By Hope Steadman (she/her)
THE RSPB have termed recent moves by the government as an ‘attack on nature’, a term that has garnered strong public support:
“Make no mistake, we are angry. The new UK Government has launched an unprecedented attack on nature and the laws that protect it. We need to defend our vulnerable and vital wild places, now.” (RSPB, 2022a)
This attack describes four key moves the Conservative government made under the short-lived leadership of Liz Truss, the first of which began on Thursday 22nd September. This was when they announced their plans to potentially rip up numerous environmental laws that were mandated under EU law, pre-Brexit. This was termed the Retained EU Law Bill, threatening removal or amendment of 570 environmental laws covering water quality, air pollution, habitat protection and more (Walpole, 2022). This is particularly damaging from a climate perspective, threatening numerous regulations which previously addressed UK emissions. Crucially this also included the removal of the Habitat Regulations, which have been in place for the last 30 years, which ensure new developments which may harm wildlife and their habitats are stopped or reviewed (RSPB, 2022b). Some have said this is directly opposed to the Conservative’s previous environmental promises, signed by Liz Truss herself - their goal is below:
“Cleaning up our rivers by slashing sewage pollution, tackling plastic waste, and enhancing biodiversity in all new developments are crucial if we are to hand on a better planet to future generations.” (Conservative Environment Network, 2022)
There’s no wonder, then, that this caused such a fierce response. This was, however, just the first of four announcements to come. The very next day, on Friday 23rd September, they published their Growth Plan 2022, with the creation of 38 Investment Zones (HM Treasury, 2022). This significantly challenged past planning rules, and enabled housing to be built with fewer environmental protections in place, to stimulate faster development. For local residents, this could mean removing the protections that could previously be used to stop developments on green spaces in their area. Green spaces are vital for addressing climate change, with trees and plants playing a role in carbon sequestration, and particularly important in urban areas where temperatures are rising fastest. Climate change is also contributing to damaging the biodiversity of our habitats over time, which this shift in policy could worsen further. Road-building was also a large part of the government’s growth plans, earning contestation from transport groups around the country due to the risks of accelerated road-building driving up emissions and increasing car usage.
This is a particularly stark U-turn when compared to the 2019 Conservative Manifesto. Let’s return to some of those promises now. Boris Johnson, then in power, promised to deliver “the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth” (The Conservative Party, 2019). Terming themselves stewards of the environment, they pledged:
“Our Environment Bill will guarantee that we will protect and restore our natural environment after leaving the EU. Because conservation has always been at the very heart of Conservatism.” (ibid.)
The promised ‘investment in nature’ has then been overturned by Liz Truss’s move to accelerate development and habitat destruction in the name of growth. In hindsight, her growth plans in most other areas of the economy were shown to be significantly ill-thought through, hubristic and sadly, comical to other countries around the world.
The third kick in the teeth came from Government plans to scrap the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) for farmers, which was to replace the EU’s CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) payments after Brexit. The CAP gave farmers £2.5bn a year simply for having land. The Government had proposed this would be replaced by ELMS following Brexit, a scheme which would pay farmers to protect the environment on their farms, through activities that benefit the climate and biodiversity, while producing food for the public (Private Eye, 2022). The rollout of the scheme was slow, the eligibility rules unfair and poorly thought through, but now it seems to have been ‘paused’ all together (ibid). Where does this leave farmers, whose CAP payments are slowly filtering out, but with no replacement to sustain their income? Rumours of the Government returning to a CAP-like policy instead have been brewing, but it remains to be seen how our farmers will be impacted amidst the latest political chaos.
The fourth and final revelation came from Jacob Rees-Mogg’s plans to remove the fracking ban, a highly controversial topic. Fracking involves injecting fluid into the ground at high pressures to release the gas inside. Not only is shale gas a fossil fuel contributing to climate change, but this can also risk earth tremours (BBC News, 2022a). Banned in 2019 due to successful protesting, the decision was reversed in September, and the British Geological Survey was ordered to ‘assess the data’ around fracking (BBC News, 2022b). This is not the first time the role of science has been called upon in a highly political way, with the COVID pandemic another clear example of Conservatives falling back on ‘objective’ data.
The Labour government’s attempt to pass a bill to block fracking for good marked the downfall of Liz Truss on 20th October, when even her own MPs said enough is enough. Many thousands of people watched the Daily Star’s livestream of a fresh lettuce, whose shelf life outlasted that of her government. It seems British humour will outlast the very worst of political turmoil. All in all though, this paints a very bleak picture, if not a surprising one. Time will tell what Rishi Sunak’s impact on environmental regulation will be, but for now the void is being filled by wide-spread protest and public anger. The reinstatement of the fracking ban just recently may be a sign to be optimistic about how he will address climate change going forward.
