivers Trust said last December that “Defra’s new common-sense rules for farming will make a significant difference to the health of rivers.” Arlin Rickard, CEO of The Rivers Trust and Chair of the Catchment Based Approach National Support Group, said:

“We have been working closely with Defra and farmers on the ground to ensure these common-sense but important rules are easy to follow and are set out in a practical and intuitive way. They will provide a clear point of reference for farmers and help maintain healthy soils, crops and livestock as well as reduce diffuse pollution. They will also help farmers save money by using nutrients more efficiently. Our local Rivers Trusts together with the 100 plus Catchment Partnerships that cover England will be promoting the uptake of the rules through our extensive advisor and farmer networks.” [6]

In last year’s news story, the Government said:

“Farming rules for water are part of a whole package of measures to help farmers and land managers look after the environment. The Government is also investing £400 million through Countryside Stewardship schemes which support farmers in creating or restoring precious habitats, and a £12 million farm ammonia reduction grant has incentivised farmers to tackle agricultural emissions. The new rules will not only benefit farming businesses. Clean water helps tourism, fishing, and shellfish businesses to thrive, reduces the cost of treatment, and protects biodiversity. The Environment Agency will roll out the rules through an advice-led approach, working with farmers to meet the requirements before enforcement action is taken. Farmers and land managers will be able to determine what approach is best for their land, through methods such as deciding when it is safe to spread fertilisers.” [7]


Creative Commons Licence
Corvedale Cattle © Copyright Anthony Bloor and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. The new rules advise farmers to erect fences to keep cattle away from watercourses.


[1] The news story was published on 30th November 2017. See the GOV.UK web page “New Farming Rules for Water”.

[2] For Defra’s guidance on the new rules, see the GOV.UK web page “Rules for farmers and land managers to prevent water pollution”. The title of the relevant legislation is The Reduction and Prevention of Agricultural Diffuse Pollution (England) Regulations 2018.

[3] See [1].

[4] Manure is defined in the guidance as organic materials made from one or more animal, plant or human sources.

[5] The precision equipment is defined specifically in the guidelines as “a trailing hose or shoe band spreader; a shallow injector (no deeper than 10cm); or a dribble bar applicator.”

[6] For the Rivers Trust response, click here. Diffuse pollution refers to water pollution caused by manure, fertiliser or soil seeping into watercourses.

[7] See [2].

The future for farming: UK Government publishes proposals for a post-Brexit agricultural policy

Defra proposes to replace the Common Agricultural Policy with a new system that “pays public money for public goods”

Environmental land management, “underpinned by natural capital principles,” will be the cornerstone of future agricultural policy in England

March 21st 2018

Following the publication of its 25 year plan for the environment, the UK Government is now seeking views on proposals for the development of a new agricultural policy. [1] The ten-week consultation period opened on 27th February and will close on 8th May 2018. On the GOV.UK website, Defra (the Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) says: “Leaving the European Union and the Common Agricultural Policy will give us the chance for reform. We want to know your thoughts on the future of agricultural policy in England.” [2] The proposals are set out in a consultation document titled Health and Harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit. Supplementary information includes an annex on stakeholder proposals, an annex on Countryside Stewardship options, and an evidence compendium, which provides “a detailed assessment of the current state of agriculture in the UK to underpin the proposals laid out in the consultation paper.” The evidence compendium contains detailed statistics on farm economics and accounts, food production, and environmental land management. [3]

“The case for change”

In his foreword to the consultation document, Michael Gove, Secretary of State for the Environment, says:

“For more than forty years, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has decided how we farm our land, the food we grow and rear, and the state of the natural environment. Over that period, the environment has deteriorated, productivity has been held back, and public health has been compromised… The environmental damage we have suffered while inside the CAP has been significant. Soil health has deteriorated. Farmland bird numbers have dropped. Precious habitats have been eroded. And at the same time a system of subsidy skewed towards those with the biggest landholdings has kept land prices and rents high, prevented new talent coming into farming, and held back innovation.”

Chapter One of the document makes the case for change. It explains that the CAP involves three types of payments to farmers: Direct Payments, comprising a Young Farmers Scheme and a Basic Payment Scheme with a ‘greening’ component; price support for food producers; and rural development schemes which include agri-environmental measures. [4] Direct Payments have been reformed several times and were previously linked to production but are now largely based on the size of agricultural land that a farmer owns, as measured by the number of hectares. Defra says that of all the different types of farming, grazing livestock is the sector that is most dependent on Direct Payments, sheep farming in particular: “Those sectors in which a high proportion of farmers currently depend on Direct Payments just to break even are often located in the most remote, wild and beautiful parts of the UK… For example, the distinctive character of the Lake District landscape has been shaped through long association with sheep farming, one of the sectors currently most dependent on Direct Payments.”

The document concedes that the CAP has produced some environmental improvements, but it also says that the overall positive impact has been limited. In making the case for change, Defra says that the CAP has not been effective enough at reversing environmental damage caused by agricultural practices which have increased negative pressures on the environment through pollution and practices that have led to habitat and species loss. The Executive Summary (p.6) states:

“The CAP introduced some of the world’s first agri-environment schemes, making progress towards improving our environment. Significant reforms have helped to shift the CAP away from the ‘butter mountains’ and ‘wine lakes’ of the 1980s. Decoupling Direct Payments from production has reduced some of the incentives to produce in an environmentally-harmful way. Despite this, the CAP remains flawed. Even though we have some of the most innovative farmers in the world, land-based subsidies can undermine incentives for widespread productivity improvement and are bad value for taxpayers. Efforts to enhance our environment have also been limited by the bureaucratic structure of the CAP. It has imposed unnecessary regulatory burdens and failed to reward some public goods adequately, such as measures to improve water quality and soil health.”

A period of transition

About a third of the 64-page consultation document is taken up with the Common Agricultural Policy and its impact, and on the transitional arrangements that will come into place following the UK’s anticipated departure from the EU. In a section titled “Moving away from the Common Agricultural Policy in England,” there are chapters on “Reform within the CAP,” “An agricultural transition,” and “A successful future for farming.” Each chapter concludes with a number of questions for consultation. Chapter Four (“a successful future”) also includes sections on “Farming excellence and profitability,” “Agricultural technology and research,” and “Labour: a skilled workforce.”

In summary, the Government is proposing to continue with the Direct Payments system for a limited period in England, but will gradually reduce payments starting with those who receive the most under the current system. While reducing Direct Payments, it will also introduce a new system of payments based on environmental land management, which will replace the current Countryside Stewardship scheme. The current system of Direct Payments will eventually be phased out completely. The consultation is seeking views on how the phasing out of Direct Payments can best be achieved, and discusses several possibilities based on different financial arrangements, including the possibility that farmers may want to quit farming altogether. Meanwhile, the Government says it will maintain the current level of funding for agriculture across the whole of the UK until the end of the current parliament. The Executive Summary (p.7) states:

“We will formally leave the European Union in March 2019. The government anticipates that we will agree an implementation period for the whole country with the EU lasting for around another two years. Once we have the freedom to move away from the CAP, there will be an ‘agricultural transition’ period in England… In England, Direct Payments will continue during the agricultural transition… We want our future policy to provide an enabling environment for farmers to improve their productivity and add value to their products, so they can become more profitable and competitive. We therefore propose to further reduce and phase out Direct Payments in England completely by the end of the ‘agricultural transition’ period, which will last a number of years beyond the implementation period.”

Defra is proposing to make some changes to how the CAP is administered within the implementation period. Chapter Two of the document says that complying with the CAP regulations “presents a challenge to farmers and land managers, policy makers and delivery agencies. The administration of the Basic Payment scheme and Countryside Stewardship scheme can restrict access through complicated application systems and burdensome evidence requirements.” Defra is proposing to simplify the current system to make it easier for farmers to apply for Basic Payments and for Countryside Stewardship funds, and is seeking views on how this simplification can best be achieved. One question presents four options for simplification of the current arrangements under the CAP, and respondents are asked to indicate the three that are most appealing. A second question asks: “How can we improve the delivery of the current Countryside Stewardship scheme and increase uptake by farmers and land managers to help achieve valuable environmental outcomes?”

On the issue of Direct Payments, having discussed the possibilities based on different financial arrangements, the consultation document asks four questions, as follows:

• “What is the best way of applying reductions to Direct Payments?” Respondents are asked for their preference from three possibilities: a) applying progressive reductions, with higher percentage reductions applied to amounts in higher payment bands (respondents are also asked to provide views on the payment bands and percentage reductions that should be applied); b) applying a cap to the largest payments; and c) other.
• “What conditions should be attached to Direct Payments during the ‘agricultural transition’?” Respondents are asked to indicate their preferences from a list of four options.
• “What are the factors that should drive the profile for reducing Direct Payments during the ‘agricultural transition’?”
• “How long should the ‘agricultural transition’ period be?”

Research and innovation: Investing in skills and technology

Looking towards the future, the document stresses the need for farming to embrace new technology and invest in skills, which it says will enable farmers to be more competitive. Defra says “there is a huge opportunity for UK agriculture to improve its competitiveness – developing the next generation of food and farming technology, adopting the latest agronomic techniques, reducing the impact of pests and diseases, investing in skills and equipment, and collaborating with other farmers and processors.” The consultation document asks four questions on skills and capital investment:

• “How can we improve the take-up of knowledge and advice by farmers and land managers?” Respondents are asked to rank their top three preferences from a list of six options.
• “What are the main barriers to new capital investment that can boost profitability and improve animal and plant health on-farm?” Respondents are asked to rank their top three issues from a list of seven.
• “What are the most effective ways to support new entrants and encourage more young people into a career in farming and land management?”
• “Does existing tenancy law present barriers to new entrants, productivity and investment?”

On agricultural innovation, the document includes a case study of work at Harper Adams University in Shropshire where, in 2017, a team of researchers successfully grew a crop of barley “using only autonomous vehicles and drones and without a human setting foot in the field.” The case study reports: “The Hands Free Hectare project was a major step in revolutionising how we feed the world whilst helping to protect the environment. To limit damage to the soil for future harvests, and increase efficiency, the team employed a small modified tractor and combine equipped with cameras, sensors and GPS systems. Drones monitored the field, while a robot scout collected plant samples for inspection.”

The Government says it wants to pioneer new approaches to crop protection and encourage more commercial research to improve plant breeding and agronomic techniques: “New approaches, such as vertical farming, can harness the combined power of robotics, photonics, artificial intelligence and smart energy management systems, as well as plant biotechnology.” Respondents are asked three questions on research and innovation, as follows:

• “What are the priority research topics that industry and government should focus on to drive improvements in productivity and resource efficiency?” Respondents are asked to rank in order of importance the top three topics from a list of seven.
• “How can industry and government put farmers in the driving seat to ensure that agricultural R&D delivers what they need?” Respondents are asked to rank in order of importance the top three options from a list of five.
• “What are the main barriers to adopting new technology and ideas on-farm, and how can we overcome them?”

As well as new technology, the Government also stresses the need to invest in skills. Three questions seek the views of respondents on this topic:

• “What are the priority skills gaps across UK agriculture?” Respondents are asked to rank in order of importance the top three options from a list of seven.
• “What can industry do to help make agriculture and land management a great career choice?”
• “How can government support industry to build the resilience of the agricultural sector to meet labour demand?”

“Farming is crucial to achieving the goals of the 25 Year Environment Plan”

As for future agricultural policy, Defra says that the CAP will be replaced with a new system that “pays public money for public goods,” whilst the proposed system of environmental land management will be underpinned by natural capital principles (the term “underpinned” is used several times in the consultation paper). [5] The Executive Summary (p.8) states:

“From the end of the agricultural transition, a new environmental land management system will be the cornerstone of our agricultural policy in England. The system will help us to deliver our manifesto commitment to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it. Farming is crucial to achieving the goals set out in our recently published 25 Year Environment Plan. A new environmental land management system will help us to preserve the investment in our countryside that has already been made and delivered by farmers. It will consist of a new scheme that pays providers for delivering environmentally beneficial outcomes, and will provide support for farmers and land managers as we move towards a more effective application of the ‘polluter pays’ principle. Our new environmental land management system will be underpinned by natural capital principles, so that the benefits the natural environment provides for people and wildlife are properly valued and used to inform decisions on future land management. The new system aims to deliver benefits such as improved air, water and soil quality; increased biodiversity; climate change mitigation and adaptation; and cultural benefits that improve our mental and physical well-being, while protecting our historic environment.”

Implementing the new policy

The rest of the document is titled “Implementing our new agricultural policy in England,” with a further section titled “The framework for our new agricultural policy.” There are eight chapters on implementing the new policy, under the following headings:

• Public money for public goods;
• Enhancing our environment;
• Fulfilling our responsibility to animals;
• Supporting rural communities and remote farming;
• Changing regulatory culture;
• Risk management and resilience;
• Protecting crop, tree, plant and bee health; and
• Ensuring fairness in the supply chain.

The Government’s aspirations for the future of farming are summarised in the Executive Summary (p.6):

“We will incentivise methods of farming that create new habitats for wildlife, increase biodiversity, reduce flood risk, better mitigate climate change, and improve air quality by reducing agricultural emissions. We will achieve this by ensuring that public money is spent on public goods, such as restoring peat bog and measures which sequester carbon from the atmosphere; protecting dry stone walls and other iconic aspects of our heritage; and reducing disease through new initiatives that better monitor animal health and welfare.”

“Public money for public goods”

Chapter Five describes the sort of public goods that the future policy will support. These are: environmental improvements and protection; better animal and plant health and better animal welfare; improvements to productivity and competitiveness; “preserving rural resilience, traditional farming and landscapes in the uplands;” and enhancements to public access to the countryside. With future generations in mind, the document says that protecting and enhancing the environment “could be considered the pre-eminent public good.” The Government wants to see improvements to soil health through better land management practices; improvements to water quality; better air quality, with the emphasis on reducing ammonia emissions [6]; increased biodiversity; climate change mitigation [7]; and “enhanced beauty, heritage, and engagement with the natural environment.” Respondents to the consultation are asked to rank in order of importance their top three of these six environmental outcomes.

The Government also wants to set high standards for animal health and welfare, and improvements in biosecurity to protect “crops, trees, plants and bees.” On improvements to productivity, the document stresses again the importance of innovation. Defra says that innovations – “such as technology, data science, gene-editing, improved tracking and traceability of livestock, or new plant biosecurity measures” – can increase productivity, help to safeguard the public goods of animal and human health, and “ensure we better protect the environment.”

Hill farming is singled out as needing particular support under the new regime, as it is the sector that is most dependent on Direct Payments under the current system. The Executive Summary (pp.7-8) states:

“We recognise that some sectors may find it more difficult than others to adapt – for example, those located in the most remote, wild and beautiful parts of England. We recognise the environmental and cultural value of our rural landscapes and traditional ways of life, including areas such as the uplands. The uplands have the potential to benefit from new environmental land management schemes, given the nature of their landscapes and the many public goods that they deliver, such as biodiversity, flood risk mitigation, and carbon sequestration. We will explore possible options on how we can best support such areas.”

Respondents to the consultation are asked to rank in order of importance their top three public goods that the Government should support. There are six options: world-class animal welfare; high animal health standards; protection of crops etc.; improved productivity; the preservation of upland landscapes; and public access to the countryside. Respondents are also asked if there are any other public goods that the Government should support.

Environmental outcomes

Chapter Six (“Enhancing our environment”) provides more detail of what a new environmental land management system could involve: “A new environmental land management system, underpinned by natural capital principles, would contribute to delivering against many of the key outcomes set out in the 25 Year Environment Plan and the Clean Growth Strategy. These include: clean air; clean and plentiful water; thriving plants and wildlife; reduced risk of harm from environmental hazards such as flooding and drought; using resources from nature more sustainably and efficiently; enhanced beauty, heritage and engagement with the natural environment; and mitigating and adapting to climate change.” The document says that a new environmental land management system could involve some or all of the following: new environmental land management schemes, such as support for wetland creation, woodland creation, or peatland restoration; funding for collaborative projects; capital grants; a ‘user friendly’ design to improve administration of the scheme; and innovative funding and support mechanisms.

Several case studies are presented which illustrate the sort of environmental improvements that have already been achieved under the current system [8], and the chapter concludes with further questions for consultation. The first question lists eleven outcomes (such as species recovery, soil quality, and cultural heritage), and asks respondents to select which outcomes “would be best achieved by incentivising action across a number of farms or other land parcels in a future environmental land management system.” Three further questions are as follows:

• “What role should outcome-based payments have in a new environmental land management system?”
• “How can an approach to a new environmental land management system be developed that balances national and local priorities for environmental outcomes?”
• “How can farmers and land managers work together or with third parties to deliver environmental outcomes?”

Animal welfare and animal health

Chapter Seven of the document, titled “Fulfilling our responsibility to animals,” is devoted to animal health and welfare. Defra says that the UK has led the way “in making significant welfare advances by banning the use of close confinement sow stalls for pigs and the use of veal crates back in the 1990s. In addition to our plans to make CCTV in slaughterhouses in England compulsory, we also propose to take early steps to control the export of live animals for slaughter as we leave the EU.” The consultation document says that animal welfare is one of the public goods that the Government could support in the future:

“During the agricultural transition, we could pilot schemes that offer targeted payments to farmers who deliver higher welfare outcomes in sectors where animal welfare largely remains at the legislative minimum. Payments could also be made to farmers who trial a new approach or technology which could improve welfare outcomes but which is not an industry standard.”

On animal health, the Government is proposing to work with industry “to develop an ambitious plan to tackle endemic disease and drive up animal health standards. A clear vision and programme of partnership action will help us to tackle non-statutory endemic disease and health conditions in the form of an Animal Health Pathway.” A further proposal is to provide targeted support for priority disease control and health schemes, “learning lessons from the Bovine TB programme in England and schemes elsewhere in the UK and overseas.” Respondents are asked three questions on the topic of animal welfare and animal health:

• “Should government set further standards to ensure greater consistency and understanding of welfare information at the point of purchase?” Respondents are asked to indicate a single preference from five options.
• “What type of action do you feel is most likely to have the biggest impact on improving animal health on farms?” Respondents are asked to rank three out of ten choices in order of importance.
• “How can the government best support industry to develop an ambitious plan to tackle endemic diseases and drive up animal health standards?”

Hill farming and rural businesses

As mentioned above, hill farming is singled out as needing particular support under the new regime, as it is the sector that is most dependent on Direct Payments under the current system. Chapter Eight of the document says that places like the Lake District, now a World Heritage Site, represent a significant part of our heritage, “bringing a wealth of environmental, archaeological and recreational value.” The particular problems faced by hill farmers are explained as follows:

“Since 1975, hill farming has traditionally been supported through financial payments to Less Favoured Areas. In England, Less Favoured Areas are divided into two groups, with the more challenging areas classified as Severely Disadvantaged Areas. These tend to be upland areas. The majority of farms in Severely Disadvantaged Areas (but not all) are grazing livestock businesses with sheep or cattle, although dairy farms and forestry are also important in some areas. Farming activity in these areas is more restricted than in lowland areas due to poor soil fertility and steep hill slopes. Heather moorland dominates the landscape, which is of poor nutritional value to livestock, requiring a larger area of land to produce the same amount of livestock than lowland areas. These limitations mean most upland farms have fewer opportunities to improve their productivity than lowland farms. Compared to lowland farms, farms within the Severely Disadvantaged Areas have less opportunity to diversify. Where they have diversified, they have a lower income from diversified enterprises. Agri-environment schemes also tend to make a greater contribution to average income than lowland farms.”

Defra says that many upland areas have the potential to benefit from new environmental land management schemes, and can encourage biodiversity, protect water quality, and store carbon. Producing high-quality food and diversification into areas such as energy generation, tourism, or commercial forestry, are mentioned as the sort of opportunities that leaving the EU could provide. However, “we recognise that these will be defined by the surrounding landscape and by investment potential.” The Government says that a clear vision for the uplands will be an important part of its agricultural policy, “and we want to explore what this should be.” The Government also says it wants to support rural businesses by measures, for example, to improve broadband connectivity which, in agriculture, “can support precision farming, including environmental sensing systems.” Respondents are asked three questions on upland areas and rural businesses:

• “How should farming, land management, and rural communities continue to be supported to deliver environmental, social, and cultural benefits in the uplands?”
• “There are a number of challenges facing rural communities and businesses. Please rank your top three options by order of importance.” The eight options include broadband connectivity, affordable housing, and transport connectivity.
• “With reference to the way you have ranked your answer to the previous question, what should government do to address the challenges faced by rural communities and businesses post-Brexit?”

“Changing regulatory culture”

Defra says that farmers are currently required to comply with a broad range of legislation, covering environmental protection and animal health and welfare. The range includes rules that prevent the over-abstraction of water sources and animal traceability requirements designed to prevent the spread of disease. However, Defra also says that the current system puts excessive burdens on farmers and can be very rigid in its application. For instance, it says that an incomplete record or the loss of one cattle ear tag can sometimes lead to substantial reductions in payments. As part of a future agricultural policy, Defra says it wants to make regulation less disproportionately punitive and rigid, without relaxing standards:

“There is scope to raise regulatory standards in some areas to maintain and enhance standards. In others, we can look at moving away from disproportionate enforcement that can heavily penalise some farmers for minor errors. We will enable a new regulatory culture in which standards are upheld and their enforcement is less disproportionately punitive and rigid in its application, without weakening our standards. We have considered various inspection and enforcement methods, which could include greater use of remote sensing and risk-based inspection, and advice courses and civil sanctions to enforce regulations.”

