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On 14 May last year, speaking at the Department for Energy and Climate Change, David Cameron said he wanted his to be the ‘greenest government ever’.  That was an ambitious pledge by any standards

But it was also a welcome one – with the growing threats to our countryside and natural environment from development and climate change, and a burgeoning debate about what we should use our land for, we need bold political leadership if we are to pass on a rich and healthy environment to future generations.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England has produced a vision for how we would like the countryside to be in 2026, our centenary year.  We are ambitious and optimistic, looking forward to a countryside more beautiful, tranquil and varied than it is now, where people are more concerned about the quality of life and the health of their local environments.

So, just over a year on from the Prime Minister’s statement, how is the Government doing in living up to his aspirations, and is it setting us on the road towards that better countryside?

The Government’s detractors will point at a number of developments over the last year to suggest not.  Perhaps most prominent in the eyes of the public has been the confusion over what Ministers see as the future for England’s woodlands and forests.  An announcement that sales of public woodland were favoured was followed by a public outcry, a swiftly curtailed consultation and the establishment of an independent Panel of experts to advise the Government on the future of forestry policy.  We wait to see what Ministers’ vision for our woods will be once the Panel has made its recommendations.  And many environmental campaigners – not to mention the millions of people who enjoy National Parks, nature reserves and the wider countryside – are deeply concerned by a ‘Red Tape Challenge’ that appears to categorise all environmental legislation as a bureaucratic burden.  Let us hope common sense prevails and Government Ministers step back from any attempt to undermine our essential environmental protections.

On the plus side, the Government has recently published the first White Paper on the natural environment in 20 years.  There is much in The Natural Choice that is hugely welcome and, if implemented properly and with buy-in from government, it could help not only to protect but to restore our natural environment, linking up attractive landscapes and wildlife-rich hotspots to create a much more diverse, beautiful and wildlife-rich countryside.  To achieve the White Paper’s vision, the Government will need to provide leadership in restoring nature, with support from communities, landowners, local authorities, environmental charities and others.

But some critical decisions that Ministers will take in the coming months will do much to determine whether or not this Government’s legacy is one of better protection for the natural environment.  Our planning system has been one of the great, and often unsung, heroes of environmental protection, helping maintain and improve the distinctive character of both countryside and town and delivering development and housing as well as beautiful landscapes.

The Government has now embarked on major reforms of planning.  The Localism Bill, currently before Parliament, is welcome in many ways, pledging to give communities more say in the way their areas develop.  But these intentions appeared to be undercut by the Chancellor’s statement in his Budget in March that there should be a default ‘yes’ to development proposals.  And Ministers will soon publish a new National Planning Policy Framework, which they say will make the planning system simpler and less bureaucratic.  Early drafts suggest it will offer less protection to the ‘ordinary countryside’ than is currently the case, scrap the brownfield first approach to development and push strongly for planning to deliver economic growth as its primary purpose.  None of this would constitute sustainable development and, unless the Government changes tack, it risks undermining both the Natural Environment White Paper and the Prime Minister’s ambitions to be the ‘greenest government ever’.

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Written by Ben Stafford   
Wednesday, 13 July 2011 09:50


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