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The general election is just over three weeks away.
It’s the most important election in a generation. A choice not just between parties but between two competing visions of how our country can succeed.
A Tory plan that says we can succeed with just a few at the top doing well.
Where your ability to pay dictates access to almost everything in society, including the benefits of our natural environment.
Or Labour’s plan for Britain’s future – where the many can succeed.
Where we all have access to clean air, clean water, green spaces and protection from flood risk- regardless of wealth.
It’s a choice that matters so much for our green spaces and our natural environment.
David Cameron promised us that he would lead the ‘greenest Government ever’. And people believed him. They believed he was a new kind of Tory.
The coalition Government came to power pledging real progress for nature.
They published a Natural Environment White Paper.
They told us they wanted to leave the environment in a better condition than they found it in.
It all looked so encouraging.
But like so much else with this Government all we have, at the end of this parliament, are broken promises.
You don’t have to take my word for it.
Last year, the Common’s Environmental Audit Committee published its environmental scorecard using a traffic light system to rate this Government’s performance on a range of green policies.
Air Pollution, Biodiversity – RED
Flooding and coastal protection – RED
Emissions and climate change – AMBER
Forests, soils – AMBER
I could go on but you get the picture.
Red and Amber – you won’t find any green on the scorecard of the so called ‘greenest Government ever’.
The Government can try and deny this – they boast that they’ve supported the planting of over 10 million trees, but the EAC report still gave them an amber score.
That’s because they’re only planting half the trees they need to in order to meet their own aspirations.
They like to tell us about how great they’ve been at cleaning up rivers.
But again – an amber score from the EAC because they are set to miss their own target for freshwater improvement.
And their record on access to nature and green spaces is no better.
Over 80 per cent of local park managers have seen their budgets drastically reduced with almost half of local authorities considering the disposal of green spaces to raise funds.
The Forestry Commission report that the number of people visiting the public woodland has declined by about 5 million over the past five years.
Even the Tories’ favourite think tank the Policy Exchange has warned that there is now a risk that the UK’s parks will deteriorate or become spaces that are the preserve of the wealthy.
One thing they have managed to do was set up a Natural Capital Committee – its third report published at the beginning of the year told us that nature is in long-term decline.
But it didn’t have to be like this – they inherited a working plan from the last Labour Government.
Just take the Pitt Review – a detailed plan to help the country properly adapt to climate change.
Labour commissioned that review because we realised after the 2007 floods, an event that created £3 billion of damage, that we weren’t doing enough to deal with flood risk and climate change – something the Tories in opposition agreed with.
We also commissioned the Lawton Review – because despite all the good progress made by the last Labour Government we knew there was more to be done to protect wildlife and habitats.
The final report set out a clear direction of travel to secure nature’s recovery through the development of coherent ecological networks.
It was welcomed by the coalition parties – they told us they agreed with us.
But now both those reports are quietly gathering dust on the Department’s shelves.
The consensus which Labour built has been abandoned by this Tory-led Government.
The truth is that they have been a disaster for the environment because they failed to do what they promised.
Their own scorecard – the Natural Environment Indicators – shows improvements for only 20% of the measures assessed.
Almost all the species-related indicators show no change or have deteriorated. And indicators for public engagement with the natural environment also show no change or have deteriorated.
That is not an environmental record to run on – that’s a record to run from.
It equates to five years of inaction when all the evidence points to the decline of nature – something which is totally unacceptable.
When it comes to action on the natural environment and public access to green spaces the Labour Party has a record to be proud of.
It was a Labour Government in 1949 – tough times with public spending constraints far greater than we’re seeing now – that took the action to create our national parks.
And it was the same Labour Government that set the framework to designate and protect areas of outstanding natural beauty.
We expanded rights of way and public access to open land.
A Labour Government rebuilding the nation in tough times that understood the importance of the natural environment.
Because our Labour values tell us that everyone should have access to nature whoever they are and wherever they live.
These are the same Labour values which led us to the landmark Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000 which opened up new land for public access.
All Labour Governments share these commitments.
Because nature and the power it has to sustain economies and nourish all life should not be preserved just for a privileged few.
As the Environment Secretary in the next Labour Government I want to improve on our proud record.
Just as we did in 1949 we need to rebuild a nation and an economy but also honour our duty to protect and enhance the natural environment.
We need to take action to increase access to nature and green spaces.
And we need to do this at a time of unprecedented threats caused by climate change.
So let me tell you how.
The next Labour Government will pick up the work done in the Pitt and Lawton reviews as part of our plan to develop a new climate change adaptation programme.
Both of those reviews taught us that we must increase our resilience to climate change whilst at the same time enhancing the natural environment.
That means we need to see far more emphasis on rolling out Sustainable Drainage Systems or SuDS: high quality green spaces that can reduce flood risk by absorbing excess water.
To me that’s just common sense and it’s also the best way to get value for money.
Interventions like ensuring we see more SuDS will be at the heart of our new adaptation programme which we’ll publish before the international climate change negotiations take place in December.
We’ll ensure a UK Government led by Ed Miliband goes to Paris with a strong domestic record on climate to support our credibility at the negotiations.
Action on climate is made easier in the UK by the targets and milestones we set ourselves in the carbon budgets.
And we need start doing the same for nature.
I recognise the valuable work done by the Natural Capital Committee and the need to build on its work.
So the next Labour Government will develop a 25 year plan for the recovery of nature.
And it will have clear 5 year milestones to measure progress.
This will be a framework under which public and private sector bodies can integrate decisions about nature into their all their activities.
It’s going to be essential if we are to get the best value for public money.
Now let me be clear that under Labour there will be tough decisions and year on year reductions in the resource budget until the deficit is down and national debt is falling.