The Government says it will be conducting a comprehensive review of the current inspections regime, which will investigate “how inspections can be removed, reduced or improved to lessen the burden on farmers while maintaining and enhancing our animal, environmental, and plant health standards.” Respondents to the consultation are asked three questions on regulation:

• “How can we improve inspections for environmental, animal health, and welfare standards?” Respondents are asked to indicate their preferred options from a list of six.
• “Which parts of the regulatory baseline could be improved, and how?”
• “How can we deliver a more targeted and proportionate enforcement system?”

“Risk management and resilience”

Three chapters of the consultation document deal in turn with risk management; protecting crop, tree, plant and bee health; and ensuring fairness in the supply chain. On risk management and resilience, Defra says that “the best way of improving resilience in the farming sector is to support increases in farm productivity. Profitable farms are more resilient with readier access to capital. Our immediate focus, therefore, will be on improving productivity and profitability so farm businesses can be more self-reliant and invest for the lean years as other sectors do.” However, it also says that fewer than one in five farmers currently buy agricultural insurance. The Government says it is reluctant to subsidise the cost of risk-management products as this can distort the market. Instead, it recommends buying into innovative new commercial products such as a form of insurance known as index insurance, which “differs from standard insurance by triggering payouts based on an agreed-upon index or measurement being met, rather than by actual losses suffered by the insured party. Index insurances typically require less farm-specific data than other insurances and so are easier to administer.” Respondents are asked three questions on this topic:

• “What factors most affect farm businesses’ decisions on whether to buy agricultural insurance?” Respondents are asked to rank in order of importance their top three options from a list of seven.
• “What additional skills, data and tools would help better manage volatility in agricultural production and revenues for (a) farm businesses and (b) insurance providers?”
• “How can current arrangements for managing market crises and providing crisis support be improved?”

“Protecting crop, tree, plant, and bee health”

Defra says that farmers must be able to protect their crops whilst people must be protected from the risks posed by pesticides, both to themselves and the environment. As part of a future agricultural policy, the Government is proposing an “integrated pest management” approach:

“Strong regulation of pesticides is essential to limit the risks, but this should be supplemented by integrated pest management. This means using all the available tools to protect crops, with the least possible use of pesticides. Steps that can be taken include crop rotation, the use of biopesticides, and encouraging natural predators. There is the potential for the greater use of plant breeding techniques and making better use of genetics and the resources held in gene banks to ensure their natural resilience to pests and diseases. By making integrated pest management central to our approach to crop protection, the government can encourage wider investment in research and development.”

Respondents are asked for their views on three questions:

• “Where there are insufficient commercial drivers, how far do you agree or disagree that government should play a role in supporting: a) industry, woodland owners and others to respond collaboratively and swiftly to outbreaks of priority pests and diseases in trees; b) landscape recovery following pest and disease outbreaks, and the development of more resilient trees; and c) the development of a biosecure supply chain across the forestry, horticulture and beekeeping sectors.”
• “Where there are insufficient commercial drivers, what role should government play in: a) supporting industry, woodland owners and others to respond collaboratively and swiftly to outbreaks of priority pests and diseases in trees; and b) promoting landscape recovery following pest and disease outbreaks, and the development of more resilient trees.”
• “What support, if any, can the government offer to promote the development of a biosecure supply chain across the forestry, horticulture and beekeeping sectors?”

“Ensuring fairness in the supply chain”

Defra says that most farmers are comparatively small-scale sellers who deal with a smaller number of comparatively large-scale processors and retailers. It recommends that farmers come together in the form of agricultural cooperatives: collaborative organisation, it says, will enable them to access new markets and reduce risks, and also provide them with more bargaining power:

“In some sectors, farmers can give themselves greater power to negotiate contracts and market their produce by coming together in Producer Organisations. We propose to maintain the special status of Producer Organisations, including derogations from competition rules. Collective decision-making is not the traditional model for UK farmers, but the modern supply chain means attitudes have to change. Farmers could benefit from recognising how much more strength they can achieve through cooperation.”

Respondents are asked for their views on three questions concerning collaboration and the food supply chain:

• “How can we improve transparency and relationships across the food supply chain?” Respondents are asked to rank in order of importance their top three options from a list of four. The options include the promotion of Producer Organisations, the introduction of statutory codes of conduct, and improvements to the provision of data.
• “What are the biggest barriers to collaboration amongst farmers?”
• “What are the most important benefits that collaboration between farmers and other parts of the supply chain can bring? How could government help to enable this?”

Devolved government and a common framework

The final section of the consultation document is titled “The framework for our new agricultural policy.” There are three chapters that deal in turn with devolution, international trade, and a proposal to present parliament with an Agriculture Bill. Because of devolved powers, the new agricultural policy will only apply to England. In the Executive Summary, however, the consultation document says that the Government’s vision of the future for agriculture is a vision that could work for the whole of the UK, “but we recognise that devolution provides each administration with the powers to decide its own priorities.” For instance, on the phasing out of Direct Payments in England and its gradual replacement with funding for environmental land management schemes, Defra says that the devolved administrations will have the flexibility to target support in a way that best suits their circumstances. This raises the question of how much flexibility will the devolved powers have, and whether England will end up with a completely different system of rules and regulations for agriculture compared to the rest of the UK. This issue is discussed in Chapter Thirteen, titled “Devolution: maintaining cohesion and flexibility,” which recognises the need for some sort of common framework across the UK. It states:

“Leaving the European Union will be an important step in the devolution of agriculture. Under the existing constitutional settlements, agriculture is devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, many of the rules in these areas are currently set at the EU level, although some discretion is allowed in Direct Payments to farmers; and each administration has a rural development programme that they deliver (such as agri-environment schemes and rural economic growth). The devolved administrations and the UK government are working together to determine where common frameworks need to be established in some areas that are currently governed by EU law, but are otherwise within areas of competence of the devolved administrations or legislatures (as agreed by the Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations)).”

Defra says that the Joint Ministerial Committee for EU Negotiations has agreed three principles regarding common frameworks. The first is that common frameworks will be established where they are necessary (for instance, among other reasons, in order to ensure compliance with international obligations). The second is that “frameworks will respect the devolution settlements and the democratic accountability of the devolved legislatures.” The third is that “frameworks will ensure recognition of the economic and social linkages between Northern Ireland and Ireland and that Northern Ireland will be the only part of the UK that shares a land frontier with the EU. They will also adhere to the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.”

Respondents are asked for their views on two questions regarding devolution. The first asks, “With reference to the principles set out above, what are the agriculture and land management policy areas where a common approach across the UK is necessary?” The second asks: “What are the likely impacts on cross-border farms if each administration can tailor its own agriculture and land management policy?” The discussion of common frameworks suggests that “cross-border farms” means farms that straddle the borders between England and Wales or between England and Scotland. The problems that might arise for farms that straddle the border between the North and South of Ireland are not discussed.

International trade following Brexit

Chapter Fourteen discusses the opportunities for new trade agreements post-Brexit and the kinds of agreements that could be negotiated. Defra says that the EU is the UK’s biggest trading partner for agricultural products, “so our future relationship with the EU 27 is of vital importance.” The chapter continues:

“The government is committed to securing a deep and special partnership with the EU, including a bold and ambitious economic partnership. The UK wants to secure the freest trade possible in goods and services between the UK and the EU. Ensuring as frictionless trade as possible for our agricultural sectors is particularly important where much of the produce is perishable and time is critical. The government is committed to securing continuity in the effect of existing EU Free Trade Agreements and other EU preferential arrangements. Through membership of the EU, the UK is currently party to around 40 international trade agreements covering over 65 countries… In the future, the UK will be in a position to independently exercise its existing rights as a World Trade Organization (WTO) member and will continue to be subject to the full obligations of WTO membership. WTO agreements could represent a framework for our future agriculture policy.”

The chapter concludes with three questions for respondents:

• “How far do you agree or disagree with the broad priorities set out in the trade chapter?”
• “How can government and industry work together to open up new markets?”
• “How can we best protect and promote our brand, remaining global leaders in environmental protection, food safety, and in standards of production and animal welfare?”

An Agriculture Bill

The document concludes with the proposal to introduce an Agriculture Bill which will signal the UK’s departure from the Common Agricultural Policy. Chapter Fifteen says that the Agriculture Bill will be designed to meet the policy ambition set out in the consultation paper and could provide the Government with the legislative power to do any of the following:

1.) To continue making payments to farmers and land managers, with the power to amend eligibility criteria for payments.
2.) To strip out unnecessary bureaucracy and strengthen the delivery landscape.
3.) To create new schemes for one or more of the following purposes:
• promoting and increasing agricultural productivity and resilience
• preserving, protecting, and enhancing the environment
• providing support to rural communities
• animal and plant health and animal welfare
• public access
4.) To establish a new basic compliance or inspection regime.
5.) To take emergency measures to provide aid in extreme events.
6.) To retain UK-wide frameworks where we need commonality.
7.) To provide for continuity during the ‘agricultural transition’ period for some elements of the current CAP.

The final two questions in the consultation are concerned with the proposed legislation: 1) “How far do you agree with the proposed powers of the Agriculture Bill?” and 2) “What other measures might we need in the Agriculture Bill to achieve our objectives?”

The conclusion of the Executive Summary states: “We should all have an interest in the landscape around us: it must sustain us now and be held in trust for future generations. We welcome all views on our policy proposals.” Respondents have until the 8th of May 2018 to submit their views.


Photograph: Pasture, Skelton, with Carrock Fell in the background. Near Low Braithwaite, Cumbria. © Copyright Andrew Smith and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Health and Harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit says that “the distinctive character of the Lake District landscape has been shaped through long association with sheep farming, one of the sectors currently most dependent on Direct Payments.” The Government says that hill farmers and upland areas have the potential to benefit from new environmental land management schemes under the proposed agricultural policy for England.


[1] The plan was published on the 11th January 2018. See the ENA article: “UK Government publishes its 25 year plan for the environment”. The 25 year plan only applies to England.

[2] See the GOV.UK web page “The future for food, farming and the environment”.

[3] Health and Harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit is a PDF document available from the GOV.UK website which you can download by clicking here. The Future Farming and Environment Evidence Compendium is another PDF document which you can download from the GOV.UK website by clicking here. The annex on stakeholder proposals and the annex on Countryside Stewardship options are both available from [2] above. Note: Quotations from the consultation document have been slightly modified in certain places to correct grammatical errors in the original.

[4] Agri-environment schemes are now known as environmental land management schemes. The current environmental land management scheme is the Countryside Stewardship scheme. Defra says the Countryside Stewardship scheme supports a range of environmental benefits, including: slowing the decline in wildlife populations; tree planting; improving water quality; and providing more high-quality recreational opportunities. In conceding that the CAP has made some environmental improvements, Defra says “there is evidence that land in publicly funded agri-environment schemes can deliver benefits which outweigh the payments made.” The successes delivered by agri-environment schemes in England over the last five years include: “280,000km of maintenance, management and restoration of hedgerows, ditches and stonewalls; creating nesting and food resources to increase breeding populations of nationally scarce farmland birds and pollinators such as cirl buntings, stone curlews, and the marsh fritillary butterfly; and 19,000 hectares of planted areas providing pollen and nectar sources for pollinators (Higher Level Scheme management for pollinators can significantly increase the size of wild bumblebee populations).” In addition, a footnote says that a 2012 study on farmland bird population growth rates showed positive effects related to the management of winter food resources for a number of seed-eating species. The consultation document also includes a case study on the Hedgerows and Boundaries Grant, which is “a standalone scheme under Countryside Stewardship and is a popular approach with farmers and stakeholders. Applicants select from a range of investments such as hedgerow laying, coppicing, and restoration of dry stone walls. They create habitat and feeding areas for birds, insects and small mammals, as well as adding to the character of the local landscape. These works can have a lasting legacy for our countryside. This simple grant offer is competitive, but the scoring is easy to follow and has been agreed with stakeholders. In 2016, the first year of the grant, we funded 728 agreements with a value of £3 million. This resulted in the restoration of 45,897m of stone walls and 177,539m of hedges.”

[5] On the concept of natural capital, see the ENA article: “Assessing the Value of ‘Natural Capital'”.

[6] The consultation document states: “When ammonia is released into the air, it reacts with nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide and forms secondary particulate matter, which has a significant impact on human health. Most notably, ammonia contributes to smog in urban areas. In addition, when deposited on land, ammonia can cause acidification or overload soils and watercourses with nitrogen, leading to biodiversity loss in sensitive habitats.” Evidence cited in the accompanying Future Farming and Environment Evidence Compendium suggests that ammonia emissions attributable to farming constitute 83% of the UK total. In Chapter Six of the consultation paper (“Enhancing our environment”), Defra says that “we can reduce the harmful contribution agriculture makes to ammonia emissions and air quality through, for instance, encouraging the use of low emission slurry spreading equipment or supporting investment in slurry covers.” For recent research on the impact of air pollution on human health, see the ENA article: “Recent Research – The impact of air pollution on human health”.

[7] The consultation document states: “Nitrous oxide and methane greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture have fallen by around 15% since 1990, and agriculture currently contributes 10% of UK emissions. Whilst it remains incredibly important that we continue to reduce carbon emissions from the farming sector, environmental land management could play a pivotal role in responding to climate change by increasing the ability of farmland and the countryside to sequester carbon, thereby enhancing the benefits and value of our natural resources.” In Chapter Six of the consultation paper (“Enhancing our environment”), Defra says that incentivising practices that involve carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas reduction would help to tackle climate change and also improve biodiversity: “This could be achieved through support for landscape scale restoration projects, hedgerow creation and habitat management, and by continuing to support woodlands and forestry.”

[8] The case studies include tree planting and other measures to improve soil health in Nottinghamshire; selective planting to support ground-nesting farmland birds and pollinating insects in West Norfolk; wet grassland restoration in Devon; an innovative slurry-spreading system that reduces ammonia emissions in Suffolk; peat restoration in Cumbria; the creation of a new ‘National Forest’ in the Midlands; and the protection of the small-scale industrial remains of a lead mine and lime kiln in Lancashire. For the details, see pp.38-41 of the consultation document (note [3] above). See also note [4] above.

UK Government publishes its 25 year plan for the environment

Environment Secretary Michael Gove pledges to “leave our environment in a better state than we found it”

“Ambitious project” sets out goals and targets for clean air, clean water, biodiversity, conservation, waste management, land management, flood risk, the marine environment, and climate change

February 14th 2018
The UK Government has published its long-awaited 25 year plan for the environment. Its intentions to produce such a plan were first announced in October 2015, in response to a number of recommendations from the Government’s Natural Capital Committee – see the ENA article “Defra responds to recommendations of Natural Capital Committee”. The plan was finally published by Defra (the Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) on the 11th January 2018.

On its website, the Government says its 25 year plan “sets out our goals for improving the environment, within a generation, and leaving it in a better state than we found it. It details how we in government will work with communities and businesses to do this.” [1] The plan consists of a 151-page document accompanied by three appendices containing, firstly, a list of the UK’s current strategies on the environment; secondly, a list of the UK’s international agreements; and thirdly, a supplementary evidence report. A further document summarises the Government’s targets. The main document has been called a sister document to the Government’s Clean Growth Strategy, which was published last October – see the ENA article “UK Government publishes ‘The Clean Growth Strategy'”.

“Creating a better place”

In her foreword, the PM points out that the UK’s departure from the EU will mean that “control of important areas of environmental policy will return to these shores.” She continues: “We will use this opportunity to strengthen and enhance the protections our countryside, rivers, coastline and wildlife habitats enjoy, and develop new methods of agricultural and fisheries support which put the environment first.” The Environment Agency’s motto of “creating a better place” is taken up by Michael Gove in his foreword to the document: “It is this Government’s ambition to leave our environment in a better state than we found it.” He goes on to summarise the Government’s aspirations: “We need to replenish depleted soil, plant trees, support wetlands and peatlands, rid seas and rivers of rubbish, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, cleanse the air of pollutants, develop cleaner, sustainable energy, and protect threatened species and habitats.”

The scope of the Government’s 25 year plan covers all aspects of the environment. The introduction sets out its 25-year goals and includes an ambitious list of targets. “Using the natural capital framework set out by the Natural Capital Committee,” it says, “we have framed our goals for environmental improvement over the next 25 years around six primary goods and benefits offered by a healthy environment.” By adopting the Plan, the Government says, “we will achieve clean air; clean and plentiful water; thriving plants and wildlife; a reduced risk of harm from environmental hazards such as flooding and drought;” and “enhanced beauty, heritage, and engagement with the natural environment.” The sixth benefit it wants to achieve is a more sustainable and more efficient use of natural resources. The Government also says it will manage pressures on the environment by mitigating and adapting to climate change; minimising waste; managing exposure to chemicals; and enhancing biosecurity.

Goals and targets: Clean air, clean water

The introduction also sets out the means by which these goals will be achieved. For example, on clean air, the Government says it will achieve this by, firstly, meeting legally binding targets to reduce emissions of five damaging air pollutants, which “should halve the effects of air pollution on health by 2030;” secondly, by ending the sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040; and thirdly, by “maintaining the continuous improvement in industrial emissions by building on existing good practice and the successful regulatory framework.”

On clean and plentiful water, the Plan sets out four measures by which this goal will be achieved. The goal here is to improve “at least three quarters of our waters to be close to their natural state as soon as is practicable.” ‘Waters’ includes rivers, lakes, groundwater aquifers, estuaries and coastal waters, and the Plan says that the 75% target reflects the costs and benefits analysis provided by the current River Basin Management Plans. The ‘natural states’ of such waters are set out in international benchmarks and defined in statutory guidance to the Environment Agency, the body responsible for developing the River Basin Management Plans in consultation with local partners.

The first measure concerns water abstraction. The Plan seeks to reduce “the damaging abstraction of water from rivers and groundwater, ensuring that by 2021 the proportion of water bodies with enough water to support environmental standards increases from 82% to 90% for surface water bodies and from 72% to 77% for groundwater bodies.” The second measure concerns specially protected areas. The Plan aims to reach or exceed objectives “for rivers, lakes, coastal and ground waters that are specially protected, whether for biodiversity or drinking water as per our River Basin Management Plans.” The third measure concerns water companies and leakages. The Government says it supports OFWAT’s ambitions on leakage, “minimising the amount of water lost through leakage year on year, with water companies expected to reduce leakage by at least an average of 15% by 2025.” On recreational waters, the Plan seeks to minimise by 2030 “the harmful bacteria in our designated bathing waters.” The Government says it will continue improvements “to the cleanliness of our waters,” whilst ensuring that potential bathers are warned of any short-term pollution risks.

Goals and targets: “Thriving plants and wildlife”

On biodiversity, the Government makes the following pledge: “We will achieve a growing and resilient network of land, water and sea that is richer in plants and wildlife.” Three specific goals are concerned with threatened species, habitat, and woodland, including “taking action to recover threatened, iconic, or economically important species of animals, plants and fungi (such as bees and other pollinating insects), and where possible to prevent human-induced extinction or loss of known threatened species in England and the Overseas Territories.” On habitat, the goal is to create or restore 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat outside the protected site network, “focusing on priority habitats as part of a wider set of land management changes providing extensive benefits.” Priority habitats are defined as “habitats of principal importance under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act.” The Plan says that more detailed targets for the restoration and creation of protected or priority habitats will be developed “as part of our post 2020 strategy for nature.” On woodland, the Plan reiterates the Government’s aspiration to increase woodland cover in England to 12% by 2060, which would involve planting 180,000 hectares by the end of 2042.

On freshwater, the goal is to restore “75% of our one million hectares of terrestrial and freshwater protected sites to favourable condition, securing their wildlife value for the long term.” On the marine environment, the Plan sets out four general goals. The first is to reverse the loss of marine biodiversity and to restore it “where practicable.” The second is to increase the proportion of “protected and well-managed seas,” and to better manage existing protected sites. The third is to ensure that populations of key species are “sustainable with appropriate age structures,” and the fourth is to ensure that “seafloor habitats are productive and sufficiently extensive to support healthy, sustainable ecosystems.” The Plan includes specific targets for reducing marine pollution, as explained below.

In addition to the “six primary goods and benefits offered by a healthy environment,” the Plan also recognizes the need to manage the environmental pressures that are the results of human actions. Such pressures include biosecurity and the risks presented by invasive species – see the ENA article “Invasive Species – New laws and new initiatives”. The Plan pledges to enhance biosecurity “to protect our wildlife and livestock, and boost the resilience of plants and trees.” The goals here include “managing and reducing the impact of existing plant and animal diseases, lowering the risk of new ones and tackling invasive non-native species, working with industry to reduce the impact of endemic disease” and “reaching the detailed goals to be set out in the Tree Health Resilience Plan of 2018.” Looking ahead, the goals also include “ensuring strong biosecurity protection at our borders, drawing on the opportunities leaving the EU provides.”

Goals and targets: Flooding and drought

On flooding, drought and coastal erosion, the introduction sets out a wish list of aspirations that “will reduce the risk of harm to people, the environment and the economy from natural hazards.” The goals cover access to information, collaboration in risk management, planning for development, planning for drought, and boosting resilience. The actions are summarized as follows:

• ensuring that people “are able to access the information they need to assess any risks to their lives and livelihoods, health and prosperity posed by flooding and coastal erosion;”
• “bringing the public, private and third sectors together to work with communities and individuals to reduce the risk of harm;”
• “making sure that decisions on land use, including development, reflect the level of current and future flood risk;”
• “ensuring interruptions to water supplies are minimised during prolonged dry weather and drought;” and
• “boosting the long-term resilience of our homes, businesses and infrastructure.”

