Government’s 25-year environmental plan is a step forward but lacks urgency

After Theresa May outlined a 25-year environmental plan and vowed to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042, Bram Miller, believes the government needs to implement more short-term and medium-term actions in its strategy, while policy-makers need to harness the power of popular culture to drive change.

Last week the government published its 25-year Environment Plan. As many have said, the final draft provides plenty of positive ambition, but ultimately can’t be judged until more detail is provided - about what will be delivered and when, and how robustly its governance will be. There will be implications for infrastructure, with opportunities for those who opt for early adoption and proactive engagement.

While plastic waste gained most of the publicity, the plan is encouragingly wide-reaching in the topics it covers; addressing issues such as woodland planting, biosecurity protection at borders and, the quality of inland and coastal waters. However the lack of detail within the document makes it difficult to provide a full judgement on the longer-term impact. The upcoming Resources and Waste strategy should provide some of this detail, but much more substance is needed when it comes to delivery and governance mechanisms. For example the paper commits to consulting on an independent statutory body that would have the responsibility of “upholding environmental standards” as well as scrutinising and advising on the plan. This is positive, but only if this body has the authority to hold the government to account. 

The core factor missing from the current plan is a sense of urgency and momentum. We’ve seen recently how the ‘Attenborough effect’ has rapidly driven plastic waste up the political and public consciousness, leading, or at least contributing, towards policy change. Now may be the time to harness the power of popular culture to drive other environmental change such as improving local air quality or improving buy-in for carbon reduction. The relatively long 25-year period is still positive, and necessary as substantive environmental improvements cannot happen quickly. However, there is a distinct lack of short and medium-term actions, which will need to be identified very soon to avoid the plan being labelled as something with vision but no substance. 

It is too early to understand the full implications of the paper for infrastructure, but currently one of the most important aspects is probably the policy to embed the principle of ‘environmental net gain’ into development, including housing and infrastructure. The sector is already grappling with the difficult question of how to measure environmental change (although currently tending to focus on biodiversity), which is technically difficult and requires significantly better environmental asset data than is currently available. 

Moving from net loss, which is common with infrastructure projects and assets, to net gain will require a step change in the prominence of the environment in infrastructure investment and design. Mechanisms such as the designated funds being implemented on the strategic road network will surely need to become the norm. Thinking at both policy and project delivery levels will need to switch towards infrastructure investment being both an enabler for economic growth and a catalyst for environmental improvement. 

The plan will only be successful if resources and finance are provided, from both government and the private sector. The infrastructure sector can show leadership and play a key role here – leading in areas such as measuring natural capital (a highly prominent concept in the plan) and developing green finance initiatives as a way of funding a move to net environmental gain. Time will tell. 

Bram Miller is a technical director at the engineering, design and consultancy company Ramboll.