But there is a huge difference between our common sense approach to bringing public spending under control and the ideological Tory plan for extreme spending cuts.
George Osborne is planning deeper cuts in the next three years than what he has carried out in the last five.
It’s an extreme approach and the truth is that you cannot protect and improve green spaces and the natural environment on Tory spending plans.
Just imagine what another five years of extreme Tory spending plans would do.
It would be a return to the 1980s when public spaces were synonymous with litter and crime. People too afraid to visit their local park. That’s what a Tory future will bring.
We can’t allow them to take our public parks and green spaces back to the 1980s. That’s why we need Labour’s better plan with common sense spending reductions that allow us to balance the books while preserving the character and quality of our green spaces and public parks.
And to do that we have to ensure the money that we do spend goes much further.
One of the key ways in which the next Labour Government will do this is by giving local authorities the tools to protect nature.
We need to stop environmental problems upstream through better planning.
But under the coalition we have seen critical guidance for green infrastructure scrapped.
That guidance is an essential tool in the protection of nature.
It helps local authorities design-in green spaces and protect habitats to bring nature closer to people.
Without that guidance to underpin it the National Planning Policy Framework is toothless when it comes to protecting nature.
That’s why in January organisations including the Town and Country Planning Association, Groundwork UK and the Landscape Institute wrote to the Government expressing their frustration and concern.
Their letter stated clearly that scrapping the guidance undermines the ambitions set out in the Natural Environment White Paper.
That sounds to me like a Government that has been instructed by the Prime Minister to ‘cut the green crap’
It’s short sighted and shows that they either don’t get it or don’t care.
So the next Labour Government will develop brand new guidance to give local communities the tools they need to protect and improve nature.
And we need a central body to capture and coordinate the best of local authority practice. The ‘Places to be’ report rightly highlights how Natural England has lost its voice and its power under this Government. The next Labour Government will empower Natural England to take a more active role in promoting green infrastructure and to work with those communities who want to do more to protect nature.
Because the Labour Party believes that getting the best for our natural environment requires collaboration and cooperation between different partners.
It’s a totally different approach from the Tory idea that you get the best when Government steps back and lets the market decide.
But perhaps the best illustration of the contrast between Labour and Tory values is our approach to the public forest estate.
David Cameron wanted to privatise our forests.
That’s until he was stopped by half a million people signing the petition against the Tory sell-off plans.
The Government was supposed to have come forward with legislation for the public forest estate by now.
But they haven’t – They told us there wasn’t enough parliamentary time.
That, frankly, is a joke given the lack of legislation and Government business in the last session of what everyone called a zombie Parliament. This is the same Government that wrapped up parliamentary business five hours early one day in February so that the Tories could attend their black and white ball. That’s the fundraising ball where they auctioned off a trip to shoot 500 pheasants for £110,000. It’s not that they ran out of parliamentary time, it’s that they have the wrong priorities.
And it’s because they don’t share Labour’s commitment to green spaces and the natural environment.
In other words they don’t care about protecting our public forests.
And the plans that were being drawn up represent a watering down of the ambitions set out in the final report of the Independent Panel on Forestry.
The campaigning organisation ‘Hands Off Our Forest’ have warned that Tory plans would risk privatisation through the back door.
And because of the extreme spending plans they’ve set out, the Tory threat to our nation’s forests is as real as ever.
That’s why Labour has made it a manifesto commitment to protect our forests, keeping them in public ownership.
And we will reform the forestry commission to increase public access to nature.
In their final report the independent panel called on Government to pioneer a new approach to managing woodland ecosystems.
An approach focused on maximising all the benefits that trees provide to people, nature and the green economy.
A Labour Government will take up this challenge.
We will secure ready access to trees and woodlands by planting them closer to the places where people live.
And Labour will ensure that a coherent and resilient ecological network is created in line with the Lawton Review’s recommendations.
The economic and social case for these reforms is overwhelming, the Natural Capital Committee made that clear in their third report.
But crucially, woodland has to be located near towns and cities.
That’s because of the strong correlation between the quality of the natural environment where people live and their health and wellbeing.
Understanding that correlation is the key to securing the recovery of nature.
Because only when the interdependence of people and nature is understood can we have real consensus on action.
That’s why we need to do much more to bring nature closer to people.
It will be essential if we’re to harness the potential of the active citizenship that the new Fabian Society report talks about.
Because in this country we have a deep inequality of access to nature.
The most deprived communities are ten times less likely to live in the greenest areas.
So the next Labour Government will make extending the benefits of access to nature a priority.
Because everyone should be able to enjoy the benefits of nature.
A good life is impossible without green space and clean air.
That’s why we need to secure the recovery of nature.
And to do that we need a Labour Government.
Because the Labour Party understands that economic success cannot be built by eroding our natural environment any more than by eroding wages or living standards.
We’ve had a wasted parliament under the coalition.
They promised to be the ‘greenest Government ever’ but they ended up ‘cutting the green crap’.
They published a Natural Environment White Paper but they ended up with a red card for their environmental record.
So the next Labour Government will succeed where this one has failed, together working in partnership with others, we will:
Build on the work that we set out in the Pitt and Lawton reviews to develop a 25 year plan to protect and improve our natural environment.
We’ll secure better value for money by focusing on interventions that yield multiple benefits for nature and our climate.
We’ll provide new guidance for local authorities to empower communities to protect nature.
We’ll keep our public forest estate in public ownership.
And increase ready access to trees and woodlands by planting them closer to people.
So that’s the choice. A Tory party that has failed on the environment and with plans for extreme spending cuts that risk the future of our green spaces.
Or Labour’s better plan for working people where everyone can have access to clean air, clean water, green spaces and protection from flood risk- regardless of wealth.