Goals and targets: Conservation and engagement with the natural environment

The Plan pledges to “conserve and enhance the beauty of our natural environment, and make sure it can be enjoyed, used by, and cared for by everyone.” The goals cover conservation, accessibility to green spaces, and social engagement, with the actions summarised as follows:

• “safeguarding and enhancing the beauty of our natural scenery and improving its environmental value while being sensitive to considerations of its heritage;”
• ensuring that there are “high quality, accessible, natural spaces close to where people live and work, particularly in urban areas,” and “encouraging more people to spend time in them to benefit their health and well-being;” and
• “focusing on increasing action to improve the environment from all sectors of society.”

Goals and targets: Resources and sustainability

The Government says it will ensure that natural resources are used more sustainably and efficiently, and that food is produced profitably as well as sustainably. It wants to increase the long-term supply of English-grown timber by supporting larger scale woodland creation. It also wants to ensure that “all fish stocks are recovered to and maintained at levels that can produce their maximum sustainable yield.” As for specific targets, the Plan proposes to “maximise the value and benefits we get from our resources, doubling resource productivity by 2050.” Resource productivity is defined as a measure of the value (in terms of GDP) “we generate per unit of raw materials we use in the economy.” The Government also says it wants to see improvements in approaches to soil management, with the aspiration that by 2030 “all of England’s soils will be managed sustainably.” It plans to use “natural capital thinking” to develop appropriate soil metrics and management approaches. [2]

Achieving the goals

Having set out the Government’s 25-year goals and targets in the introduction, the Plan moves on to discuss the specific plans, proposals and activities that will achieve these aims. Section One of the document contains chapters on six key areas identified by the Government as the foci for action, as follows:

• “using and managing land sustainably,”
• “recovering nature and enhancing the beauty of landscapes,”
• “connecting people with the environment to improve health and wellbeing,”
• “increasing resource efficiency and reducing pollution and waste,”
• “securing clean, healthy, productive and biologically diverse seas and oceans,” and
• “protecting and improving our global environment.”

Sustainable land management

Moving on to details, Chapter One outlines proposals under the general heading of managing land sustainably. These cover five areas: development, farming, soil, woodland, and flood risk. On development, the Plan talks about “embedding an ‘environmental net gain’ principle for development, including housing and infrastructure.” On farming, the Plan sets out ways of “improving how we manage and incentivise land management.” These include the design and delivery of a new environmental land management system; introducing new farming rules for water abstraction; working with farmers to use fertilisers efficiently; and “protecting crops while reducing the environmental impact of pesticides.” On soil, under the general heading of “improving soil health and restoring and protecting our peatlands,” the Government wants to develop better information on soil health and to restore vulnerable peatlands, with the goal of ending peat use in horticultural products by 2030. On woodland, under the general heading of “maximising its many benefits,” the Plan expresses support for larger scale woodland creation, including the development of a new “Northern Forest,” and proposes to appoint a national “Tree Champion.” Finally, on flood risk and coastal erosion, the Government plans to expand the use of natural flood management solutions, to put in place more sustainable drainage systems, and to make ‘at-risk’ properties more resilient to flooding.

“Recovering nature”

Chapter Two is devoted to plans for “recovering nature and enhancing the beauty of landscapes.” These cover three areas. The first is nature protection and recovery, which lists five aims, the first of which, “publishing a strategy for nature,” is currently a plan to produce a plan. Further aims are as follows: developing a “Nature Recovery Network”; providing opportunities for the reintroduction of native species; “exploring how to give individuals the chance to deliver lasting conservation”; and “improving biosecurity to protect and conserve nature”. The second area is the conservation and enhancement of natural beauty, and here the Government proposes to conduct a review of National Parks and AONBs (Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty). The third area is “respecting nature in how we use water,” and here the plans overlap with the plans to reform farming, mentioned above. As well as “reforming our approach to water abstraction,” the Government wants to increase water supply and to provide incentives for greater water efficiency and less personal use.

“Connecting people with the environment”

The plans in Chapter Three focus on the health benefits of connecting people with the environment. These cover four areas. The first is titled “helping people improve their health and wellbeing by using green spaces.” Here, as well as the general aim of promoting the health benefits of the natural environment, the Plan sets out a specific aim of “considering how environmental therapies could be delivered through mental health services.” The second area is children, which encompasses the general aim of “encouraging children to be close to nature, in and out of school.” The Government wants to help primary schools create nature-friendly grounds, and to support “more pupil contact with local natural spaces.” The third area is “greening our towns and cities,” and the aims here are to create more green infrastructure and to plant more trees in and around towns and cities. The fourth area is a campaign “to see more people from all backgrounds involved in projects to improve the natural world.” The Government says it will make 2019 a year of action for the environment, “putting children and young people at its heart,” and helping them to engage with nature. The Year of Green Action “will provide a focal-point for organisations that run environmental projects, and will encourage wider participation.”

Minimising waste and reducing pollution

Chapter Four includes plans to increase resource efficiency, reduce waste, and reduce pollution. As regards waste management, the overriding aim is to maximise resource efficiency and to minimise the environmental impacts when a resource reaches its “end of life”. Here, one of the Government’s specific targets is to achieve “zero avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042,” with ‘avoidable’ defined in the introduction as “what is Technically, Environmentally and Economically Practicable.” The introduction also states that the Government “will work towards our ambition of zero avoidable waste by 2050” (i.e., all waste including plastic waste), with the goal of “significantly reducing and where possible preventing all kinds of marine plastic pollution – in particular material that came originally from land.” The Government also pledges to meet all existing waste targets, “including those on landfill, reuse and recycling,” and to develop “ambitious new future targets and milestones.” Further aims are to reduce food supply chain emissions and waste; to improve the management of residual waste; to reduce litter and littering; to crack down on fly-tippers and waste criminals; and to reduce the impact of wastewater. The introduction specifies the target of “seeking to eliminate waste crime and illegal waste sites over the lifetime of this Plan, prioritising those of highest risk,” whilst also “delivering a substantial reduction in litter and littering behaviour.”

Moving on to pollution, two of the plans here are aspirations. These are the intentions to publish a Clean Air Strategy and to publish a Chemicals Strategy. Further plans to reduce pollution consist of curbing emissions from combustion plants and generators, “minimising the risk of chemical contamination in our water,” and “ensuring we continue to maintain clean recreational waters and warning about temporary pollution.” In the introduction, the Government says it will ensure that “chemicals are safely used and managed” and that “the levels of harmful chemicals entering the environment (including through agriculture) are significantly reduced.” Four specific targets are set out here, with the Government stating it will achieve these ambitions by:

• “seeking in particular to eliminate the use of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) by 2025, in line with our commitments under the Stockholm Convention;”
• “reducing land-based emissions of mercury to air and water by 50% by 2030;”
• “substantially increasing the amount of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) material being destroyed or irreversibly transformed by 2030, to make sure there are negligible emissions to the environment;” and
• “fulfilling our commitments under the Stockholm Convention as outlined in the UK’s most recent National Implementation Plan.”

The marine environment

The maintenance of unpolluted waters overlaps with Chapter Five and the marine environment, where the overriding aim is to secure “clean, healthy, productive and biologically diverse seas and oceans.” The main plan here is to introduce a sustainable fisheries policy “as we leave the Common Fisheries Policy.” The policy will aim to achieve “good environmental status in our seas while allowing marine industries to thrive.” As mentioned above, the Government says it will work towards the elimination of all avoidable waste by 2050, and the elimination of avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042, with the goal of “significantly reducing and where possible preventing all kinds of marine plastic pollution – in particular material that came originally from land.”

Climate change and the global environment

Under the general heading of “protecting and improving our global environment” in Chapter Six, the Plan singles out three areas for specific focus. The first is “providing international leadership and leading by example” – firstly by tackling climate change, and secondly by protecting and improving international biodiversity. The second area is “helping developing nations protect and improve the environment” – firstly by providing assistance and supporting disaster planning, and secondly by supporting and protecting international forests and sustainable global agriculture. The third area is titled “leaving a lighter footprint on the global environment.” The aims here are to enhance sustainability, to protect and manage risks from hazards, and to support zero-deforestation supply chains.

In the introduction, the Government says it will take “all possible action to mitigate climate change, while adapting to reduce its impact.” Three commitments are set out here: firstly, “to continue to cut greenhouse gas emissions including from land use, land use change, the agriculture and waste sectors, and the use of fluorinated gases;” secondly, “to ensure that all policies, programmes, and investment decisions take into account the possible extent of climate change this century;” and thirdly, “to implement a sustainable and effective second National Adaptation Programme.” As for specific targets, the Government says that “the UK Climate Change Act 2008 commits us to reducing total greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050 when compared to 1990 levels.”

“Putting the Plan into practice”

Section Two of the document is titled “Putting the Plan into practice”. On general principles, the Government says it will consult on “setting up a new independent body to hold government to account and a new set of environmental principles to underpin policy-making.” The Plan also sets out the following commitments:

• “to develop a set of metrics to assess progress towards our 25-year goals;”
• “to refresh the 25 Year Environment Plan regularly to ensure that collectively we are focusing on the right priorities, using the latest evidence, and delivering better value for money;”
• “to strengthen leadership and delivery through better local planning, more effective partnerships, and learning from our four pioneer projects;” [3]
• “to establish a new green business council and explore the potential for a natural environment impact fund;” and
• “to work closely with a large range of stakeholders over the coming year to identify their contribution to the goals set out in this Plan.”

In the introduction to the Plan, the Government states: “This Plan is a living blueprint for the environment covering the next quarter of a century. It is an ambitious project, made even more so by our use of a natural capital approach, a world first.” However, with the Government currently embroiled in the aftermath of the EU referendum, achieving these ambitions may not be very high on its list of priorities.


Photograph: Braunton Burrows, North Devon. © Copyright Lewis Clarke and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. The caption says: “Braunton Burrows is designated nationally and internationally for its biodiversity, being an SSSI, Special Area of Conservation (SAC), and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.” This reserve is the location for one of the Government’s four pioneer projects, in this case demonstrating the applicability of a natural capital approach to the coastal environment.


[1] A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment, available as a PDF document from GOV.UK publications.
[2] On the concept of natural capital, see the ENA article “Assessing the Value of ‘Natural Capital'”.
[3] The four pioneer projects are: the Cumbria Catchment Pioneer, led by the Environment Agency (using a natural capital approach to the management of river catchments); the North Devon Landscape Pioneer, led by Natural England (the use of natural capital in determining environmental priorities in the North Devon UNESCO Biosphere Reserve); the Greater Manchester Urban Pioneer, led by the Environment Agency (the use of environmental enhancements in improving well-being); and the Marine Pioneer, led by the Marine Management Organisation (applying a natural capital approach to the marine environment, based on a study of two separate coastal areas – the North Devon Biosphere Reserve and the Suffolk Coasts and Heaths AONB). The four pioneer projects started in 2016.

Defra releases latest statistics on the UK’s wild bird populations

Defra’s report says that the combined all-species index has changed little in 45 years

But its statistics show that, overall, farmland birds, woodland birds, seabirds and breeding waders have all declined

December 15th 2017

There are winners and losers in the latest set of Government statistics on the UK’s wild bird populations, with some species experiencing a large long-term increase and some a dramatic decline. For example, the numbers of wood pigeon, collared dove, jackdaw, magpie, goldfinch, nuthatch, long-tailed tit, green woodpecker, great spotted wood pecker, blackcap, black-headed gull, mute swan, buzzard and red kite have all increased in the last 45 years, whereas the numbers of lapwing, curlew, redshank, snipe, turtle dove, tree sparrow, house sparrow, greenfinch, song thrush, skylark, starling, willow tit, marsh tit, yellow wagtail, cuckoo, swift, herring gull and lesser spotted woodpecker have all declined.

The statistics were published by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) last month. These figures are gathered annually by Defra from a wide variety of sources, working in conjunction with the RSPB, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC). The sources include the Breeding Bird Survey, the Waterways Bird Survey, the Wetland Bird Survey, the Seabird Monitoring Programme, the Goose and Swan Monitoring Programme, and the Common Birds Census. These national surveys and monitoring programmes are carried out largely by volunteer experts at representative sites which are resurveyed regularly on an annual basis. Defra says it is impractical to determine changes in the actual numbers of birds for each species in the UK each year, but it is possible and also more reliable to assess their status by calculating relative change, based on counts at these representative sample plots. On the rationale for compiling the statistics, Defra says:

“Bird populations have long been considered to provide a good indication of the broad state of wildlife in the UK. This is because they occupy a wide range of habitats and respond to environmental pressures that also operate on other groups of wildlife. In addition, there are considerable long-term data on trends in bird populations, allowing for comparison between the short term and long term.” [1]

Defra says it uses the data as indicators to show whether the environment is being managed sustainably: “Trends in bird populations are used by policy makers, government agencies and non-governmental organisations as part of the evidence base to assess the effects of environmental management, such as agricultural practices, on bird populations. The trends are also used to assess the effectiveness of environmental interventions intended to address declines, such as agri-environment schemes targeted at farmland birds.” However, Defra says the indicators presented in its report are not intended to be seen in isolation as indicators of the health of the wider natural environment.

The ‘all-species index’ of 130 common birds shows a long-term decline of 8%

Defra’s ‘National Statistics Release’ includes data on 130 species of common birds, defined as species with populations of at least 500 breeding pairs that are native to (and breed in) the UK. The latest report presents data trends up to 2016 and shows overall trends as well as trends for four main habitat groups: farmland birds, woodland birds, wetland birds, and marine birds. The statistical analysis and indicators exclude rare species (species with less than 500 breeding pairs) and all species for which no UK trend information is available. Of the 130 species, 16 are included in the farmland bird index, 37 in the woodland bird index, 23 in the water and wetlands bird index, 13 in the seabird index, and 3 are included in both the farmland and the wetland bird index (yellow wagtail, reed bunting and lapwing, due to their reliance on both of these habitats). The ‘all-species index also includes 38 species from other habitats (urban areas, heathland, upland and coastal areas) together with species that have no strong habitat preferences (known as ‘generalists’). Additionally, the latest report presents trends for wintering waterbirds, some of which also breed in the UK and some of which are included in the all-species index.

To monitor changes in bird populations, Defra calculates trends in individual species as a series of annual indices. These annual indices relate the population in a given year to 1970, the first year for which data is available. The year 1970 is then used as a baseline and given the value of 100. Thereafter, the individual bird species index expresses the population as a percentage of this baseline. In summary, Defra says that the combined all-species index has changed little compared to that of 45 years ago, but the overall picture masks considerable flux, with some species increasing and some species decreasing. In fact, Defra’s statistics show an overall decline of 8% in the 45-year period from 1970 to 2015. In the short term (the five-year period from 2010 to 2015), the figures show a smaller decline of 1%. [2]

In terms of habitats, farmland birds have suffered the worst decline at 56% over the 1970 to 2015 period, meaning numbers are now less than a half of what they were 45 years ago. Their numbers have continued to decline in the short term, with a 9% fall in the five-year period 2010 to 2015. Woodland birds have also declined, with a 23% fall in the 1970 to 2015 period and a 2% fall in the 2010 to 2015 period. Seabirds have suffered a similar rate of decline, though the time span covers a shorter period. Seabird numbers fell by 20% in the period 1986 to 2014 and by 6% in the five-year period 2009 to 2014. Wetland birds have fared better, with no significant change in the 1975 to 2015 period and just a 2% fall in the 2010 to 2015 period. The numbers of declining species are counterbalanced by a rise in the numbers of wintering waterbirds, which have seen a 92% increase in the period 1975/76 to 2014/15 but have fallen by 8% more recently in the five-year period 2009/10 to 2014/15. We now look at these changes in more detail, beginning with farmland birds. [3]

Land use in the UK

How much of the UK’s land area is devoted to agriculture? A detailed picture of land use in the UK has now been made available to the public, thanks to research by the BBC with the help of Dr Alasdair Rae from the Urban Studies and Planning Department at the University of Sheffield. The data is derived from an ongoing project on changing land use known as ‘Corine’ (Coordination of Information on the Environment), initiated by the European Commission in 1985 and now taken over by the European Environment Agency. Since that time, satellites have been taking high definition images of land in the EU, including the UK, which are then analysed and compared to detailed maps. The Corine project uses 44 different codes to categorise land use and to track and measure changes, such as increases or decreases in woodland cover. The Corine project has made this data publicly accessible, and the BBC has analysed the data for the UK to present a simplified picture of land use. BBC Home Correspondent Mark Easton says: “To get a clearer idea of how UK land is used, we have divided the 44 different land use types into four broad categories: farmland (pastures, arable land, orchards, vineyards etc.); natural (moors, forests, lakes, grasslands etc.); built on (buildings, roads, airports, quarries etc.); and green urban (parks, gardens, golf courses, football pitches etc.)” [4]

England has the highest percentage of farmland in the UK at 72.9%

For the UK as a whole, the data shows that more than half of the UK land area (56.7%) is devoted to agriculture, and just over a third (34.9%) could be classed as ‘natural’. The ‘green urban’ category comprises 2.5% and the ‘built on’ category comprises 5.9%. Mark Easton says the categories will always be open to debate because, for instance, moorland used by sheep farmers could be placed in either ‘agriculture’ or ‘natural’. The research team opted to put moorland into the ‘natural” category. [5]

The picture varies across the UK however. England has the highest percentage of farmland at 72.9%, with Northern Ireland a close second at 72.2%. In Wales, farmland comprises 59.3%, and in Scotland only a quarter (26.4%) is classed as farmland. With regard to the ‘natural’ category, Scotland comes out on top at 70.7%, Wales second at 35.1%. Northern Ireland third at 23%, and England last at 14.5%. England has the highest percentage of ‘built on’ land at 8.8% but also the highest percentage of ‘green urban’ at 3.8%. Wales has the second highest percentage of ‘built on’ land at 4.2%.

Farmland bird populations have declined by 56% since 1970

As detailed above, farmland covers more than a half (56.7%) of the UK’s land area. In England and Northern Ireland, the percentage is higher at 72.9% and 72.2% respectively, and in Wales the percentage is 59.3%. In its report, Defra says that farmland provides semi-natural habitats for birds, such as hedgerows and field margins that provide food and shelter. In 2016 the UK farmland bird index, covering 19 species, was less than a half of its 1970 value (a 56% decline). Defra says the majority of this decline occurred between the late 1970s and the 1980s, largely due to the impact of rapid changes in farmland management during this period:

“For a large part, declines have been caused by the changes in farming practices that have taken place since the 1950s and 1960s, such as the loss of mixed farming, a move from spring to autumn sowing of arable crops, changes in grassland management (a switch from hay to silage production, for example), increased pesticide and fertiliser use, and the removal of non-cropped features such as hedgerows. The rate of these changes, which resulted in the loss of suitable nesting and suitable feeding habitats, and a reduction in available food, was greatest during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the period during which many farmland bird populations declined most rapidly.”

The 19 species that are included in the farmland bird index fall into two categories: specialists and generalists. The farmland specialists are those species that are restricted to, or are highly dependent on, farmland habitats. The 12 specialists are the corn bunting, goldfinch, grey partridge, lapwing, linnet, skylark, starling, stock dove, tree sparrow, turtle dove, whitethroat and yellowhammer – the lapwing is also included in the wetland bird index. Five farmland specialists have experienced declines of 80% or more since 1970: turtle dove by 98%; grey partridge by 92%, tree sparrow by 90%; corn bunting by 90%; and starling by 81%. Another four have declined by 50% or more: lapwing by 64%; skylark by 59%; yellowhammer by 56%; and linnet by 55%. Whitethroat numbers have declined by 6%. In contrast, two farmland specialists have experienced a strong increase over the same period: goldfinch by 159% and stock dove by 113% . Between 2010 and 2015, farmland specialists declined overall by 10%, but the report says that a number of species have shown a marked change over this five-year period, with turtle dove decreasing by 71%, lapwing by 17%, and grey partridge by 15%, whereas stock dove and goldfinch increased by 17% and 15% respectively. Although tree sparrow numbers have declined in the long term, the short-term trend shows a weak increase of 8%.

Farmland generalists have fared better than the specialists

The farmland generalists are those species that are not restricted to farmland habitats. The 7 species of generalists included in the farmland bird index are the greenfinch, jackdaw, kestrel, reed bunting, rook, wood pigeon, and yellow wagtail – the reed bunting and yellow wagtail are also included in the wetland bird index. While changes in farming practices, such as sowing cereal crops in the autumn instead of the spring, are known to have adversely impacted farmland specialists such as skylark and grey partridge, generalist species such as wood pigeon have benefited from the increased availability of food throughout the winter. Of the seven generalists, the figures show that four have declined over the long-term period: yellow wagtail by 68%, kestrel by 50%; greenfinch by 46%; and reed bunting by 30%. The rook population has not changed significantly (a 7% increase), while wood pigeon and jackdaw populations have experienced a strong increase relative to 1970 levels: wood pigeon by 122% and jackdaw by 148%. As for the most recent short-term data, the statistics show that the greenfinch population has continued to decline in the five-year period from 2010 to 2015, with the figures showing a fall of 40%, while yellow wagtail, in contrast to the long-term trend, saw a rise of 18%.

