Environment Secretary George Eustice slammed the EU's environmental framework as having "too many reports but not enough action" as he announced the first steps in how the UK will set its own environmental policies.

The Environment Secretary announced plans to launch a new consultation and invest £4 million over a two-year period to boost green spaces, and £5 million in a pilot to establish a new Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment.

"The impacts of this pandemic will be felt deeply for many years, but the experience has also led people to appreciate the difference that nature makes to our lives in a new way. There is an increased awareness of the link between our own health, and that of the planet," he said, speaking at the Green Alliance panel event this morning (July 20).

"We know that a connection with nature contributes to well-being and improved mental health. So starting this autumn, we’ll be investing a further £4 million in a two-year pilot to bring green prescribing to four urban and rural areas that have been hit the hardest by coronavirus and then we want to scale that project up.

When we destroy nature, we undermine our very foundations. Every country faces a choice as they map out their recovery - store up problems by sticking with the status quo, or get back on our feet by building back better and greener.

"In our own country, nature has been in decline for decades. The last breeding populations of Kentish plovers were lost in 1928.

"Between 1932 and 1984, we lost 97% of our species-rich grassland - and heathlands have fared little better.

Five species of butterfly have become extinct in the last 150 years. And our farmland bird indicator stands at less than half its value of 1970 – following a precipitous decline during the 1980s and 90s, and further losses since.

'We can't hide behind the EU'

Eustice said the government’s pledge is not only to stem the tide of loss, but to turn it around and leave the environment in a better state than before.

"In a few months’ time, the Transition Period will come to an end, and the UK will be free to chart a new course...," he said.

We will not be able to hide behind EU law when there are difficult decisions to make or indeed blame the EU when things don’t work. Instead, we must level with people about difficult decisions and take responsibility for delivering the change that is required.

"We will shortly be publishing a paper that sets out our approach to setting long-term targets on biodiversity, waste, water, and air quality through the new Environment Bill, so they are established in time by October 2022.

"We will shortly be launching the appointment campaign for the first chair of the Office for Environmental Protection so that they will be in place to lead a new public body in 2021 – to scrutinise and assess progress towards these targets.

When it comes to our new approach to the environment, we must have an appreciation of what worked in the EU in the past, and also what didn’t work. Where there were approaches inside the EU that helped our environment, we should recognise these and be willing to borrow features from them.

But there is no point leaving the EU to keep everything the same. The old model has not stopped the decline in our natural world.

"We must, therefore, challenge ourselves to think creatively, to innovate and to consciously avoid clinging to processes and procedures just because they are familiar..."

'Too many reports and not enough action'

"Now a few years ago, shortly after becoming a Minister in Defra, I remember being given a huge report running to hundreds of pages setting out exactly what the UK was doing to deliver its obligations under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

"It was a formidable piece of work which listed every piece of legislation we already had including laws like the Protection of Seals Act 1970.

"But a covering note to the document recommended that I need not waste my time reading it because it said nothing new, committed us to nothing we were not already doing, and was mainly a summary of the laws and measures that we already had in place dating back to the 1960s.

When I asked what the purpose of the document was, the answer came back that “it’s just a requirement of EU law”.

"Now, EU environmental law always has good intentions but there are also negative consequences to attempting to legislate for these matters at a supranational level. It tends to lead to a culture of perpetual legal jeopardy where national governments can become reluctant to try new things or make new commitments for fear of irreversible and unpredictable legal risks.

This, in turn, creates a culture where there are frankly too many lawyers and not enough scientists and too many reports but not enough action.

"We should re-balance the way we approach policy development with more focus on science and technical knowledge and less time fretting about legal risks of doing something new or innovative. We should have fewer reports that say nothing new – but more new ideas that we should actually try."

Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment

Eustice also announced a £5 million pilot to establish a new Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment.

The assessment will give a better baseline understanding of habitats and species abundance across the country so better policy decisions can be made.

"We can reduce process while simultaneously improving the quality of the data that informs our decisions," Eustice said.

"We can move quickly to rule out issues that we know don’t exist leaving us time to focus on the protections that matter most for the species and habitats most affected – so we ensure that new developments really do mean a net gain for people and for nature."

New consultation

Eustice also announced plans to launch a new consultation on changing the government's approach to environmental assessment and mitigation in the planning system in the autumn.

"If we can front-load ecological considerations in the planning development process, we can protect more of what is precious," he said.

"We can set out which habitats and species will always be off-limit, so everyone knows where they stand. And we can add to that list where we want better protection for species that are characteristic of our country and critical to our ecosystems that the EU has sometimes overlooked– things like water voles, red squirrels, adders and pine martens.

"We want everyone to be able to access an accurate, centralised body of data on species populations so that taking nature into account is the first, speedy step to an application."