The RSPB’s campaign against the ‘attack on nature’ prompted over 100,000 people to write to their MPs to resist the proposed plans. Several green groups have joined together to oppose the plans. The Financial Times reported the director-general of the National Trust, Head of the RSPB and Chief Executive of the Wildlife Trusts came together for a BBC interview, in which they agreed “all options are on the table” to resist the Government’s attack (Cameron-Chileshe, 2022).
What’s interesting in the response from these groups is both the framing of ‘nature’, and the sheer emotion involved. Take the Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s recent article -
“Nature isn’t an optional extra, we need it in so many ways - to lift our spirits, boost our health and wellbeing, support our farming and fishing and regulate our climate. Nature underpins so many aspects of our lives. Yet, nature is in trouble.” (Walpole, 2022)
Outdoor green space is vital to improve mental health, provide a space for exercise and education, and promote environmental benefits like biodiversity, clean air and curbing the impacts of climate change. Damage to green space, reduced carbon sequestration and increased emissions will all contribute to the acceleration of climate change. Green space is also vital in curbing the effects of climate change, from trees providing flood protection thanks to richer and more stable soils, to their ability to reduce the likelihood of wildfires if the quality of grasslands and moorlands are maintained to inhibit drier conditions setting in.
Urban green space in particular is an environmental justice issue, with studies finding most green space is distributed to benefit predominantly White and well-off communities (Wolch et al. 2014). The proposed Government policies, and their emphasis on accelerating housing development at the expense of nature, is a clear concern for how marginalised groups can access these vital spaces. The green groups fighting back are clear - nature needs protecting from this political attack, and it needs protecting because of the infinite value it brings us, and the severe damage climate change will do to future generations.
The message is very apparent - “we are angry”. These groups have taken to social media with language of “anger” and “attack”, striking a chord with the public through a sustained and energetic combined effort. I’m sure members of the public will be feeling many emotions about the Liz Truss government - anger, frustration, exhaustion, anxiety, fear. Maybe more are feeling disheartened, disengaged and disenfranchised with the political system as a whole.
One thing is for sure though - the campaign, and the public support it has garnered has been inspirational, fierce and enduring. It’s too soon to tell if it will be effective in stopping this dangerous U-turn in policy, but it’s not too late to be a part of the response to make this more likely. The RSPB, for example, are still urging residents to write to their MPs on the issue.
Finishing with their strong words,
“Together, we will not sit back and let this happen. We’ve shown that shoulder-to-shoulder, united in support of nature, we are a force to be reckoned with.” (RSPB, 2022a)
BBC News (2022a) ‘What is fracking and why is it controversial?’ [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14432401 [Accessed: 26 October 2022]
BBC News (2022b) ‘Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng orders scientific review of fracking impact’ [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-60999026 [Accessed: 26 October 2022]
Cameron-Chileshe, J. (2022) ‘UK wildlife groups condemn Liz Truss’s ‘attack on nature’, Financial Times, 12 October. [online] Available at:
https://www.ft.com/content/270e45af-e76c-4518-a5b1-a4b3521487d0 [Accessed: 26 October 2022]
Conservative Environment Network (2022) ‘Conservative Environment Pledge’ [online] Available at: https://www.cen.uk.com/conservative-environment-pledge [Accessed: 26 October 2022]
HM Treasury (2022) ‘The Growth Plan 2022: Investment Zones factsheet’ [online] Available at:
https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-growth-plan-2022-factsheet-on-investment-zones/the-growth-plan-2022-investment-zones-factsheet [Accessed: 26 October 2022]
Private Eye (2022) ‘The Agri Brigade’, Private Eye, 20 October.
RSPB (2022a) ‘The new UK Government is attacking nature – don’t let this happen in your name’ [online] Available at: https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/rspb-news/rspb-news-stories/uk-government-attack-on-nature/ [Accessed: 26 October 2022]
RSPB (2022b) ‘The powerful laws protecting our most important places for wildlife’ [online] Available at:https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/rspb-news/rspb-news-stories/the-powerful-laws-protecting-our-most-important-places-for-wildlife/ [Accessed: 26 October 2022]
The Conservative Party (2019) The Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto 2019. London: Conservative and Unionist Party.
Walpole, M. (2022) ‘Understanding the ‘attack on nature’ – and why we’re doing all we can to #DefendNature.’, Cornwall Wildlife Trust, 30 September. [online] Available at: https://www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/blog/matt-walpole/understanding-attack-nature-and-why-were-doing-all-we-can-defendnature [Accessed: 26 October 2022]
Wolch, J.R., Byrne, J., Newell, J.P. (2014) ‘Urban green space, public health, and environmental justice: The challenge of making cities ‘just green enough’, Landscape and Urban Planning, 125, pp.234-244.