Defra says the long-term decline of farmland birds in the UK has been driven mainly by the decline of the specialists, as they have suffered the greatest impact from the historical changes in farming practices. Comparing the generalists and the specialists over the 45-year period from 1970 to 2015, the statistics show a decline of 70% for specialists and 13% for generalists.

In moves to halt this decline, Defra says a number of incentive schemes now in place encourage improved environmental stewardship in farming, with some measures specifically designed to help stabilise and recover farmland bird populations. These include the provision of over-wintered stubble, planting wild bird crops to provide seed in the winter, not cropping the margins of arable fields, and the sympathetic management of hedgerows.

Turtle Dove: Threatened with extinction

Some of these schemes are targeted at specific species. For example, the decline of the turtle dove was recently highlighted when the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) added the turtle dove to its Red List list of bird species threatened with extinction. [6] Turtle doves are migratory birds that spend less than half a year in the UK but come here to breed, primarily in the east and south-east of England. Changes in arable farming practice have had an impact on their habitat and food supply and have been cited as the main reason for their decline. [7] Farmers and landowners in the east of England have subsequently taken up their cause via the Countryside Stewardship scheme, creating feeding habitat for the birds and allowing their food plants to return to the arable landscape. In another example, the RSPB has been working on a collaborative project with the cement manufacturer CEMEX to provide habitats for the turtle dove in Warwickshire and the twite in Derbyshire. The company is managing hay meadows and creating conditions that will allow plant species more usually associated with arable land to flourish, which will provide seeds for the birds to feed on at critical times of the year. [8]

Woodland birds have declined by 23% since 1970

Last year, the Forestry Commission published a national inventory of the UK’s woodlands, which estimated the changes in woodland and canopy cover between 2006 and 2015. [9] It calculates that 13% of the UK’s land area is covered by woodland, a figure repeated in Defra’s report. Woodland birds included in the index have suffered a 23% decline overall during the 1970 to 2015 period and a 2% fall in the short-term (2010 to 2015). Defra says the greatest decline occurred between the early 1980s and the early 1990s. Since 1995, the index has been more stable at around 80% of the 1970 count. However, Defra says the relatively stable trend for all woodland birds from the mid-1990s masks different underlying trends for specialist species (those that are highly dependent on woodland habitats) and generalist species, which are found in a wide range of habitats including woodland. In 2016, the woodland specialists index was 41% lower than in 1970, whereas for woodland generalists it was 6% higher.

As for the reasons for the decline, Defra says there are several known and potential causes, “such as a lack of woodland management and increased deer browsing pressure,” both of which have resulted in a reduction in the diversity of woodland structure and the availability of suitable nesting and foraging habitats. The report adds that several declining woodland birds are long-distance migrants, “and a decline in the extent or quality of habitats used outside the breeding season may be one factor affecting these species outside of the UK.”

The loss of ancient woodlands

However, there is another reason for the decline of woodland birds which the report fails to mention, and that is the pressure from development. The loss of woodland habitat is bound to have an impact on the birds and wildlife that depend on it, particularly on the specialists who find it difficult or impossible to adapt. The Woodland Trust says that the UK’s richest habitat for wildlife is ancient woodland, which is at least 400 years old and covers just 2% of the UK. But it warns that these ancient woods are threatened by infrastructure projects and developments such as new roads, rail expansions, housing schemes and urban sprawl. In particular, phase two of the HS2 rail project which would link Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds to London would also result in the destruction of 20 ancient woodlands and indirect damage to another 15. The Woodland Trust says that “our natural crown jewels,” such as Whitmore Wood near Newcastle-under-Lyme, could be lost forever. “Currently, 98 ancient woods are threatened with loss or damage from both Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the project,” it says. [10]

Blackcap and nuthatch populations have more than doubled since 1970

Looking back rather than forwards, however, the figures for woodland birds present a mixed picture. The woodland bird index contains data for 37 species, of which 25 are listed as woodland specialists and 12 as generalists. The 25 woodland specialists are the goldcrest, siskin, coal tit, marsh tit, willow tit, wood warbler, willow warbler, garden warbler, nightingale, blackcap, chiffchaff, great spotted woodpecker, lesser spotted woodpecker, green woodpecker, nuthatch, treecreeper, tree pipit, redstart, lesser redpoll, spotted flycatcher, pied flycatcher, jay, sparrowhawk, common crossbill, and capercaillie.

The figures show that six woodland specialists have declined by 75% or more relative to 1970 levels: willow tit by 93%, capercaillie by 89%; lesser redpoll by 87%, spotted flycatcher by 85%, lesser spotted woodpecker by 83%; and marsh tit by 75%. A further five have declined by 40% or more: tree pipit by 69%; wood warbler by 56%; nightingale by 48%; willow warbler by 44%; and pied flycatcher by 40%. And a further four have experience a smaller decline: goldcrest by 15%; common crossbill by 15%; treecreeper by 10%; and garden warbler by 10%. In contrast, populations of blackcap and nuthatch have more than doubled over the same period (blackcap by 288% and nuthatch by 250%), while the great spotted woodpecker has more than trebled with a 350% increase. A further seven specialists have also experienced a long-term increase (1970 to 2015): chiffchaff by 105%; green woodpecker by 100%; sparrowhawk by 83%; redstart by 66%; siskin by 54%; coal tit by 15%; and jay by 9%.

Looking at the more recent short term, the report says that a number of woodland specialists have shown marked trends in the five-year period from 2010 to 2015, with lesser spotted woodpecker decreasing by 38% and the common crossbill by 46%, whereas spotted flycatcher has increased by 25%, blackcap has increased by 21%, redstart, pied flycatcher and chiffchaff have all increased by 20%, and the tree pipit by 15%. A number of the specialists are summer migrants (such as willow warbler, garden warbler and chiffchaff), and Defra says trends in these long-distance migrants may reflect changing conditions at their wintering grounds, whereas declines in residents (such as lesser spotted woodpecker, willow tit and capercaillie) are due to changes at their breeding grounds.

Song thrush numbers have halved since 1970, but long-tailed tit has almost doubled

The 12 woodland generalists listed in the all-species index are the blackbird, robin, wren, song thrush, dunnock, blue tit, great tit, long-tailed tit, chaffinch, bullfinch, lesser whitethroat and tawny owl. Defra says most of these birds have adapted to using gardens and wooded areas in farmland landscapes, and the majority have not shown a substantial change over the long term period from 1970 to 2015. However, populations of five woodland generalists have declined since 1970: song thrush by 50%; bullfinch by 39%; tawny owl by 37%; dunnock by 29%; and blackbird by 16%. In contrast, populations of seven woodland generalists have increased since 1970: long-tailed tit by 97%; great tit by 80%; wren by 67%; robin by 55%; lesser whitethroat by 23%; blue tit by 21%; and chaffinch by 21%.

Looking at the recent short-term period of 2010 to 2015, Defra reports a 2% increase overall for the woodland generalists. However, 4 of the 12 have decreased in this five-year period while 4 of the 12 have increased. The short-term trends also show a reversal of the long-term trends for six of the woodland generalists. In contrast to a long-term increase, the numbers of chaffinch decreased in this short-term period by 12%, long-tailed tit decreased by 7%, great tit by 6%, and blue tit also by 6%. And in another reversal, song thrush numbers were up by 9% and bullfinch by 8%, in contrast to a long-term decline. Meanwhile, wren numbers increased by 31% and robin by 12%, reflecting long-term trends for both species.

Water and Wetland Birds

The water and wetland bird index contains data for 26 species. Defra’s category of water and wetlands includes a range of habitats: rivers, lakes, ponds, reed beds, coastal marshes and lowland raised bogs. According to the report, these habitats totalled together represent 3% of the UK’s land area. Defra divides this total into four sub-habitats for producing indicators: slow flowing and standing water; fast flowing water; reed beds; and wet grassland. The statistics show that, overall, the wetland bird index has experienced no significant change in the 1975 to 2015 period, and just a 2% fall in the 2010 to 2015 period. However, Defra says this relatively stable trend masks underlying differences between sub-habitat indicators. The species included in the sub-habitats are as follows:

  • Slow flowing and standing water (six species): mallard, coot, moorhen, tufted duck, little grebe, great crested grebe
  • Fast flowing water (four species): common sandpiper, dipper, goosander, grey wagtail
  • Reed beds (four species): Cetti’s warbler, reed bunting, reed warbler, sedge warbler
  • Wet grassland (eight species): curlew, lapwing, redshank, snipe, little egret, mute swan, teal, yellow wagtail
  • Other (four species): sand martin, kingfisher, grey heron, oystercatcher

Defra says the four species in the ‘other’ category do not show a strong preference for any of the sub-habitats, “either being fairly generalist or with large proportions of their populations in other habitats such as coasts (e.g. oystercatcher).”

Sharp declines in yellow wagtail and breeding waders

The statistics show a wide variation in the changes to the populations of the 26 species, with some species increasing dramatically over a 40-year period while some have declined strongly. The changes for the five groupings are as follows (unless stated otherwise, the time span is the 1975 to 2015 period):

  • Slow flowing and standing water: the mallard population has increased by 213%, tufted duck by 99%, and coot by 69%, but the moorhen population has declined by 30%, little grebe by 27%, and great crested grebe (1995 to 2015) by 8%
  • Fast flowing water: the goosander population has increased by 122% (1981 to 2015), while the other three species have declined (common sandpiper by 46%, grey wagtail by 39%, and dipper by 22%)
  • Reed beds: the Cetti’s warbler population has increased by 632% (1989 to 2015) and reed warbler by 83% (1981 to 2015), but the reed bunting population has declined by 63% and sedge warbler by 42%
  • Wet grassland: the yellow wagtail population has declined by 97%, snipe by 81%, redshank by 55%, lapwing (1980 to 2015) by 52%, and curlew (1980 to 2015) by 19%, but the mute swan population has increased by 86% and teal by 75% (1995 to 2015) – there are no long-term statistics for the little egret as this is a later addition to the index, first included in 2006
  • Other: the oystercatcher population has increased by 66% and sand martin by 7% (1978 to 2015), but the kingfisher population has declined by 19% and grey heron by 17%

The report says that birds of slow flowing and standing water have shown the most positive trend, as shown by the above figures, with marked increases in mallard and tufted duck and a smaller increase in coot. However, Defra also says these trends should be interpreted with caution as each sub-habitat trend is derived from relatively few species. As for negative trends, the birds of wet grasslands have seen the most dramatic declines. Defra says the historical decline in breeding waders (such as lapwing, curlew, redshank and snipe) has resulted from land management changes, which have included drainage developments, the intensification of grassland management, and the conversion of coastal and floodplain grazing marshes to arable land. In addition: “Where populations persist in small fragments of high quality habitat, their nests and young can be vulnerable to predation, which is currently thought to be limiting the recovery of several species of breeding wader.”

According to Defra, the majority of the decline occurred between the peak in the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s. However, the statistics for the most recent short-term period show that curlew and lapwing numbers continue to decline, with an 11% fall in the lapwing population and a 3% fall in curlew numbers in the five-year period from 2010 to 2015. Yellow wagtail numbers have continued to fall even more dramatically, with a 53% drop in the same five-year period; this is a contrary trend to the figures for farmland specialists above, which show an 18% rise in yellow wagtail over the same period, though the long-term figures for both habitats show a decline (a 68% fall in the farmland index compared with a 97% fall in the wetland index).

Seabird numbers continue to decline

Defra’s all-species index contains data on 13 seabirds. Its report on their populations covers the 1986 to 2014 period. The data is sourced from the Seabird Monitoring Programme which has been collecting data on seabirds since 1986, but Defra says publication of the programme’s annual report was deferred for two years in 2016 in order to give priority to the breeding seabird census, Seabirds Count. Consequently, data for 2016 is not yet available. Presenting an overall picture, Defra says:

“The UK coast is over 30,000km long and consists of a wide variety of habitats, such as sea cliffs, sand dunes, shingle ridges, machair and intertidal areas. Additionally, the area of sea around the UK amounts to three and a half times the land area of the UK (not including overseas territories). In 2015, the breeding seabird index in the UK was 22% lower than in 1986, above the lowest level ever recorded in 2013 (27% lower than in 1986). Despite fluctuations the indicator was largely flat from 1986 until the mid-2000s when seabird numbers started to decline, falling 6% between 2009 and 2014.” [11]

The 13 seabirds in the index are as follows: Arctic skua; Northern fulmar; black-legged kittiwake; herring gull; great black-backed gull; razorbill; common guillemot; European shag; great cormorant; Arctic tern; sandwich tern; common tern; and little tern.

Report suggests predators and climate change as possible causes of seabird decline

The statistics show that five of the 13 seabird species in the index have increased since the beginning of the index in 1986: razorbill by 58%; common guillemot by 57%; Arctic tern by 39%; sandwich tern by 5%; and great black-backed gull by 7%. However, three species have experienced a marked decline: Arctic skua by 80%, black-legged kittiwake by 62%, and the European shag by 48%. The remaining five have also declined but not as sharply: common tern by 30%; Northern fulmar by 22%; herring gull by 16%; little tern by 12%; and the great cormorant by 7%. On the causes of these declines, Defra says some seabirds have been impacted through predation by invasive non-native mammals such as rats and mink, “though successful eradication programmes have been implemented in a number of areas and populations of some species have undergone local recoveries as a result.” The decline of black-legged kittiwakes, however, has been linked to rising sea temperatures as they tend to feed on the sea surface, but Defra says there has been some lessening of the rate of decline in the short term, “showing a weak rather than strong decline of 13% between 2009 and 2014.”

Looking at the short-term picture (the five-year period from 2009 to 2014), the figures show that herring gull and great black-backed gull populations have increased by 47% and 28% respectively, although the trends for these species show no change over the long term. However, Arctic skua numbers continue to decline sharply, with a 56% fall in the same five-year period. The report also highlights a difference in the seabird index for the UK as a whole and the index for England. Defra says one reason for this is species composition: “Some species breed only in Scotland whereas others are more widespread but have the bulk of their populations in northern parts of the British Isles, and there may be insufficient data to generate an England-only trend. In addition, trends for some species may differ between the two countries.”

The ‘Other’ Group: The collared dove has increased eight-fold in 45 years

The all-species bird index includes data on 38 species from other habitats (urban areas, heathland, upland and coastal areas) and species that have no particular habitat preferences (‘generalists’). The ‘other’ category includes six species of duck and geese (gadwall, greylag goose, pochard, red-breasted merganser, shelduck and shoveler) and five birds of prey (hen harrier, peregrine falcon, hobby, buzzard and red kite). Four species in the duck and geese group have all seen large increases in their populations over the 1970 to 2015 period, with red-breasted merganser up by 500%, greylag goose up by 298%, gadwall up by 126%, and pochard up by 44%. There is no long-term data for the shoveler while the shelduck population has seen an 8% decline over the same period. Three birds of prey have also seen large increases over the 45-year period: buzzard up by 465%, red kite up by 349%, and peregrine falcon up by 203%. The hobby population has experienced an 11% decrease over the same period, and the hen harrier population a 2% decrease.

The remaining 27 species are as follows: house sparrow, pied wagtail, mistle thrush, cuckoo, house martin, swallow, swift, raven, carrion crow, hooded crow, magpie, meadow pipit, stonechat, whinchat, woodlark, bearded tit, firecrest, Dartford warbler, cirl bunting, corncrake, quail, red grouse, collared dove, avocet, golden plover, black-headed gull, and Mediterranean gull. There is no long-term data for two of the species: the firecrest and the Mediterranean gull. As for the rest, the species that has seen the largest increase in the 1970 to 2015 period is the collard dove, with numbers up by 799%. Six other species have also seen large increases in the same period: avocet up by 320%; Dartford warbler up by 285%; woodlark up by 126%; carrion crow up by 98%; magpie up by 97%; and cirl bunting up by 79%. Eight species have experienced more modest increases, with stonechat increasing by 50%; raven by 38%; pied wagtail by 38%; hooded crow by 17%; black-headed gull by 16%; red grouse by 14%; bearded tit by 10%; and swallow by 8%.

Long-term declines for the house sparrow and summer migrants

On the negative news, the house sparrow has seen the largest long-term decline among the species in the ‘other’ group, with numbers down by 72% in 2015 compared to 1970. And compared with the swallow, four other summer migrants have fared badly in the same period, with cuckoo populations down by 57%, whinchat down by 52%, swift down by 51%, and house martin down by 11%. The remaining five species have also seen long-term declines, with mistle thrush down by 55%; corncrake down by 55%; quail down by 39%; meadow pipit down by 34%; and golden plover down by 20%.

In summary, while 22 of the 38 ‘other’ species have increased in the 1970 to 2015 period, 13 have declined, with the house sparrow and summer migrants most prominent among the ‘losers’. This is counterbalanced by the large increases in the populations of the collared dove, several birds of prey, several ducks, and a number of other species.

Wintering Waterbirds: A 92% increase since 1975/76

As well as the all-species index, Defra’s report contains data on wintering waterbirds, some of which also breed in the UK, and some of which are included in the all-species index. Defra says the data on wintering waterbirds is sourced from monitoring schemes that are largely based on full counts at colonies or at wetland and coastal sites of markedly varying size. In summary, the figures show that in the winter of 2014/15 the wintering waterbird index was 92% higher than in 1975/76, but the report says that the index peaked in the late 1990s and has largely declined since, with a short-term decline of 8% in the five years from 2009/10 to 2014/15. Defra says that “populations of wintering wetland birds are affected by a range of factors, including conditions in the countries where they breed, the condition and amount of coastal and wetland habitat in the UK, and changes in migratory patterns, at least some of which are known to have been affected by climatic changes.”

There are 46 species included in the wintering waterbird indicator, which Defra splits into two subcategories. The wildfowl category includes 27 species of ducks, geese and swans, whilst the wader category includes 15 species of sandpipers, plovers and their close relatives. There is also a third group of birds that do not fall into either category: these are the little grebe, great crested grebe, coot and cormorant, all of which are also included in the all-species index. The report says that the two main groupings display slightly different trends: overall, the figures show that the wildfowl index has more than doubled (an increase of 109%) since 1975/76, whilst the wader index has increased by 57% in the same period, but both peaked in the late 1990s and have declined since.

Wintering Wildfowl: Most ducks and geese have seen long-term increases

With regard to the wildfowl grouping, 11 of the 27 species also breed in the UK and are included in the all-species index. These are the mute swan, teal, mallard, tufted duck, and goosander (included in the wetland index), and the shelduck, gadwall, shoveler, pochard, red-breasted merganser, and greylag goose (included in the ‘other’ index). The other 16 species include 5 species of ducks that also breed in the UK but in smaller numbers and are not included in the all-species index. These are the wigeon, pintail, eider, goldeneye, and small numbers of scaup. The numbers of these residents are boosted by winter migrants, and they are joined by geese and swans that migrate to the UK from the Arctic, North America and Northern Europe for the winter. The non-residents in the wintering waterbird index include two varieties of swan (Bewick’s from Siberia and whooper from Iceland); two varieties of white-fronted goose (European and Greenland); two varieties of barnacle goose (Greenland and Svalbard); three varieties of brent goose (dark-bellied, Nearctic light-bellied, and Svalbard light-bellied); the Icelandic greylag goose; and the pink-footed goose.

Geese and Swans

The majority of the wintering geese and swan species have experienced large long-term increases in the 40-year period from 1975/76 to 2014/15. The resident greylag goose has increased in winter numbers by 3,647% (a 36-fold increase), whilst its Icelandic cousin has increased by 40%. Barnacle geese have also increased in the long term, with Svalbard numbers up by 526% since 1975/76 (a 5-fold increase) and Greenland up by 175% since 1988/89. Brent geese have all increased too, with the numbers of Svalbard light-bellied increasing by 584% since 1975/76 (roughly a 6-fold increase), dark-bellied increasing by 205% in the same period (a 2-fold increase), and Nearctic light-bellied up by 89% since 1987/88. As for the swans, the resident mute swan has increased in winter numbers by 171% since 1975/76 whilst the visiting whooper swan has seen a large increase of 289% in the same period (almost a 3-fold increase). However, the visiting Bewick’s swan has declined by 85% since the 1975/76 baseline and continues to decline strongly in the short term. The figures for the other migrants present a mixed picture. The numbers of pink-footed goose (visitors that fly south from Spitsbergen, Iceland and Greenland) have increased by 444% since 1975/76, and the Greenland white-fronted goose has increased by 17% since 1982/83. However, the European white-fronted goose has declined by 56% since 1976/76.


The majority of the ducks included in the all-species index have also seen long-term increases in the wintering waterbird index, with the gadwall population, boosted by visitors, increasing by 1,295% since 1975/76 (a 12-fold increase). Teal numbers have increased by 179%, shoveler by 106%, red-breasted merganser by 77%, tufted duck by 61%, goosander by 55%, and shelduck by 30%. However, pochard numbers have declined by 53% and mallard by 20% in the 40-year period. The majority of the other resident ducks have seen increases, with wigeon populations, boosted by winter visitors, increasing by 136% since 1975/76. Eider numbers have increased by 16% since 1986/87 (excluding eider colonies on Shetland), and the numbers of goldeneye (a duck that breeds in Scotland and is also a winter visitor) have increased by 11% since 1975/76. However, the numbers of wintering scaup (which breeds in very small numbers in the UK) have declined by 50% since 1975/76, and pintail numbers have declined by 17% in the same period.

