The 25-year plan for the environment announced by the government today looks fairly weak on paper, and we’re not holding our breath when it comes to implementation. Many people will remember David Cameron’s “hug a husky” moment, and this plan looks like another cynical attempt to try to rebrand the Tories rather than a genuine commitment to improving our environment.
Despite the Tories’ promise to deliver the “greenest government ever”, we’ve had seven years of failure. They cut support for renewables, put us on course to miss climate targets, voted against key environmental protections, and allowed air pollution to escalate into a public health emergency on their watch. After six months of Michael Gove parading around our TV studios, nothing much seems to have changed, apart from the reusable coffee cup he now carries to meetings.
Tackling Britain’s plastic waste crisis is a priority. The government must prove it can turn rhetoric into action – and it should be more ambitious than the target date of 2042. And a mere 13 years after Labour led the way on animal welfare by bringing in the Hunting Act to ban hunting with hounds, the Tories have finally bowed to pressure and changed policy direction on foxhunting and wild animals in circuses.
The U-turn on foxhunting was long overdue, but it came just months after Theresa May publicly stated her support for a free vote on the matter. The prime minister still has a long way to go to reverse the Tories’ abysmal record on animal welfare. The re-introduction of beavers in the West Country is great – but a cynic might suggest this was designed to distract from the fact that the Tories are still slaughtering badgers in a cruel and sloppily managed cull that goes against scientific evidence.
The continued hypocrisy from the Tories is tiresome. Gove likes to talk the talk on animal rights, but when push came to shove in the EU withdrawal bill, he failed to speak up for animals. The publication of their new animal welfare bill was a rushed attempt to backtrack on the government’s mistake of not including animal sentience in the withdrawal bill. Next week Labour will be pushing further amendments to the withdrawal bill to retain and build on current legislation on the environment. Will the government put its warm words into action where it counts, on the floor of the House of Commons, and back our amendments?
The proposed Great Northern Forest made for some good headlines, but right now we are losing ancient woodlands so fast that England is in a state of deforestation. Last year so few trees were planted that the work could have been done by just three people. The Tories haven’t met their own tree planting targets for England in any year since they took power in 2010, and are on course to miss their 2015 manifesto pledge to plant 11m trees by a vast margin.
And let’s remember that this is a government that continues to ignore the will of the majority of the country on energy policy. While the Tories plough ahead with their pet project of fracking the countryside, they have decimated the UK’s solar and wind industries, seemingly punishing their success in driving the transition of our energy system away from dirty and polluting fossil fuels towards clean renewables. Solar enjoys 80% public support, and its falling costs were just on the brink of beating fossil fuels when the Tories pulled the rug out from under this thriving sector, leading to thousands of job losses and scaring off energy investors.
On climate change, one of May’s first acts as prime minister was to scrap the department in charge of dealing with it. She has failed to stand up to Donald Trump, and hasn’t spoken strongly enough for Britain. Gove has also barely mentioned the issue, which is little surprise given his attempts to drop climate change from the curriculum when he was education secretary.
Under Labour’s plans to address the most significant single public challenge we are facing, the Office for Budget Responsibility will be made truly independent of government, and asked to model for the effects of climate change on the public finances. If May wants to be taken seriously on the environment, we need to see fewer press releases and more action.
• Sue Hayman, the Labour MP for Workington, is the shadow secretary for the environment, food and rural affairs