Wintering Waders: A mixed picture

The wader group includes 15 species, 6 of which are also included in the all-species index. These are the curlew, lapwing, redshank, and oystercatcher (included in the wetland index) and the avocet and golden plover (included in the ‘other’ index). Two of the other 9 waders also breed in the UK: these are the dunlin and the ringed plover, whose numbers are boosted by visitors from Northern Europe and the Arctic in the winter. The remaining 7 waders in the wintering waterbird index are all visitors, migrating from northern locations such as Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Svalbard, Norway, Siberia and the Arctic. These are the turnstone, knot, sanderling, purple sandpiper, black-tailed godwit, bar-tailed godwit, and grey plover.

Of the resident waders, the avocet has seen the largest increase in winter numbers, up by 703% since 1988/89 (a 7-fold increase). Golden plover numbers have also increased, up by 183% since 1975/76. Lapwing numbers have increased by 81% over the same period, and curlew by 22%. Redshank and oystercatcher numbers have seen little change since 1975/76, with redshank down by 1% and oystercatcher up by 2%. For the other two breeding waders, not included in the all-species index, the news is not so good. Wintering numbers of dunlin have declined by 50% since 1975/76, and ringed plover numbers have declined by 40%.

Non-residents have seen the largest long-term increases among the wintering waders

Among the 7 non-resident waders, the black-tailed godwit (a visitor from Iceland) has seen the largest increase, with numbers up by 739% (a 7-fold increase) since 1975/76, while its cousin the bar-tailed godwit (a visitor from Scandinavia and Siberia) has seen little change (up by 1% over the same period). Two of the Arctic visitors have seen significant increases, with numbers of grey plover up by 123%, and numbers of sanderling up by 62%. The remaining three visitors have seen little change, with numbers of purple sandpiper up by 16%, knot up by 1%, and turnstone (a visitor from Canada and Greenland) down by 3%.

To summarise, it is mainly the non-residents that have witnessed the largest increases among the waders in the wintering waterbird index. With one or two exceptions, the resident species have not fared as well, with winter numbers showing either little change or evidence of decline.

The UK’s resident waders: Initiatives to halt the decline

Taken as a whole, Defra’s report provides a mixed picture of the state of the UK’s wild bird populations. The large rise in the numbers of wintering wildfowl visiting the UK can be explained by a number of factors, some of which would include factors impacting on their breeding patterns and locations far removed from the UK. With regard to the UK, however, one factor is undoubtedly land management and the number of restoration schemes undertaken by mineral extraction companies and quarry operators at former sites, many of which now provide a variety of habitats for birds and other wildlife, including lakes, ponds and wetlands, and are now managed nature reserves – see our article ‘Mineral Products Association celebrates quarry restoration at ‘Quarries and Nature 2015”. Yet many of the UK’s breeding waders, which depend on a range of habitats for feeding and breeding, have continued to decline, both as a resident and as a winter visitor.

A number of initiatives are currently taking place across the UK, aimed at halting the decline of our breeding waders. These initiatives have included land management schemes that can help ground-nesting birds, such as the curlew and lapwing, to breed successfully. There are 14 such projects taking place in Shropshire, Powys and the Welsh Marches, which together form the Stiperstones and Corndon Hill Country Landscape Partnership Scheme. One of these projects is the Lapwing Recovery Project. Some years ago, it was reported that lapwings were in danger of becoming extinct as a breeding bird in many parts of Shropshire. [12] One of those areas was the Upper Onny area, where a local wildlife group in collaboration with the Shropshire Wildlife Trust launched the Lapwing Recovery Project to work with local farmers in a move to halt the decline. A Countryside Stewardship Agreement with one local farm made provision for a rotating 20 acre field managed primarily for lapwings, with over-wintered stubble followed by a spring and summer fallow. Initial breeding success helped to reverse the decline, but more recent reports state that the number of breeding pairs is now “back to square one,” with the loss of habitat on the most important farm, and the abolition of set-aside on arable land, resulting in a further decline. [13]

Curlew Country

Another one of these projects is the Curlew Country Project (also known as the Shropshire Hills and Welsh Marches Curlew Recovery Project) which began in 2014, initially to raise awareness among local farmers on the plight of the curlew and to undertake some lowkey monitoring. The current project is now wider and has been running for two years. Its aim is to “work constructively with land managers to find out what is preventing the curlew from breeding successfully and then taking pragmatic steps to save the curlew.” [14] The project is working with over 60 farmers and land managers and has recruited field ornithologists to carry out three years of nest monitoring to find out why local birds are failing to breed successfully. During the curlew breeding seasons of 2015 and 2016, field ornithologists monitored over 30 nests using cameras, thermal data loggers, and close observation techniques. They have reported that only 3 nests in each year survived beyond egg incubation stage to hatch chicks, whilst no chicks survived to fledgling stage. The results of the monitoring have shown that predation is the most urgent problem when addressing nest failure at egg stage, with foxes being the main culprit. To prevent predation from foxes, the project is working with a European partner on a trial of protective electric fencing, and two such trials have been implemented in “predation control areas” of a thousand hectares. [15]

The project reports that the UK hosts around 25% of the international curlew population, and that rapid declines across Europe have led the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to classify the Eurasian Curlew as ‘vulnerable’ on the European Red List, meaning that the species is at risk of extinction. [16] Curlew breed on farmland and adjacent wet areas as well as moorland and upland areas, but this recovery project has a specific focus on farmland habitat:

“The Shropshire & Welsh Marches Recovery Project study area is central in the investigation into what can be done to reverse the decline in the UK and wider European Curlew populations. The area is located on the Powys Shropshire border and is home to both lowland and upland species. This ecological hinterland between upland and lowland, north and south, is the breeding ground for a small population of about 40 pairs of breeding Curlew. This regional stronghold is one of only a handful of known population groups of this size, outside managed moors and reserves in the north.”

The hills of Shropshire and the Welsh Marches have, in the past at least, provided a number of suitable habitats for curlews to breed, but the Curlew Country Project says that, locally, numbers have declined by over 30% in 11 years. Though it does not prevent the problems of predation, the creation and conservation of suitable habitat is an obvious step in reversing this decline. Many of the recovery projects in the Shropshire Hills AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) are concerned with farmland and land management schemes, but these schemes are complemented by nature reserves and local wildlife sites, which include upland habitat such as Catherton Common, where the cry of the curlew can sometimes be heard in the spring. Catherton Common is an area of uncultivated heath near the Clee Hills which is covered in several varieties of vegetation, including bracken, heather, furze and boggy pools. The Common was purchased by the Shropshire Wildlife Trust in 2009 and is now a managed nature reserve and SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). In its literature, the Trust describe it as one of the most botanically-rich places in Shropshire and “a wonderful place for many birds that have vanished from other parts of the county.” [17]

The work of maintaining these reserves, and the monitoring of bird populations, could not be achieved without the help of volunteers and community wildlife groups. There are eight such groups in the Shropshire Hills AONB, one of which is the Strettons Area Community Wildlife Group. In 2016, the group coordinated biodiversity surveys of a marshy area the size of 11 hectares on the southern edge of Church Stretton and recorded sightings of kingfisher, egrets, kingfisher and snipe among numerous other birds. The findings were collated and submitted to Shropshire Wildlife Trust who then submitted a proposal to Shropshire Council to register the site as a Local Wildlife Site. In January 2017, the group announced that two-thirds of the site had now been registered which means that the Stretton Wetlands has now been acknowledged as a new Local Wildlife Site. In its annual report, the group says: “A wildlife site provides some protection from harmful development but still enables landowners to continue to manage their land, including grazing, and does not prevent planning requests and development on adjacent land. It may also improve the possibility of obtaining funding to develop the biodiversity.” [18] This may not be of immediate assistance to the curlew, but it does provide an optimistic note on which to conclude.


Photograph: Curlew on the Pyewipe Mudflats, Humber Estuary © Copyright Mat Fascione and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. The Curlew Country Project reports that the curlew is the UK’s largest wader and is now considered to be the highest bird conservation priority. The curlew has a long life, “exceptionally for 20 or 30 years.”


[1] Wild Bird Populations in the UK, 1970-2016, Biodiversity Statistics Team, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 23/11/2017. Available as a PDF document from: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/wild-bird-populations-in-the-uk.

[2] A sizeable chunk of Defra’s report is concerned with the methodology of statistical analysis and the meaning of terms used in the report. In particular, “short-term” refers to an assessment of change over the latest five years (in most cases, 2010 to 2015), while “long-term” refers to an assessment of change since the earliest data became available, which varies among indicators and species. The report also attaches statistical meanings to the words “strong” and “weak” when describing trends: for instance, a “strong increase” means a population increase of 100% or more, whereas a “strong decline” means a population decrease of 50% or more. A “weak increase” means an increase in the range of 33% to 100%, while a “weak decline” means a decrease in the range of 25% to 50%. In the middle, we have “no significant change,” which means figures ranging from a 25% decrease to a 33% increase. However, in the figures presented for individual bird species, Defra uses the words “strong” and “weak” with a flexibility that appears to undermine their statistical definitions. An analysis of Defra’s figures is rendered even more difficult by the use of two terms to describe statistical trends, explained as follows: “Two trends are referred to in the text: the unsmoothed indices show year-to-year fluctuation in populations, reflecting the observed changes in the survey results; and smoothed trends, which are used to formally assess the statistical significance of change over time. Smoothed trends are used for both long and short-term assessments as they reduce the short-term peaks and troughs resulting from, for example, year-to-year weather and sampling variations as well as good or bad breeding seasons.” Throughout this article, the figures are taken from the smoothed indices, except for the seabirds, for which no smoothed trends are available.

[3] On the causes of wildlife decline in the UK, see also the habitat analysis in the ENA article, ‘The State of Nature 2016 – New report examines the causes of wildlife decline in the UK’.

[4] Mark Easton, ‘How much of your area is built on?’, BBC News, 09/11/2017. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-41901294. “Every council area in the UK has been analysed and individual maps produced showing how much of the area falls into four land categories: farmland, natural, built on, and green urban.” The research provides the facility to discover “at the click of a button” exactly how the land is used in a local authority area by keying in a postcode.

[5] Mark Easton also discusses the methodology for classifying ‘discontinuous urban fabric’ as ‘green urban’. See: ‘Five mind-blowing facts about what the UK looks like,’ Mark Easton, BBC News, 09/11/2017. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-41901297. Defra says that 75% of land in the UK is devoted to agriculture, but this is clearly an error. The figure of 75% would represent an estimate of land in England devoted to agriculture, but not of land in the UK as a whole.

[6] The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) uses a range of categories to assess the status of a species with regard to its population and the priorities for conservation. These are: 1. Extinct; 2. Extinct in the wild; 3. Critically Endangered; 4. Endangered; 5. Vulnerable; 6. Near Threatened; 7. Least Concern; 8. Data deficient; and 9. Not evaluated. The turtle dove is listed as ‘critically endangered’ in the UK and ‘vulnerable’ globally.

[7] See: Operation Turtle Dove.

[8] For news of these initiatives, see the ENA UK article, ‘Mineral Products Association celebrates quarry restoration at ‘Quarries and Nature 2015”. The RSPB is also engaged in a number of collaborative schemes with farmers and landowners aimed at halting the decline of the twite. See: ‘Bringing Twite Back’, Kathryn Smith, RSPB, 27/09/2017. Retrieved from: http://www.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/farming/b/farming-blog/archive/2017/09/27/bringing-twite-back.aspx.

[9] ‘Preliminary estimates of the changes in canopy cover in British woodlands between 2006 and 2015 – National Forest Inventory’, Forestry Commission, August 2016. Available as a PDF document from https://www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/Preliminary_estimatesofthechangesincanopycoverinBritishwoodlandsbetween2006and2015.pdf.

[10] See the “Our Views” item on the Woodland Trust website at https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/get-involved/campaign-with-us/our-campaigns/hs2-rail-link/.

[11] Elsewhere, Defra gives the figure of 20% (not 22%) for the decline of seabirds in the same period (1986 to 2014). Both figures are “unsmoothed indices” (see Note 2) and it is therefore unclear which is the correct figure. In this article, we have assumed the 20% figure.

[12] See the ‘Case Study and Fact Sheet’ for the Lapwing Recovery Project, produced in 2008 by the Upper Onny Wildlife Group in collaboration with the Shropshire Wildlife Trust. Available as a PDF document from: http://www.shropshirehillsaonb.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/Lapwings_Project.pdf. The Shropshire Biodiversity Partnership adopted a ten-year Lapwing Action Plan which is available as a PDF document from: https://shropshire.gov.uk/media/1855/sbap-lapwing-2009.pdf. The plan was first published in 2006 with many of the actions set to continue until 2015. See also the advice sheet for farmers, landowners and contractors, published by the Stiperstones and Corndon Hill Country Landscape Partnership in 2014. Available as a PDF document from: http://www.stiperstonesandcorndon.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Lapwing-leaflet-IMPRINT-final.pdf.

[13] See the Upper Onny Wildlife Group project results at: http://www.shropscwgs.org.uk/sample-page/project-results/.

[14] See the Curlew Country Project website at: https://curlewcountry.org/project-background/.

[15] See the Curlew Country Project website at: https://curlewcountry.org/what-are-we-doing-and-hope-to-do/. The ‘Case Study and Fact Sheet’ for the Lapwing Recovery Project, produced in 2008 by the Upper Onny Wildlife Group (Note 12), highlights carrion crows as the main predator in the case of lapwing nests. Climate change may also be playing a part in the decline of breeding waders. A report by the British Trust for Ornithology on the 2011 Breeding Bird Survey suggested that unfavourable weather conditions have exacerbated their long-term decline. Grahame Madge, a press officer for the RSPB and also for the Met Office, said: “The spring of 2012 has seen the wettest April to June period on record, and it’s likely that populations of these ground-nesting waders would have also been hit hard this year. Flooding at several key sites has seen hundreds of wader nests washed out, including 600 at the RSPB’s Ouse Washes reserve in Cambridgeshire.” See: ‘Lapwings hit new low; further declines in breeding waders revealed’, British Trust for Ornithology, July 2012. Retrieved from: https://www.bto.org/news-events/press-releases/lapwings-hit-new-low-further-declines-breeding-waders-revealed.

[16] See the Curlew Country Project website at: https://curlewcountry.org/eurasian-curlew/. On the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, see Note 6.

[17] See the Shropshire Wildlife Trust website at: https://www.shropshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/reserves/catherton-common. In February 2017, an application to build four holiday chalets near the reserve, with associated access and car parking facilities, was refused permission by Shropshire County Council on the grounds that such a development would be contrary to local and national planning policy and that any benefit to the rural economy would be outweighed by the environmental harm, as the site was not only adjacent to the Common but also “within both a buffer zone and corridor of the Shropshire Environmental Network.” See the Shropshire Council website at: http://shropshire.gov.uk/news/2017/02/decisions-made-by-south-planning-committee-on-7-february-2017/.

[18] See the annual report of the Strettons Area Community Wildlife Group, available as a PDF document from: http://www.shropscwgs.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/SACWG-annual-report-2016-draft-AJA.pdf.

Air Pollution in the UK – Seven years of illegal NO2 emissions

UK Government publishes its latest plans to tackle air pollution

But compliance with legal limits is still a distant prospect

August 21st 2017

The UK Government has published its latest plans to tackle air pollution, following a long-running legal battle over its failure to comply with EU standards for air quality. The plans were published by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for Transport on 26th July and focused on curbing roadside nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations. In a press release, the Government announced that a comprehensive Clean Air Strategy will be published next year which will outline its plans to tackle other sources of air pollution. [1] The press release highlights the Government’s intention to end the sale of all new conventional petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040, whilst the current strategy on curbing NO2 levels places the onus on local authorities to produce action plans.

Client Earth v. UK Government: A seven-year legal battle

The UK Plan for Tackling Roadside Nitrogen Dioxide Concentrations is the latest development in a seven-year legal battle between the UK Government and the environment law firm Client Earth, which began in 2010 as a collaborative venture with the campaign group Clean Air in London. [2] In an initial response to the latest plan, Client Earth has described it as lacking in urgency and apparently “little more than a shabby rewrite of the previous draft plans.” [3] Anna Heslop, one of the firm’s air quality lawyers, said: “Successive governments have failed to protect us from illegal air quality. We’ve had to return repeatedly to court to challenge the Government on its weak and incoherent air quality policies and yet, seven years on, we are still having to fight to protect people’s health.” [4]

Should the lawyers take further court action, it will be the eighth time that Client Earth has taken the UK Government to court over its plans to curb NO2 emissions. In summary, the legal saga is as follows:

• 2011: High Court
• 2012: Court of Appeal
• 2013: UK Supreme Court
• 2014: European Court of Justice
• 2015: UK Supreme Court
• 2016: High Court
• 2017: High Court

What follows is the background to the latest plans. This legal saga can best be summarised as a history of missed deadlines, deliberate procrastination, and persistence on the part of the UK Government in its refusal to comply with EU law. Its air quality plans have repeatedly been deemed unlawful by the courts, and the Treasury has been consistent in having the final say, placing economic and political considerations above public health.

January 2010: UK misses deadline for legal limits of NO2 emissions

The legal battle began in 2010 as a response to the UK’s failure to meet the requirements of the EU’s Ambient Air Quality Directive which came into force in 2008. The 2008/50/EU Directive forms part of a body of legislation which sets out health-based standards and targets for a number of pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, lead, benzene, and fine particles known as particulate matter. Under EU law “a limit value is legally binding from the date it enters into force subject to any exceedances permitted by the legislation.” [5] The limit value for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which came into force on January 1st 2010, is 40µg/m3 (40 micrograms per cubic metre), taken as the average measure over a twelve-month period. A recent report on the implementation of the Directive says that NO2 levels at the most polluted traffic site in London (Marylebone Road) were well above 100μg/m3 in the period 2003 to 2009. [6] In 2013, NO2 annual mean concentrations of 85μg/m3 were recorded. In short, the levels have been well over the legal limit of 40µg/m3, which should have been met by the start of 2010.

The impact of diesel

A recent study by the Royal College of Physicians says that every year in the UK “around 40,000 deaths are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution” [7] Air pollutant emissions from road traffic are generally held to be the main source of the problem, with diesel vehicles in particular being the main source of NO2 emissions. The irony here is that in 2001 the Labour Government adopted measures to boost the sale of diesel vehicles on the grounds that this would cut carbon emissions and help to reduce the effects of climate change. Martin Goodman reports that the Government published guidance on NO2 levels in 2004, in which it claimed “the UK Air Quality Strategy aims to achieve its objectives earlier than the EU has set.” However, this optimism was based on old data which showed a 37% fall in NO2 emissions in the decade up to 2000, with the expectation of a further 25% fall by 2010. The calculations did not foresee the impact of the increased use of diesel. [8]

2011–2012: High Court judges say enforcement of legal requirement is a matter for the European Commission

The legal case first appeared before the High Court in 2011, with Client Earth launching a judicial review of the failure by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to comply with the legal limits for NO2 emissions as set out in the Directive. The judge presiding over the case found that the Government was indeed in breach of a legal requirement, but declined to rule on any remedy, saying that enforcement was a matter for the European Commission. In May 2012, Client Earth appealed to the Court of Appeal, but the Court upheld the decision of the High Court judge. [9]

2013: UK Supreme Court seeks advice from European Court of Justice

In 2013, however, Client Earth submitted an appeal to the newly formed Supreme Court, and the court found in Client Earth’s favour. The Court ruled that the UK Government was in breach of a legal duty to comply with NO2 limits in 16 cities and regions, including Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow, as well as London. As for what action should be taken, the Court then sought advice from the European Court of Justice regarding the provisions of the Air Quality Directive and the role of national courts in providing appropriate remedies.

2014: European Court of Justice considers “the longest-running infringement of EU law in history”

The European Court of Justice considered a body of evidence in compiling its advice, including the available data on NO2 levels. Martin Goodman says scientists from King’s College London set up a monitoring station in Oxford Street which recorded an average level of 135μg/m3 in 2014, whilst a daytime reading peaked at 463μg/m3. As for the Government’s response: “Lawyers from the European Commission told the European judges that they were considering perhaps the longest-running infringement of EU law in history.” [10]

UK Government hopes to reach compliance by 2025… or 2030…

The provisions of the Air Quality Directive say that member states can apply for an extension of up to five years to meet limiting values in a specific zone, subject to an assessment by the Commission. [11] However, the Government had already missed its 2010 deadline and said to the EU that it was unable to meet the next deadline of January 1st 2015. It was hoping to reach compliance by 2025, but then admitted that the target for NO2 levels in London, Leeds and Birmingham would not be met until 2030. [12] The European Court of Justice delivered its ruling in November 2014. The judgement said that the UK was legally obliged to mitigate air pollution and was “wholly adrift of all procedures to fit such compliance to the given deadlines. Furthermore, it must produce a plan to keep the period in which NO2 pollution was breaking legal limits ‘as short as possible.'”

April 2015: UK Supreme Court orders Government to take urgent action on air pollution

The decision was sent back to the UK Supreme Court, which delivered its verdict in April 2015: “The Supreme Court unanimously orders that the Government must submit new air quality plans to the European Commission no later than 31st December 2015.” [13] The Supreme Court also demanded urgent action on the part of the Government with regard to NO2 levels, without setting a deadline for compliance. However, the parties were granted permission to return to the High Court for clarification of the order, with particular regard to the terms ‘urgent’ and ‘as soon as possible’ and how they were to be understood. A press release from Client Earth said: “The Supreme Court ruling means the Government must start work on a comprehensive plan to meet pollution limits as soon as possible. Among the measures that that it must consider are low emission zones, congestion charging, and other economic incentives. Client Earth is calling for action to clean up the worst polluting diesel vehicles, including through a national network of low emission zones.” [14]

December 2015: the UK Government continues to defy EU law on NO2 limits

Defra published a draft plan in September 2015. In response, Client Earth released a series of press statements which criticised the Government for a lack of joined-up thinking, saying that the Department for Transport and DECC (the now defunct Department for Energy and Climate Change) had failed to make any assessment of the impact on air quality when making major policy decisions, whilst Defra’s draft plans, published as a consultation document, did not meet the demand for immediate action:

“The Supreme Court ordered Liz Truss to come up with a plan to achieve legal levels of air quality as soon as possible. Instead, even under the Government’s own projections, many cities in the UK will still have illegal levels of diesel fumes until 2020 and beyond. In London the problem is even worse – Defra projections say the legal levels of air pollution will not be reached until 2025. The plans contain only one new national measure: ‘clean air zones’ which would restrict older vehicles entering the most polluted city centres – but leaving it up to overstretched and underfunded local authorities to implement them. We therefore don’t have any idea if or when these clean air zones will ever materialise.” [15]

Treasury reduces Defra’s plans for Clean Air Zones

Following the consultation period, the Government’s plans were finally published on 17th December 2015. The plans repeated much of what was said in the draft. So the Government had responded to the Supreme Court ruling by producing an air quality plan by the end of the year deadline, but the plan was to reach compliance with the EU’s limit values for NO2 by 2025. Client Earth said this amounted to a total defiance of the Air Quality Directive, the European Court of Justice, and the UK Supreme Court. According to Martin Goodman, government ministers had been advised by Defra’s head of air quality to implement clean air zones, which would bring forward compliance with EU NO2 limits “by directly removing the dirtiest vehicles from hotspot areas and by encouraging people to swap polluting vehicles for less polluting ones.” [16] However, the Treasury reduced Defra’s plans for 16 clean air zones outside of London to 5 (Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton), and also blocked an increase in charges for driving in city centres. [17] Client Earth responded to the plan’s publication with an announcement that the Government would face further legal action. The firm’s principal air quality lawyer, Alan Andrews, said: “The Government seems to think that the health of people in cities like Glasgow, Manchester and Bristol is less important than that of people in London. While London gets a clean air zone covering all vehicles, Birmingham gets a second class zone and Derby and Southampton third class, while other areas including Manchester and Liverpool are left out. We all have the same right to breathe clean air.” [18] The new legal challenge was launched in March 2016 when Client Earth lodged papers at the High Court, seeking a judicial review of the Government’s plans. [19]

April 2016: MPs declare UK air pollution to be a “public health emergency”

In April 2016, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Select Committee, which oversees the work of Defra, published a report on the state of air pollution in the UK and the Government’s attempts to tackle it, declaring that the situation amounted to a “public health emergency.” [20] The cross-party group of MPs called on the Government to introduce a scrappage scheme for old diesel vehicles which would target those older than ten years of age and offer drivers financial incentives to trade them in. The Efra report also says that UK ministers should argue robustly with the EU to set lower limits for nitrogen oxide emissions from new vehicles, as the EU’s ‘real world’ tests, to be implemented from 1st September 2017, would set initial emission limits that are twice as high as previous laboratory test levels and set limits into the 2020s which are 50% higher. [21] The report also reiterates Client Earth’s criticism of the lack of joined-up thinking from government departments: “Despite mounting evidence of the costly health and environmental impacts of air pollution, we see little evidence of a cohesive cross-government plan to tackle emissions.” The report says that the inter-ministerial ‘Clean Growth Group’, which is meant to be co-ordinating efforts to tackle air pollution, is seen as secretive and “does not publish information on its meetings, outcomes or action plans.”

May 2016: London Mayor Sadiq Khan joins Client Earth’s legal challenge

In May 2016, newly-elected London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced his intention to submit statements and evidence in Client Earth’s forthcoming legal case at the High Court. Speaking to the Guardian’s environment correspondent Damian Carrington, he said: “The government’s current air quality plan with respect to London is based on the very limited ambition of the previous mayor to tackle air pollution and isn’t enough to protect Londoners’ health.” [22] Earlier that month, the Guardian had revealed that Boris Johnson, Sadiq Khan’s predecessor, had commissioned a report on air pollution in London but the report had remained unpublished since its completion in 2013. The report showed that 433 schools in London are in areas that exceed legal limits for NO2 pollution and that 80% of those schools are in deprived areas. [23] On taking up his post as mayor, Sadiq Khan set out new plans to tackle London’s air pollution problem, which included doubling the size of the ‘Ultra Low Emission Zone,’ which Boris Johnson had planned to implement by 2020, and retrofitting 1,000 more buses with cleaner technology. Older, dirtier diesel vehicles will be charged £12.50 to enter the low emission zone. Sadiq Khan said to the Guardian: “It’s clear we need to speed up our efforts so I’m calling on government to match my new level of ambition for London and to work with me to improve our city’s dirty air and to make sure we get within legal limits much sooner – before the current target of 2025.” [24]

November 2016: Judicial Review finds Air Quality Plan is based knowingly on flawed data

Client Earth’s case was heard at the High Court in October 2016. In delivering the Court’s ruling, Mr Justice Garnham agreed with Client Earth that the Environment Secretary had failed to take measures that would bring the UK into compliance with the law “as soon as possible.” The judgement, published on 2nd November, said that the Government’s 2015 Air Quality Plan failed to comply with the Supreme Court ruling or relevant EU Directives and found that the Government had erred in law by setting compliance dates based on an over-optimistic modelling of pollution levels, using lab tests which they knew to be flawed. Instead of identifying measures that would achieve compliance as soon as possible, “it identified measures which, if very optimistic forecasts happened to be proved right and emerging data happened to be wrong, might achieve compliance. To adopt a plan based on such assumptions was to breach both the Directive and the Regulations.” [25] The judge said it was remarkable that the Government had acknowledged that its plan was built around a forecast based on figures which emerging data was undermining and that “if higher, more realistic, assumptions for emissions are made, the number of zones which will not meet the limit value in 2020 increases substantially.” [26]

Evidence suggests the Government’s timetable is motivated by the prospect of EU fines

The judge also commented on ministerial correspondence which suggested “that a principal driving factor in selecting 2020 was not the obligation to remedy the problem as soon as possible but to remedy it in time to avoid EU infraction proceedings.” [27] The correspondence said: “In developing potential measures for the plans we have used projected exceedances in 2020 as the basis for defining the worst areas. This is based on our understanding that 2020 is likely to be the earliest the EU will move to fines.” The judge said that, while there can be no objection to a member state having regard to cost when choosing between two equally effective measures, or when deciding which organ of government should pay, he rejected “any suggestion that the state can have any regard to cost in fixing the date for compliance or in determining the route by which the compliance can be achieved where one route produces results quicker than another.” [28] He continued: “In those respects the determining consideration has to be the efficacy of the measure in question and not their cost. That, it seems to me, flows inevitably from the requirements in the Article to keep the exceedance period as short as possible.”

Back to the drawing board

The ruling was welcomed by Client Earth whose air quality lawyer Alan Andrews said in a press statement: “We need a national network of clean air zones to be in place by 2018 in cities across the UK, not just in a handful of cities. The Government also needs to stop these inaccurate modelling forecasts. Future projections of compliance need to be based on what is really coming out of the exhausts of diesel cars when driving on the road, not just the results of discredited laboratory tests.” [29]

For the Government, it was a case of ‘back to the drawing board.’

UK Government is ordered to produce a draft plan by 24 April 2017…

The deadlines for the Government were delivered by Mr Justice Garnham at the High Court on 21st November. The judge, rejecting the Government’s suggested timetable of September 2017 to produce a final plan, ordered the Government to produce a draft plan by 24th April 2017 and a final one by 31st July 2017. The judge also requested that the Government publish the technical data on which it was basing its plans, and gave Client Earth permission to return to the High Court should there be any further problems with the draft plan. Responding to the ruling, Alan Andrews said that a total of 37 out of 43 zones in the UK had illegal levels of air pollution, and argued that a national network of clean air zones must be part of the Government’s plans, which meant far more than the six which were currently planned. [30]

But on 21 April 2017 the UK Government wants an extension

Following the PM's decision to call a general election on 8th June, the Government then made a last-minute attempt to delay publication of the draft plan, seeking 30th June and 15th September as the new deadlines. The application to the High Court was submitted late on Friday 21st April after the court had closed, and shortly before the original deadline of 4pm on Monday 24th April. Mr Justice Garnham ordered a hearing into the application for Thursday, 27th April. At the hearing, the Government claimed that "purdah rules" meant that they could not publish the plans until after the general election, but was forced to concede that the delay could have an impact on the implementation of measures to reduce air pollution "as soon as possible." Client Earth argued that air pollution was a matter of public health not politics. The judge agreed, but accepted that purdah rules would affect the local elections on 4th May. He ordered the Government to produce the plans by the new deadline of 9th May. The 31st July deadline remained in force. [31]

May 2017: Draft plans are “weak and incoherent”

The draft plans were finally published for consultation on 5th May, while the results of the local elections were still being counted. Client Earth’s CEO James Thornton gave an immediate response, saying the plans were weak and incoherent, and that the UK would still be faced with illegal air quality for years to come under the proposals: “We fail to see how the non-charging clean air zones, proposed by the Government, will be effective if they don’t persuade motorists to stay out of those areas. The Government seems to be passing the buck to local authorities rather than taking responsibility for this public health emergency,” he said. He also noted that the Government had failed to make any commitments to a diesel scrappage scheme. [32]

A flawed consultation

The draft plans were accompanied by a public consultation which ran from 5th May to 15th June. But on 31st May Client Earth said that the consultation did not include measures which the government’s own technical data showed were the best way to bring down air pollution as soon as possible. In particular, the evidence showed that a network of clean air zones which charged the dirtiest diesel vehicles for entering the most polluted areas of the UK would be the most effective solution, but the draft plans did not set this out as a proposal. Client Earth’s lawyers had written to Defra seeking improvements to the draft, but Defra had refused to modify the consultation. James Thornton said the consultation was flawed and that Client Earth would be seeking a ruling from the High Court on this issue. “The government’s plans and consultation do not match what its own evidence says needs to happen,” he said. “If the evidence shows that taking certain measures will be necessary to tackle the public health crisis of polluted air, then the plans and associated consultation needs to make that clear.” [33]

July 2017: Back to the High Court

A hearing at the High Court was set for Wednesday 5th July. Mr Justice Garnham ruled that the draft plan in itself was not unlawful, but suggested that the final plan could well be open to legal challenge if it did not deal with some of the concerns presented by Client Earth. [34] The judge also stated that any alternative measures to meet air quality limits would have to be equally effective or more effective than a clean air zone that charged polluting vehicles for entering.

The final plan was published on 26th July.

A “highly localised” problem, says Government

We return now to this latest plan, the UK Plan for Tackling Roadside Nitrogen Dioxide Concentrations. In its press release, the Government’s use of statistics reduces the problem of air pollution to a relatively minor proportion of the country’s roads. It says that NO2 levels have decreased by 50% in the last 15 years, but 4% of Britain’s major roads (81 out of 1,800) are due to breach legal pollution limits for NO2, including 33 outside of London. Consequently, the Government’s press release describes NO2 pollution as a highly localised problem and places the burden on local authorities to sort this out: “Due to the highly localised nature of the problem, local knowledge will be crucial in solving pollution problems in these hotspots,” it says. [35]

Local authorities must take “robust action”

The Government says it will be providing towns and cities with £255m to implement local plans. Local authorities will be asked to produce initial plans within eight months and final plans by the end of 2018. Local councils “with the worst levels of air pollution at busy road junctions and hotspots must take robust action,” with the aim of delivering roadside NO2 compliance “in the fastest possible time.” In addition to the £255m implementation fund, the Government has also announced a new Clean Air Fund, the details of which will be announced later this year. The aim of the Clean Air Fund is “to support improvements which will reduce the need for restrictions on polluting vehicles.” Local authorities will be invited to bid for funds to carry out these improvements. The measures could include reducing congestion by changing road layouts or removing traffic lights and speed humps; upgrading bus fleets with new low emission buses or retrofitting older buses with cleaner engines; encouraging the uptake of ultra low emission vehicles; and introducing concessionary travel schemes and new park and ride services. A consultation is expected in the autumn to gather views on measures to support those affected by local plans, such as a targeted scrappage scheme for car and van drivers.

Charging polluting vehicles should be a last resort, says Government

The Government says local authorities should only consider restrictions on polluting vehicles if their action plans are insufficient to ensure legal compliance, and charging should only be considered as a last resort. In addition, “restrictions or charging on polluting vehicles should be time-limited and lifted as soon as air pollution is within legal limits and the risk of future breaches has passed.”

£2.7bn to improve air quality

The Government says it is committing £2.7bn in total to reducing vehicle emissions and improving air quality, including investments in the development and manufacture of ultra low emission vehicles, and a £100m Clean Bus Technology Fund grant scheme to fund new buses and retrofitting older buses, £40m of which was being made available immediately. A ring-fenced Air Quality Fund of £100m has been allocated to Highways England to help improve air quality on the national road network as part of the Government’s Road Investment Strategy. The fund will be available to 2021 and an article in the Independent reveals how Highways England may spend part of the money, following the publication of its air quality strategy. [36]

Highways England’s air quality strategy, published on 2nd August, says “emissions from diesel vehicles are a significant contributor to the poor air quality at the roadside” and contributes around 77% of the NO2 close to the motorway network. [37] The agency is investing in a three-year programme from 2015 to 2018 which will deliver around 50 continuous monitoring stations across the road network to provide real time air quality information. It is also exploring the possibility of using physical barriers to pollution by testing a a new polymer material with the potential to clean the air. If the tests are successful, it will consider using the material to build canopies which would cover stretches of its road network. The agency says it started trialling a physical air quality barrier in 2015 which covered a 100-metre stretch of the M62, “initially 4 metres high and raised to 6 metres in early 2016.” It then carried out a trial of a barrier incorporating an innovative polymer material with the potential to absorb NO2. The strategy document says: “We are using these trials to investigate if barriers can help contribute to improving air quality for our neighbours. The results from the monitoring of such trials will help us understand if this has been a success with the potential to implement barriers on our network. We are also investigating if we can reduce the costs to construct a canopy, which is a tunnel-like structure designed to prevent vehicle emissions reaching our neighbours, to make this a viable solution.”

The agency has also set a target of putting a charging point for ultra low emission vehicles every 20 miles on 95% of the road network. However, according to the Independent, the Automobile Association has expressed concern over the pressure a nation of electric cars would place on the National Grid, with a warning “it would have to cope with a mass switch-on after the evening rush hour,” whilst other estimates have suggested around 10 new power stations would need to be built to deal with the increased demand. [38]

The breakdown of the Government’s £2.7bn is detailed in its press release. [39]

Client Earth seeks urgent clarification on the Government’s plan

Reactions to the Government’s latest plans have been overwhelmingly critical. Client Earth’s CEO James Thornton issued a quick response, describing them as little more than a shabby rewrite of the previous draft plans, as mentioned above. “This plan is, yet again, a plan for more plans,” he said. “The Government is passing the buck to local authorities to come up with their own schemes as an alternative to clean air zones which charge the most polluting vehicles to enter our towns and cities. Yet Defra’s own evidence shows that charging clean air zones would be the swiftest way to tackle illegal levels of pollution.” [40] He highlighted the lengthy timetable for local authorities to develop their plans, the lack of attention to devolved regions, and described the 2040 diesel and petrol ban as a diversion because it failed to deal with the immediate problem of NO2 levels.

Last week, Client Earth wrote to Defra seeking urgent clarification on the plans. In particular, the letter asks for clarity on the guidance given to local authorities concerning how they will evaluate the best ways of bringing air pollution down as soon as possible, “as well as how ministers will ensure that air quality limits are met across England.” [41] Client Earth is also seeking clarity on how Defra will assess plans from the 23 local authorities and how quickly this will be done.

What about the devolved regions?

The law firm has also written to the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland, seeking clarification on their plans. Writing in theHolyrood Magazine, Liam Kirkaldy reports that there are currently 38 Pollution Zones in Scotland, which councils have said are at risk of dangerous levels of air pollution. [42] The number has risen from 35 in 2015. Client Earth has warned that “unless ministers take tougher action then Aberdeen and Edinburgh will not meet legal limits until 2020, and Glasgow will not comply until 2024.” The Scottish Government has published a proposal to trial a first Low Emission Zone in one Scottish city, and Client Earth questions how this will help reduce dangerous levels elsewhere. In a letter to the Scottish Government, the lawyers have asked for “further information on how limit values will be met in the shortest time possible in all parts of Scotland.”

Plan criticised by local authorities

The Government’s plan has been criticised by local authorities, politicians, environmental campaigners, and health experts. According to the Guardian, the leaders of Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Southampton, Leicester and Oxford city councils have written to the Environment Secretary Michael Gove, calling for urgent legislation and a comprehensive scrappage scheme to encourage people to give up diesel vehicles. [43] The plan proposes a limited version of a scrappage scheme targeted at those who most need support, such as people on lower incomes or those living in the neighbourhood of a clean air zone. The letter says that the “updated clean air plan, while indicating long-term ambition, still lacks some specific actions that would enable us to meet the legal limits and establish safer air sooner rather than later.” The article by Rowena Mason and Damian Carrington says that Sheffield Council has called the report “woefully inadequate,” with Jack Scott, cabinet member for transport, reportedly saying he was “highly sceptical that the Government’s announcement even meets their legal duties on air quality.”

Ban on diesel is “highly symbolic”

BBC News reports that Liberal Democrat and former energy secretary Ed Davey described the lack of a scrappage scheme as a “shameful betrayal” of diesel car drivers and said it showed “the utter lack of ambition” in the plan, whilst London Mayor Sadiq Khan said people in London were suffering right now because of air pollution and can’t afford to wait. [44] Sue Hayman, the shadow environment secretary, told the Guardian that here had already been “seven years of illegal air pollution under this Conservative government, who have only acted after being dragged through the courts.” [45] Speaking to Ian Johnston, environment correspondent for the Independent, Gareth Redmond-King, head of climate and energy at WWF-UK, said the proposed ban on petrol and diesel vehicles from 2040 might sound good but will end up being meaningless as drivers will be switching to electric vehicles in any case. “The Government’s been failing to comply with this law for seven years,” he said, “and then is setting itself a target so far in the future that it will be delivered even if the Government did nothing.” [46] Professor Alastair Lewis, of the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at York University, made a similar comment, describing the ban as “highly symbolic”: “Given the rate of improvement in battery and electric vehicle technology over the last 10 years, by 2040 small combustion engines in private cars could well have disappeared without any Government intervention,” he said.

Doctors demand a “more robust response to this public health emergency”

According to the Guardian, senior doctors specialising in child health have also expressed their disappointment at the failure to take more decisive action. [47] Professor Neena Modi, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said there was indisputable evidence demonstrating the tragic effects that air pollution has on the development of the lungs and hearts of children. “Having been told to go back to the drawing board so many times, that the Government’s final air quality plan still lacks sufficiently strong measures to clean our air is frankly inexcusable,” she said. Professor Jonathan Grigg, from the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, also said more urgent action was needed: “The 2040 target means that several generations of children will suffer the long term consequences of inhaling sooty particles and oxides of nitrogen,” he said. “The Government needs to act now, with a faster and more robust response to this public health emergency.”

Other commentators have pointed to the lack of attention to other sources of air pollution. Roger Harrabin, BBC environment analyst, said the Government’s plan did not address pollution from construction, farming and gas boilers. [48] Professor Alastair Lewis, of the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at York University, told the Independent: “There still remain many other urban sources of pollution not only from transport, but also heating, construction, domestic emissions, and external sources of pollution that drift into cities from outside, most notably from the agricultural sector. Some other urban sources of pollution are even on an upwards trend, most notably from wood burning stoves.” [49]

Plan criticised by transport unions

Unions representing the car manufacturing sector have expressed concern over the potential impact on employment when conventional vehicles are phased out. Speaking to the Guardian, Tony Burke, assistant general secretary of Unite, said: “The announcement has wide-ranging implications for the UK economy and future employment prospects of hundreds of thousands of skilled workers. We are calling for a national debate embracing employers, unions and ministers.” [50] And unions representing rail workers have also condemned the Government’s plan, pointing to the recent decision of the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling to abandon plans to electrify parts of the rail network. Speaking to the Independent, Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT, said the proposed ban on petrol and diesel vehicles “exposes the rank hypocrisy of their decision to shelve long-planned rail electrification works. Puffed up news announcements about plans that are a generation away will not mask the reality of scrapped modernisation programmes on our railways in the here and now,” he said. [51]

Environment Secretary responds: “It’s up to local councils to do the hard work,” he says

The Environment Secretary Michael Gove responded to some of these criticisms on the Today programme on BBC Radio Four. [52] On charging motorists to enter clean air zones, he said the idea had been rejected and that it was up to local authorities to come up with imaginative solutions. “I don’t believe that it is necessary to bring in charging, but we will work with local authorities in order to determine what the best approach is,” he said. He described charging as “a blunt instrument,” saying he would prefer to use “a series of surgical interventions.” “That’s both fairer to drivers and also likely to be more effective, more quickly in the areas that count,” he said. On the idea of a scrappage scheme for old diesel vehicles, he said he had no ideological objection to the idea but insisted it was up to local councils to do the hard work and put them forward. “Everyone acknowledges that scrappage schemes in the past have been poor value for money,” he said. “Essentially they pay people for something they are already going to do.”

But speaking for Client Earth, air quality lawyer Anna Heslop said the plan would fail without a national network of clean air zones, which the Government’s own evidence showed would be the most effective option. “We will be holding the Government to account on this,” she said. “They have been in breach of these limits for seven years, and we will continue to do that.” [53]

European Commission: The Final Word?

Whilst the Government’s air quality plan shifts the burden of responsibility onto local authorities, its press release also places part of the blame for rising NO2 levels on the EU. It states: “The UK is one of 17 EU countries breaching annual targets for nitrogen dioxide, a problem which has been made worse by the failure of the European testing regime for vehicle emissions.” Given the fact that the Government was aware of the flawed data in its projections of NO2 emissions, as mentioned above, one can only describe this comment as somewhat hypocritical. It is also ironic given the fact that in February 2014 the European Commission began infringement proceedings against the UK for its failure to reduce NO2 levels. The EC issued a “letter of formal notice” to the UK Government, which is the first stage in a process that could culminate in the imposition of fines by the European Court of Justice. [54] And in February this year, the EC issued the UK with a final warning to comply with air quality laws that have been breached for the last seven years. [55] In a press release, the EC said NO2 emissions were over the legal limit in 16 air quality zones in the UK, including London, Birmingham, Leeds, and Glasgow. According to BBC News, Alexander Winterstein, speaking on behalf of the EC, was asked whether the UK would remain bound by any legal proceedings after leaving the EU. “For as long as the UK is a member of the European Union, rights and obligations apply,” he said. [56] As mentioned above, evidence submitted in court has suggested that the Government’s timetable on this issue is motivated by the prospect of EU fines, rather than the need to comply with a legal requirement in as short a time as possible, and the latest plan does little to suggest otherwise.


Photograph: Hope Street, Glasgow © Copyright Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. The caption says: “According to Friends of the Earth, this is the most polluted street in Scotland for nitrogen dioxide, resulting from vehicle exhaust fumes.” In 2016. the nitrogen dioxide level at Hope Street, Glasgow, was an average of 65µg/m3. See ‘Scotland’s Most Polluted Streets Revealed – 5 New Pollution Zones Declared’, Friends of the Earth Scotland press release, 15/01/2017. Accessed from: https://foe.scot/press-release/scotland-s-most-polluted-streets-revealed-5-new-pollution-zones-declared/.


[1] ‘Plan for roadside NO2 concentrations published’, UK Government press release, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/plan-for-roadside-no2-concentrations-published.
[2] See Martin Goodman, ‘An Air That Kills’, in Client Earth: Building an ecological civilisation, Martin Goodman and James Thornton, London: Scribe Publications, 2017.
[3] ‘Gove falls at first hurdle on air pollution, say environmental lawyers’, Client Earth press release, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/gove-falls-first-hurdle-air-pollution-plans-environmental-lawyers/.
[4] Quoted by Ian Johnston in ‘Why the Government’s plan to ban petrol and diesel cars may not achieve anything’, The Independent, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/petrol-diesel-car-ban-government-air-pollution-2040-may-not-achieve-anything-environment-a7860971.html.
[5] ‘Air Quality Standards’, European Commission, last updated 22/09/2017. Accessed from: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/air/quality/standards.htm.
[6] Implementation of the Air Quality Directive. A study for the European Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety. Nagl, C., Schneider, J., and Thielen, P. April 2016. Accessed as a PDF from: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/578986/IPOL_STU(2016)578986_EN.pdf.
[7] Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution, Royal College of Physicians, February 2016. Available as a PDF from: https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/projects/outputs/every-breath-we-take-lifelong-impact-air-pollution.
[8] Ibid: see [2].
[9] For a summary of the steps leading up to the UK Supreme Court ruling in 2015, see The UK Supreme Court ruling in the ClientEarth case: Consequences and next steps, Client Earth, September 2015. Accessed as a PDF from: https://www.documents.clientearth.org/wp-content/uploads/library/2015-09-17-the-uk-supreme-court-ruling-in-the-clientearth-case-consequences-and-next-steps-ce-en.pdf.
[10] Ibid: see [2].
[11] Ibid: see [5].
[12] As reported by Martin Goodman: see [2].
[13] Ibid: see [12]. For the judgement, see ‘R (on the application of ClientEarth) (Appellant) v Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Respondent)’, Supreme Court Judgements, 29 April 2015. Accessed as a PDF from: https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/docs/uksc-2012-0179-judgment.pdf.
[14] ‘UK Supreme Court orders Government to take “immediate action” on air pollution’, Client Earth press release, 29/04/2015. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/uk-supreme-court-orders-government-take-immediate-action-air-pollution/.
[15] ‘UK Ministers facing new legal action over air pollution’, Client Earth press release, 14/09/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/uk-ministers-facing-new-legal-action-over-air-pollution/. See also the earlier statements: ‘Government Ministers ignoring ruling on air pollution’, Client Earth press release, 11/09/2015, at https://www.clientearth.org/government-ministers-ignoring-ruling-on-air-pollution, and ‘Government releases air pollution plans’, Client Earth press release, 12/09/2015, at https://www.clientearth.org/government-releases-air-pollution-plans/
[16] Ibid: see [2].
[17] Evidence of the Treasury’s involvement emerged at a hearing at the High Court in October 2016. See: ‘Government denied clean air zones to dangerously polluted UK cities’, Client Earth press release, 26/10/2016. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/government-denied-clean-air-zones-dangerously-polluted-uk-cities/.
[18] ‘”Arrogant” UK Government response to air quality will face court challenge’, Client Earth press release, 17/12/2015. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/arrogant-uk-government-response-to-air-quality-will-face-court-challenge/.
[19] ‘ClientEarth takes government back to court over killer air pollution’, Client Earth press release, 18/03/2016. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/clientearth-takes-government-back-court-killer-air-pollution/.
[20] Air Quality, House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, 27 April 2016. Accessed as a PDF from https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmenvfru/479/479.pdf . For a summary, see Damian Carrington, ‘MPs: UK air pollution is a “public health emergency”‘, The Guardian, 27/04/2016, at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/27/uk-air-pollution-public-health-emergency-crisis-diesel-cars.
[21] Ibid [20], Paragraph 43. The EU’s decision to implement ‘real world’ tests was announced in a press release in February 2016. See: ‘Vehicle emissions in real driving conditions: Council gives green light to second package’, European Council press release, 12/02/2016. Accessed from: http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2016/02/12-vehicle-emissions-in-real-driving-conditions-2nd-package/. The European Commission’s regulations on vehicle emissions are summarised in ‘Air pollution from the main sources – Air emissions from road vehicles’ at http://ec.europa.eu/environment/air/sources/road.htm. The EC says: “To deal with high on-road emissions from passenger vehicles, where a significant discrepancy with the laboratory testing has been confirmed in recent years, the Commission has developed the Real-Driving Emissions test procedure, which will apply from 1 September 2017.” On emission limits, the EC says: “Euro 5 and 6 Regulation 715/2007/EC sets the emission limits for cars for regulated pollutants, in particular nitrogen oxides (NOX, i.e. the combined emissions of NO and NO2 ) of 80mg/km.” Part of the problem of setting emission limits is the availability of accurate data on ‘real world’ driving conditions. However, an article in the Guardian which appeared shortly before the Efra report reported that “the most comprehensive set of data yet published” showed that “97% of all modern diesel cars emit more toxic nitrogen oxide pollution than the official limit when driven on the road.” See Damian Carrington, Gwyn Topham and Peter Walker, ‘Revealed: nearly all new diesel cars exceed official pollution limits’, The Guardian, 23/04/2016. Accessed from: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/apr/23/diesel-cars-pollution-limits-nox-emissions. The Guardian report says that the new data followed the publication earlier in the week by the Department for Transport of emissions results for 37 vehicles, “all of which emitted more NOX on the road than the official limit – but the new data covers more than 250 vehicles in more stringently standardised road conditions. The data was collected and published by testing specialists Emission Analytics and is available at http://equaindex.com/.
[22] Damian Carrington, ‘Sadiq Khan joins air pollution court case against UK government’, The Guardian, 26/05/2016. Accessed from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/26/sadiq-khan-joins-air-pollution-court-case-against-uk-government.
[23] Adam Vaughan and Esther Addley, ‘Boris Johnson “held back” negative findings of air pollution report’, The Guardian, 17/05/2016. Accessed from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/17/boris-johnson-held-back-negative-findings-of-air-pollution-report.
[24] Ibid: see [22].
[25] Paragraph 86 in ‘Approved Judgment of the High Court: ClientEarth (Claimant) v Secretary of State for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defendant)’, Citation Number: [2016] EWHC 2740, Case Number: CO/1508/2016, 02/11/2016. Accessed as a PDF from: https://www.documents.clientearth.org/wp-content/uploads/library/2016-11-02-high-court-judgment-on-clientearth-no-2-vs-ssefra-on-uk-air-pollution-plans-ext-en.pdf.
[26] Ibid [25], Paragraph 85.
[27] Ibid [25], Paragraph 66.
[28] Ibid [25], Paragraph 50.
[29] ‘ClientEarth wins air pollution case in High Court’, Client Earth press release, 02/11/2016. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/major-victory-health-uk-high-court-government-inaction-air-pollution/.
[30] ‘High Court gives UK Government 8 months to draw up fresh air quality plan,’ Client Earth press release, 21/11/2016. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/high-court-gives-uk-government-8-months-draw-fresh-air-quality-plan/.
[31] The procrastination episode is detailed in a string of press releases from Client Earth. See:
(a) ‘UK Government makes last-ditch bid to delay essential clean air plans’, Client Earth press release, 25/04/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/uk-government-makes-last-ditch-bid-delay-essential-clean-air-plans/.
(b) ‘High Court orders UK air pollution hearing’, Client Earth press release, 25/04/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/high-court-orders-air-pollution-hearing/.
(c) ‘High Court rules air pollution plans must be published before General Election’, Client Earth press release, 27/04/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/judge-refuses-uk-government-permission-delay-air-quality-plan-til-general-election/.
The UK Government chose not to appeal the High Court ruling. See: ‘Government will not appeal High Court ruling on air pollution plan deadline’, Client Earth press release, 02/05/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/government-will-not-appeal-high-court-ruling-air-pollution-plan-deadline/.
[32] ‘UK Government releases ‘weak’ air quality plans’, Client Earth press release, 05/05/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/uk-government-releases-weak-air-quality-plans/.
[33] ‘ClientEarth challenges UK government’s air pollution consultation’, Client Earth press release, 31/05/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/clientearth-challenges-uk-governments-air-pollution-consultation/.
[34] ‘High Court judgment on air pollution a “shot across the bows” of government’, Client Earth press release, 05/07/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/high-court-judgment-air-pollution-shot-across-bows-government/.
[35] Ibid: see [1].
[36] Grace Rahman, ‘Motorways could be covered with large tunnels to trap pollution’, The Independent, 03/08/2017. Accessed from: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/pollution-motorway-tunnels-cover-roads-air-quality-highways-england-a7874221.html.
[37] Highways England Air Quality Strategy, 02/08/2017. Available as a PDF from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/highways-england-air-quality-strategy. The agency also says it has previously trialled paint that ‘eats’ oxides of nitrogen alongside the road network.
[38] Rob Merrick, ‘Petrol-diesel car ban: Government plan dismissed as “smokescreen” after key air pollution policies dumped’, The Independent, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/petrol-diesel-car-ban-government-air-pollution-2040-policies-michael-gove-environment-groups-deaths-a7860361.html.
[39] Ibid: see [1].
[40] ‘Gove falls at first hurdle on air pollution, say environmental lawyers’, Client Earth press release, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/gove-falls-first-hurdle-air-pollution-plans-environmental-lawyers/.
[41] ‘ClientEarth demands urgent clarification on UK government’s air quality plans’, Client Earth press release, 16/08/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/clientearth-demands-urgent-clarification-uk-governments-air-quality-plans/.
[42] Liam Kirkaldy, ‘ClientEarth calls for clarity on Scottish Government air pollution plans’, Holyrood Magazine, 03/08/2017. Accessed from: https://www.holyrood.com/articles/news/clientearth-calls-clarity-scottish-government-air-pollution-plans. In an earlier press release, Client Earth said the Government’s air quality plan “fails to ensure proper measures will clean up illegal pollution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland” and that it would be raising the lack of detail about the devolved regions at the High Court hearing on 5th July 2017. See: ‘UK Government has a duty to protect all UK citizens from pollution’, Client Earth press release, 03/07/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/uk-government-duty-protect-all-citizens-air-pollution-environmental-lawyers/.
[43] Rowena Mason and Damian Carrington, ‘Government’s air quality plan branded inadequate by city leaders, The Guardian, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/26/governments-air-quality-plan-is-cynical-headline-grabbing-say-critics.
[44] ‘Diesel and petrol car ban: Clean air strategy “not enough”‘, BBC News, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-40731164.
[45] Ibid: see [43].
[46] Ian Johnston, ‘Why the Government’s plan to ban petrol and diesel cars may not achieve anything’, The Independent, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/petrol-diesel-car-ban-government-air-pollution-2040-may-not-achieve-anything-environment-a7860971.html.
[47] Ibid: see [43].
[48] Ibid: see [44].
[49] Ibid: see [46].
[50] Ibid: see [43].
[51] Ibid: see [46].
[52] For a summary, see [38].
[53] Ibid: see [38].
[54] ‘Environment: Commission takes action against UK for persistent air pollution problems’, European Commission press release, 20/02/2014. Accessed from: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-14-154_en.htm. The Commission gave the UK two months to respond before raising the issue with the European Court of Justice, but Client Earth reported in September 2015 that the case was on hold pending the conclusion of the Client Earth case (see [9]).
[55] ‘Commission warns Germany, France, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom of continued air pollution breaches’, European Commission press release, 15/02/2017. Accessed from: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-17-238_en.htm.
[56] ‘Air pollution “final warning” from European Commission to UK’, BBC News, 1151/02/2017. Accessed from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-38980510.

Future of EU Nature Directives still uncertain following appointment of new Environment Secretary

Leaving the EU will help the environment, says Michael Gove

But the Government’s Repeal Bill fails to ease concerns over environmental protection

July 28th 2017

In a speech delivered in Woking at the UK headquarters of the WWF on Friday 21st July, Michael Gove, the new Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, presented his vision of a ‘Green Brexit.’ Michael Gove was appointed to the role on Sunday 11th June, following the General Election on Thursday 8th June 2017 and the subsequent Cabinet reshuffle. His appointment prompted a storm of protest, anger and dismay among environmental groups and campaigners, and was labelled as “bad news” by Liberal Democrat MP Ed Davey, formerly Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the coalition government. Speaking to the Guardian, he said it was like “putting the fox in charge of the hen house.” Anyone who cared about the environment should be “deeply worried” by Gove’s appointment, he said. [1]

The Back Story: Michael Gove and climate change

In his former post, Ed Davey had a fundamental disagreement with Michael Gove in 2013 when Gove, then serving as Education Secretary, wanted to remove climate change from the National Curriculum for Geography, arguing that it should be taught as a topic within science. Michael Gove said this was part of a drive to slim down an unwieldy curriculum and to give teachers more flexibility, but he was forced to abandon the plans after a sustained campaign from environmentalists and teachers and intensive lobbying by Ed Davey, who argued that the topic would be downgraded by the plans, while the existence of climate change would be made more problematic as a result. [2] Responding to Gove’s appointment, environmentalists were also quick to point out that Michael Gove had a poor track record when it came to voting on important environmental issues, including measures to tackle climate change. In May 2016, for instance, Michael Gove voted not to reduce the permitted levels of carbon emissions from new homes. [3]

EU Habitats Directive is “holding back development,” says Michael Gove

Michael Gove has also criticised the rationale of the EU Nature Directives and suggested that these could be scrapped once the UK leaves the EU. On Wednesday 22nd March this year, a week before the Government presented its intention to leave the EU by triggering Article 50, Michael Gove spoke to a business audience at an event in Central London hosted by Advertising Week Europe. “If there are regulations which hold any business here back, we now have the potential to amend or even if necessary rescind them,” he said. He singled out the EU Habitats Directive in particular, and said that EU rules concerning the building of new homes in environmentally sensitive areas, including his own constituency, were holding back developments:

“I am very, very keen – I may be odd in this respect as a Conservative MP – on having more homes built in my constituency,” he said. “It’s a social and economic good. But homes built in my constituency are governed by the Habitats Directive. The Habitats Directive holds that if you build a home within five kilometres of a particular type of terrain, heathland, then you have to allocate, at the same time, something called suitable alternative natural green space to offset the environmental impact.” The directive “massively increases the cost and the regulatory burden for housing development,” he said. “As a result my constituents, and perhaps your children, find homes more expensive and mobility in this country impeded.” [4]

Speaking to the Guardian following his appointment, Caroline Lucas MP, co-leader of the Green Party, said it was hard to “think of many politicians as ill-equipped for the role of environment secretary as Michael Gove. His record of voting against measures to halt climate change and his attempt to wipe the subject from our children’s curriculum show him entirely unfit to lead our country in tackling one of the greatest threats we face… As we enter Brexit negotiations, Gove’s past suggestion we scrap vital EU environmental protections becomes even more concerning.” [5]

But the new Secretary wants to “listen and learn”

However, speaking on the Today programme on BBC Radio Four shortly after his appointment, Michael Gove said that his brief was to enhance the environment and that he wanted to listen and to learn. Martin Harper, the RSPB’s Director of Conservation, was quick to take him up on the suggestion. In an article posted the following day (Wednesday 14th June), he gave examples of five RSPB projects intended to help the new Secretary “devise the right plan to deliver the Government’s manifesto commitment to pass on the environment in a better state to the next generation.” The examples focused on food (the RSPB’s intensive arable farm near Cambridge, which has helped to increase the number of farmland birds while also maintaining profitability), housing (the RSPB’s partnership with Barratt Homes, beginning with a pioneering housing development at Aylesbury), water (the Sustainable Catchment Management Programme in the Peak District, in partnership with United Utilities), inspiration (the Wallasea Island Wild Coast project in Essex, “the largest managed realignment project in Europe”), and money (the impact of Darwin grants and EU Life funding). [6]

On that Wednesday, Martin Harper met with Michael Gove at Rainham Marshes, one of eleven RSPB reserves on the side of the Thames, and had what he describes as “a great conservation.” Martin Harper says he had been primed beforehand by Michael Gove’s wanting answers to the question: “If we want the UK’s approach to environmental protection and enhancement to be seen as the best in the world, what does that mean and what does it look like at a local, national and global level?” The conversation discussed marine conservation areas, deforestation, environmental supply chains, migratory birds, natural capital accounting, the Common Agricultural Policy, spatial planning, the National Planning Policy Framework, and local nature reserves (among other things). Martin Harper concludes: “While Mr Gove is still only in the fourth day of his new job, he is clearly keen to get out, meet people and see places. He also asked the right questions, took notes and listened. These are good signs.” [7]

Also on that Wednesday (14th June), Dr Euan Dunn, the RSPB’s Principal Marine Advisor, posted an article on new research led by the RSPB which showed a correlation between the breeding success (or failure) of kittiwakes on the Yorkshire coast and the abundance (or otherwise) of sandeels at Dogger Bank. [8] The sandeels are commercially fished by Denmark, under the terms of the Common Fisheries Policy. The research was published in the journal Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems on June 2nd. “There is a lively debate about how the UK should manage its fisheries once the UK leaves the European Union,” Dr Euan Dunn said. And Michael Gove added more substance to this debate when, on July 2nd, he announced the Government’s intention to withdraw from the London Fisheries Convention.

The Common Fisheries Policy and sustainability

The London Fisheries Convention is an agreement between the UK, France, Belgium, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands that allows those countries to fish within 6 and 12 nautical miles of each other’s coastlines. The agreement was signed in 1964 before the UK joined the EU and became party to the Common Fisheries Policy, which allows all EU countries to fish within 12 and 200 nautical miles off the UK coastline. On July 2nd, Michael Gove announced that the Government would be signalling its intention to withdraw from the London Fisheries Convention by triggering the two-year process of leaving. He said that leaving the EU would also mean leaving the Common Fisheries Policy. “We can then extend control of our waters up to 200 miles or the median line between Britain and France, and Britain and Ireland,” he said. The Common Fisheries Policy, which sets fish quotas as well as fishing rights, has been an environmental disaster, he said, “and one of the reasons we want to change it is that we want to ensure that we can have sustainable fish stocks for the future.” [9]

As reported by the Guardian, the news was welcomed by the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, but treated with caution by WWF UK, Greenpeace UK, and environmental lawyers Client Earth. Greenpeace UK said that sustainable fishing would only be achieved by government support for locally-based fishing communities, while Client Earth and the WWF said that maintaining sustainable fish stocks required cooperation and shared management rather than standing alone and unilaterally withdrawing from agreements. [10]

Was Michael Gove still listening and learning? In his keynote speech delivered last week (July 21st), he touched on many of the topics discussed in his conversations with the RSPB, including marine conservation. On fishing, he said that fishing had “powerfully engaged” his emotions, citing his personal connections with the industry. “My father, grandfather and great grandfather all made their living from the sea,” he said. “My great grandfather was a fisherman, my grandfather and father fish merchants. My father’s business closed in the 1980s when I was a schoolboy, one of many that closed after this country accepted EU control of our waters through the Common Fisheries Policy. The CFP has had a profound impact on the UK’s coastal communities. But its most profound impact has been on the sustainability of our fish stocks.” [11]

He said that, though some improvements had been made, it was still the case that 40% of fish stocks in the Atlantic, North Sea and Baltic Sea are being fished at unsustainable levels. By leaving the CFP, he argued, Britain will be taking back control of its territorial waters, “granting access to other countries and allocating quotas all on the basis of what is scientifically sustainable.” This, in turn, he added, should lead to the revival of the UK’s coastal communities and a sustainable fishing industry.

“I am an environmentalist,” says Michael Gove

In this keynote speech, Michael Gove seemed determined to appease the concerns over his appointment and to display his environmental credentials. “I am an environmentalist,” he declared, and his speech was addressed to environmentalists first and foremost. He praised the work of organisations such as the WWF, the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth – many of whom were represented in the audience – for their “campaigning energy and idealism” which he said was “vital to ensuring we continue to make progress in protecting and enhancing our environment.”

He gave two reasons for his environmentalism. “I am an environmentalist first because I care about the fate of fellow animals,” he said. He spoke about drawing inspiration from nature and quoted a number of literary sources in his speech, and he spoke about growing up between the North Sea and the Cairngorms, spending weekends in the hills and weekdays with his head in Wordsworth and Hardy, Gibbon and Edward Thomas, and growing up “with an emotional attachment to natural beauty which inevitably influences my feelings towards questions on everything from architecture to ivory.” But, he said, “I am also an environmentalist because of hard calculation as well as the promptings of the heart.” If we don’t maintain and enhance the natural world around us, he explained, we shall find ourselves facing disaster.

It was in this latter context that he spoke about climate change, citing the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond, and the risks of flood damage, water shortages, enforced migration, habitat destruction, economic disasters, interstate conflict, and many other threats faced by the globe if action was not taken. “Now, it is because environmental degradation is such a threat to future prosperity and security that I deeply regret President Trump’s approach towards the Paris Agreement on Climate Change,” he said. He “sincerely hoped” that the President would have a change of heart. “International cooperation to deal with climate change is critical if we’re to safeguard our planet’s future and the world’s second biggest generator of carbon emissions cannot simply walk out of the room when the heat is on,” he said.

The Common Agricultural Policy and the future of farming

But the main theme of his speech was the opportunities for greater environmental protection, presented by the UK’s decision to leave the EU. He acknowledged that the EU had “in a number of ways” been a force for environmental good: “Our beaches are cleaner, habitats are better protected and pesticides more effectively regulated as a consequence of agreements that we reached since we entered the EU. And I have no intention of weakening the environmental protections that we have put in place while in the European Union.” However, he singled out the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy as “the two areas where the EU has most clearly failed to achieve its stated environmental goals.”

Michael Gove spoke at length on the failings of the Common Agricultural Policy and the future of farming once the UK leaves the EU, restating the Government’s pledge to match the £3 billion that farmers currently receive in support from the EU until 2022. On the failings of the CAP, he said: “The Common Agricultural Policy rewards size of land-holding ahead of good environmental practice, and all too often puts resources in the hands of the already wealthy rather than into the common good of our shared natural environment. It also encourages patterns of land use which are wasteful of natural resources and often intrinsically poor value rather than encouraging imaginative and environmentally enriching alternatives.” He said that farmers themselves had seen how the CAP “holds back productivity, impedes progressive environmental stewardship, and works against their natural instincts.”

He spoke about a recent report from the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change, which suggests that EU-inspired farming approaches have led to soil degradation and decreasing fertility. “The effect is most noticeable in what has been some of our most fertile growing soil in the Fens,” he said, “where a combination of the draining of the peat and the disappearance of hedges and trees over the years has led to a thinning of productive earth. According to the Committee’s report, Britain has lost 84% of fertile topsoil since 1850 and the erosion continues in some areas at between 1cm and 3cm a year.” This was obviously unsustainable, he said, “which is why we need to take the opportunity that being outside the Common Agricultural Policy will give us to use public money to reward environmentally-responsible land use.”

The Government would continue to support farming, he said, not least because the UK is dependent on agriculture for the production of high quality food, and he mentioned hill farmers in particular, saying support was critical for the management of upland areas and landscapes such as the Lake District. However, future government support would depend on reform, he said. Conversations with farmers, landowners, and organisations such as the NFU, had led him to conclude “there is a growing appetite for a new system of agricultural support” which prioritises environmental protection and enhancement. He talked about higher standards of animal welfare, support for woodland creation and the Government’s aim of planting 11m. more trees, and support for protecting the range of habitats that will encourage biodiversity (including heathland, bog, meadow and marsh). “Now doing this well depends on developing the skills and farming practices of landowners and managers,” he said. “And understanding how to create and protect habitats should be as much a part of good farming as understanding the latest crop and soil science.”

Ambition: Michael Gove sets out his vision of a Greener Britain

Raising standards was a recurring theme in Michael Gove’s speech. Leaving the EU presented Britain with the historic opportunity to “establish ourselves as the home of the highest environmental standards,” he said. It opened up the opportunity to review government policies on agriculture, land use, biodiversity, woodlands, marine conservation, fisheries, pesticide licensing, chemical regulation, animal welfare, habitat management, waste, water purity, air quality, “and so much more.” Elsewhere in his speech, marine conservation, soil protection, river management, and bio-security were added to the list. Outside the EU, “there is scope for Britain to be a global leader in environmental policy across the board,” he said. His vision was for Britain to develop “global gold standard policies” which would be informed by “rigorous scientific analysis.” And in setting out a vision of the future, he said: “We should not aim simply to halt or slow the deterioration of our environment. We must raise our ambitions so we seek to restore nature and reverse decline.”

A packed agenda

The list of environmental issues that the Environment Secretary wants to tackle was wide-ranging. It included, for instance, waste management and recycling, with the suggestion that leaving the EU could mean a smarter and more targeted approach to incentivising recycling; one that could be based on environmental impact and value of the material, rather than a weight-based system. In the immediate term, a number of concrete proposals were mentioned, which were at various stages of implementation:

Pollution from plastic products: On the day of his speech (July 21st), the Government would be publishing its response to a consultation on the use of micro-plastics (known as microbeads) in personal cosmetic products, which end up in the oceans with the potential to cause harm to marine life. Legislation on banning the use of such products would be introduced later this year. The Environment Secretary also wanted to reduce the amount of plastic bottles entering UK waters. [12]

The Air Quality Plan: Due to be published at the end of this month following a court ruling. [13]

The 25-year Plan for the Natural Environment, which has been “longer in gestation than a baby elephant”: The Environment Secretary has written to the Chair of the Natural Capital Committee, seeking advice on what the Plan “should aim to achieve and how it should seek to do so,” hopefully including a rigorous methodology for setting goals and reporting success or failure. The Committee has agreed to provide feedback by September 2017, “laying the ground for subsequent publication” by Defra. [14]

The Clean Growth Plan: Due to be launched this autumn 2017 by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The plan “should reinforce our ambition to be the home of the most economically and environmentally ambitious policies in the areas of clean green technology, from energy generation to transport, the circular economy to house building.”

• The Government’s second National Adaptation Programme: In 2018, the Environment Secretary will be publishing “a comprehensive plan of action to improve our resilience to climate change.”

Marine sanctuaries: Plans to complete a ‘Blue Belt’ of marine protected areas around the UK, together with plans for similar areas around Britain’s overseas territories, would see the creation of the world’s largest marine sanctuaries. The aim is to deliver over 4m. square kilometres of protected maritime areas by 2020. The Government will also continue to support the moratorium on commercial whaling, he said.

Defra versus the Government?

Michael Gove did not have long to wait for responses to his speech. Damien Carrington, the Guardian’s Environment Editor, said: “Gove’s vision for the environment is undoubtedly ambitious but it is at odds with much government action – making it real will be a gargantuan task.” [15] To quote one instance, he pointed to an article in the Independent on the Government’s plan to give the UK’s most energy-intensive companies a £130m exemption from the climate change fund, which campaigners argue will mean some of the country’s biggest polluters will end up paying less while ordinary customers will end up making up the difference. [16] This “£130m bung, shifting the costs of supporting new clean energy on to the public,” was announced the day before Michael Gove promised to take on vested interests, he says. On reforming the farming subsidy regime, Damien Carrington said this would also prove a difficult task given that the Government had already demonstrated its inability to pay EU subsidies on time. “Nonetheless,” he concludes, “Gove’s speech was important, rightly placing the environment at the heart of the nation’s and the world’s well-being, prosperity and security.”

Michael Gove has a reputation for dramatic changes of opinion, and it does seem remarkable that it was only in March that he was criticising the EU Habitats Directive for holding back development, singling out heathland in particular as a habitat in his own constituency that was hampering house building. Four months later, heathland joins the list of habitats that “need care and attention if they are to provide homes to the growing diversity of animal and plant life that we should wish to encourage.” ‘Habitats’ are mentioned eight times in his speech. And far from wanting to scrap the EU Nature Directives, he now says habitats are better protected because of EU regulation and he has no intention of weakening the environmental protections provided by the Directives. However, in March he was addressing business and not as a member of the Cabinet; last week he was addressing environmentalists as the new Environment Secretary. Should environmentalists believe that this keynote speech represents a sincere change of opinion based on a period of listening and learning?

Caroline Lucas of the Green Party is sceptical about his environmental credentials. Speaking to the Guardian’s Political Editor Jessica Elgot, she said: “Gove’s overture to the environment might make him sound like a keen defender of nature but his government’s actions suggest that protecting our natural world is a long way from the top of their priority list. There is an environment-shaped hole in the government’s Brexit plans. They failed to announce any kind of environmental protection bill in the Queen’s speech, and we still don’t know how they will transfer enforcement powers from EU institutions to the UK.” [17]

Martin Harper of the RSPB broadly welcomed the speech, saying it showed “personal commitment, a clear analysis as to why nature is in trouble, and an ambition to restore nature.” He also said Michael Gove was right in suggesting that farmers should be rewarded for restoring wildlife and protecting natural resources. [18] However, he also expressed concerns over the legal aspects of leaving the EU. “Michael Gove gave us an indication that he was prepared to look at how you replace the enforcement powers currently provided by the EU,” he says: “To do that he’s going to have to influence the current Repeal Bill to make sure not only do we maintain existing levels of protection afforded by EU law, but also that we work out how to ensure that the laws are then enforced.”

Legal Issues: The Government’s Repeal Bill

The Government’s European Union (Withdrawal) Bill (also known as the Repeal Bill) was published on 13th July. [19] The purpose of the Bill is to transfer all EU law into domestic law so that the law will be the same on the day of departing the EU as it was on the day before. In theory, this sounds like a simple operation, but the situation is far more complicated, as Martin Harper pointed out two weeks ago. Firstly, there is the question of underlying principles, including the “over-arching environmental principles enshrined in European Treaties, such as the polluter pays and the precautionary principle.” [20] If these vital principles are not also translated into domestic law, the UK’s environmental protection will be substantially watered down, he says. The Repeal Bill fails to guarantee that these key environmental principles will be transferred to domestic legislation.

Secondly, there is the problem of delegated powers and scrutiny. The laws cannot be transported in their entirety as they contain references to European agencies and institutions; hence some amendments will have to be made to change those references to new or existing domestic agencies and institutions. The Government plans to give Ministers delegated powers to make such amendments. However, there is no guarantee of parliamentary scrutiny of such changes, or that these delegated powers will not be used to make substantial changes. Additionally, the Repeal Bill fails to provide a guarantee that future changes to these transferred EU environmental laws will be subject to full parliamentary scrutiny, so there is no certainty that delegated powers will not be used in the future to make changes to their scope or their purpose.

Thirdly, there is the question of enforcement. Currently, it is EU institutions that monitor compliance with environmental legislation. Martin Harper says that leaving the EU will leave us with a large gap in governance: “The Repeal Bill fails to provide any certainty as to how important environmental standards and principles will be upheld. Instead an environmental fact sheet accompanying the Bill reiterates the government’s position that future enforcement of environmental protections will be done by judicial review and parliament. This is considerably weaker than the current powers exercised by the European Court of Justice.” [21] The European Court of Justice handles proceedings against EU member states who have failed to comply with their environmental obligations; it also has the power to impose financial penalties for non-compliance. There will be no equivalent enforcement body on leaving the EU.

However, on 3rd July (prior to the Bill’s publication), a group of lawyers announced they were taking steps to ensure that EU environmental protection mechanisms would not be jettisoned after the UK leaves the EU. The lawyers are members of the UK Environmental Law Association (UKELA) and the ‘task force’ is being led by Richard Macrory, Professor of Environmental Law at University College London. Speaking to the Guardian, he said: “The last thing we want to find in Britain is a whole lot of legal gaps in the protections… One of the most important functions of the EU has been to supervise how member states implement their obligations. These processes apply to all areas of law but the majority of cases have been brought in the environmental sector.” [22] On the question of what will replace the monitoring and enforcement role of EU institutions, he said. “The government response to date has been rather unimaginative and minimalist – they say we can rely on judicial reviews brought by NGOs. We will question whether relying on judicial review is a sufficient substitute for a more systematic and independent supervisory function performed by the Commission.”

Writing in the Guardian on the enforcement issue, Sandra Laville summarises the results of a House of Lords inquiry into the impact of Brexit on climate change and the environment. [23] The inquiry concluded that enforcement will need to be underpinned by judicial oversight and that existing domestic judicial review procedures may be inadequate and costly. In short, judicial reviews in domestic courts would not amount to a sufficient enforcement body: “The evidence… strongly suggests that an effective and independent domestic enforcement mechanism will be necessary in order to fill the vacuum left by the European Commission.” Sarah Mukherjee, Environment Director for Water UK (the body that represents water companies), told the inquiry that it was the ability to impose financial sanctions which focused government minds: “Governments pay a lot of attention to the risk of being infracted because it is very expensive and it is not brilliant for your reputation,” she said.

Moving the Goalposts: Limiting access to justice

A judicial review can cost thousands of pounds. Richard Macrory of UKELA compared this with a citizen complaint which an individual can take to the EC for the price of a stamp if they believe their government has not upheld environmental protections or broken laws relating to the environment. In a further development, the UK Government has made it even more difficult to mount legal challenges on environmental issues. Changes to the rules announced last November and introduced in February give judges the ability to increase or decrease the cap on costs midway through a case, making the costs of mounting a legal challenge uncertain. [24] People bringing environmental court cases will also have to provide more financial information. Environmental lawyers Client Earth say this will make an already arduous process even more difficult, while the introduction of uncertainty is contrary to the Aarhus Convention, a UN agreement which the UK has signed and is designed to ensure access to justice for environmental cases.

In response to these changes, Client Earth has joined forces with the RSPB and Friends of the Earth to mount a legal challenge. The case had an initial hearing at the High Court on Wednesday 19th July, two days before the new Environment Secretary made his keynote speech. David Wolfe QC, representing the three organisations, argued that the rules do not follow the spirit of the Aarhus Convention. Client Earth says: “The UK government must ensure environmental cases are not prohibitively expensive and they must remove or reduce financial and other barriers to access to justice.” [25] The case continues.

Given that the Government has now been defeated twice in a legal challenge to its plans to tackle air pollution, it would not be surprising to see a determined effort to defend its moves to make environmental cases more difficult to bring to court. Which is not a strong indicator that “leaving the EU will help the environment.” To quote Michael Gove: “Ultimately, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the energy which powers enterprise, are all threatened if we do not practice proper stewardship of the planet.” Fine words, but government actions make them sound rather hollow.


Photograph: RSPB Rainham Marshes, Visitor Centre © Copyright Paul Farmer and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Three days into his new role as Environment Secretary, Michael Gove met with Martin Harper of the RSPB at Rainham Marshes on 14th June as he embarked on a project of ‘listening and learning.’ Many of the topics discussed found their way into his keynote speech delivered at the WWF UK headquarters on 21st July.


[1] ‘Michael Gove as environment secretary is “fox in charge of hen house”‘, Matthew Taylor, The Guardian, 12 June 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jun/12/michael-gove-entirely-unfit-to-be-environment-secretary-says-greens.

[2] ‘Michael Gove abandons plans to drop climate change from curriculum’, Patrick Wintour, The Guardian, 5 July 2013. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/jul/05/michael-gove-climate-change-geography-curriculum.

[3] ‘Climate Change: Michael Gove generally voted against measures to prevent climate change’, They Work For You. Retrieved from: https://www.theyworkforyou.com/mp/11858/michael_gove/surrey_heath/divisions?policy=1030.

[4] ‘Slash EU regulations on wildlife protection and drug safety trials after Brexit, Michael Gove urges’, Jon Stone, The Independent, 25 March 2017. Retrieved from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-eu-regulations-michael-gove-environment-drugs-a7649041.html.

[5] Ibid: see [1].

[6] ‘A chance for the new Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, to “listen and learn”‘, Martin Harper, RSPB, 14 June 2017. Retrieved from: http://www.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/archive/2017/06/14/a-chance-for-the-new-environment-secretary-michael-gove-to-listen-and-learn.aspx. On the Aylesbury development, see the ENA UK article ‘Barratt Developments and RSPB sign national agreement for wildlife-friendly housing development’.

[7] ‘A chance for the new Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, to “listen and learn” (part 2)’, Martin Harper, RSPB, 15 June 2017. Retrieved from: http://www.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/archive/2017/06/15/a-chance-for-the-new-environment-secretary-michael-gove-to-listen-and-learn-part-2.aspx.

[8] ‘Protecting our Seabirds in Post-Brexit Waters’, Euan Dunn, RSPB, 14 June 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/archive/2017/06/14/protecting-our-seabirds-in-post-brexit-waters.aspx. The research paper ‘Kittiwake breeding success in the southern North Sea correlates with prior sandeel fishing mortality’ was published in Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems and is available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/aqc.2780/full.

[9] ‘UK to “take back control” of waters after exiting fishing convention’, Frances Perraudin, The Guardian, 2 July 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/02/uk-take-back-control-london-fisheries-convention-michael-gove.

[10] Ibid: see [9].

[11] ‘The Unfrozen Moment – Delivering A Green Brexit’, Michael Gove, 21 July 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-unfrozen-moment-delivering-a-green-brexit.

[12] See the ENA UK article ‘New research shows cosmetic products contain large quantities of micro-plastics’.

[13] In April 2015, the UK Supreme Court ordered the UK Government to take immediate action to tackle air pollution following a successful legal challenge from environmental lawyers Client Earth. The lawyers went to court again when the Government’s plans published in December 2015 were deemed inadequate. Client Earth says levels of nitrogen dioxide are over the legal limit in 37 out of 43 zones in the UK, as defined by EU standards. The Government’s latest plans were published two days ago (26th July). For the full saga, see ClientEarth.

[14] On the 25-year plan for the natural environment, see the ENA UK article ‘Defra responds to recommendations of Natural Capital Committee’.

[15] ‘Michael Gove’s green dream: like Brexit, the reality awaits’, Damien Carrington, The Guardian, 21 July 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/21/michael-goves-green-dream-like-brexit-the-reality-awaits.

[16] ‘UK’s most energy-intensive companies to get £130m exemption from climate change fund’, Ian Johnston, The Independent, 20 July 2017. Retrieved from: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/uk-energy-intensive-pollution-companies-climate-change-fund-exemption-targets-regulation-global-a7851326.html.

[17] ‘Michael Gove “deeply regrets” Trump’s approach to Paris climate agreement’, Jessica Elgot, The Guardian, 21 July 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jul/21/michael-gove-farmers-must-prove-they-deserve-subsidies-after-brexit.

[18] ‘A reflection on Michael Gove’s first major environment speech’, Martin Harper, RSPB, 21 July 2017. Retrieved from: http://www.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/archive/2017/07/21/an-ambitious-start-from-michael-gove.aspx.

[19] The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill (commonly known as the Repeal Bill) is available as a PDF from the UK Parliament website at https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/2017-2019/0005/18005.pdf.

[20] ‘Great or otherwise, the Repeal Bill is a big deal for nature’, Martin Harper, RSPB, 12 July 2017. Retrieved from:
. The precautionary principle has a dedicated website at ‘The Precautionary Principle’.

[21] ‘Initial reaction to the Repeal Bill’, Martin Harper, RSPB, 13 July 2017. Retrieved from: http://www.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/archive/2017/07/13/initial-reaction-to-the-repeal-bill.aspx.

[22] ‘Lawyers plan to stop UK dropping EU rules on environment after Brexit’, Sandra Laville, The Guardian, 3 July 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/03/lawyers-plan-to-stop-uk-dropping-eu-rules-on-environment-after-brexit-taskforce-protections-law. For information on the UK Environmental Law Association, see UKELA.

[23] Ibid: see [22]. The House of Lords report which followed their inquiry was published on 14th February 2017 and is available as a PDF from the UK Parliament website at https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201617/ldselect/ldeucom/109/109.pdf.

[24] ‘New UK rules make it harder to bring environmental court cases’, Client Earth, 23 November 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.clientearth.org/new-uk-rules-make-harder-bring-environmental-court-cases/.

[25] ‘New government rules on environmental cases “move financial goalposts”, court hears’, Client Earth, 20 July 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.clientearth.org/new-government-rules-environmental-cases-move-financial-goalposts-court-hears/.