Environment Secretary speech on 25 Year Environment Plan progress

On 19th July 2023, the Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey gave a speech at the Summer Stakeholder Reception held at the Mappin Pavilion at ZSL, where she discussed delivering the goals of the 25 Year Environment Plan

The Rt Hon Thérèse Coffey MP

Well, I should say thank you very much, first of all, Matthew for allowing us to be here. I’m also very grateful to the Prime Minister. I think people try and say that the Prime Minister is not interested in nature, far from it. He’s very interested in our environment. I remember when I was first in Defra as an environment minister and he was in local government, we worked together on the litter strategy, we talked about how these sorts of things affect people’s lives, about how they respect their local environment, and extending that, of course, through his support for all our things like the development of the Local Nature Recovery Strategies, as well as representing one of our most rural constituencies in the country. I think it’s critical to remind ourselves of what he did say in Egypt last year, when he talked about tackling climate - that you can only tackle climate if you also help restore nature.

So I want to assure everybody here, that this is very much still the government’s environmental improvement plan, and that we continue to go from strength to strength I believe in that regard. If I think back just over six months ago, back in chilly January, it was sunny, the sun came out to greet us at the inspiring Camley Street Natural Park in the heart of London, just down the road as I launched that plan. Here we are today in the middle of one of the most splendid parts of our capital of our country. And as Matthew has pointed out, this isn’t just a place to come and see. It’s a place that is constantly thinking about nature around the world. And that is why the extent of what Defra does - in partnership here in the United Kingdom, across Europe and indeed around the world - is really important for our global future.

Defra is at the heart of what we are trying to do and I think what is really important, it’s our Defra family, but also today, here we’ve got a really wide range of people, people who care about birds, people who are dealing with farms, people who are looking after other aspects of wildlife. And they all are part of this tapestry, this picture, this plan to make sure that we as a Conservative government leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it. I’ve been Member of Parliament for thirteen years now and this is my second time in Defra. I’ve said this before, but my years as a member of parliament for Suffolk Coastal felt like the perfect apprenticeship for being a Defra minister, because the part of the world that I’m blessed to represent is rightly famous for its farming, and for its precious habitats on land and offshore. My love for coastal and blue habitats is something that continues to grow. And coming back into parliament, I’m really keen to push all the work that we’re doing with the blue planet fund and indeed what we can do domestically.

I think we’ve shown that in a number of ways already, by designating formally our first three highly protected marine areas which is going to be good for the conservation of fish but it’s also great for what we can do in terms of protecting a precious environment. That’s where we see the interplay between nature, our seagrass, protection of seahorses, marine conservation zones, and how that all helps in protecting our planet. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m mad for mangroves, but sadly we just simply cannot have any in this country. But I’m happy to support them around the world. Indeed, one of the things that I’ve been particularly working on recently is and what more we can do to stimulate our salt marsh, which is our version of mangroves. And I hope that we can continue to develop that. Since 2016, I guess I got my first taste. Within a month, I think I was off to the CITES conference in Johannesburg, and then going to Kruger seeing the different things of what we were doing in terms of that element. This is also an important element of how the Environmental Improvement Plan must play a part in preserving nature, but also working with people and communities in order to make sure that they work together. That’s been the beauty of it.

We need to go even further in how our Environmental Land Management Schemes are working together, working with local communities working with our farmers, who I call the original Friends of the Earth, in order to make sure that we have that interplay. You can see that here in the UK, but also it’s absolutely critical in what we do in many of our international programmes. So tackling illegal wildlife trade around the world was one of my priorities then and making progress on clean air. Using precious finite natural resources more sustainably and designing waste out of our systems, tackling flooding and so much more. Of course, we set out our vision on the 25 Year Environment Plan for that plan for a quarter century, and we are publishing the last of our progress report specifically on that plan today. Now in one of my first speeches as Environment Secretary, I said, I was determined that nature would no longer be the Cinderella of the story any longer in terms of our broader elements and what we’re trying to do to save our planet, because it’s never been clearer that we do rely on nature for everything - for our economic prosperity, our food security, and wellbeing. And nature is at the core of our communities which is why we are committed to leaving it in a better state. I think it’s fair to say when I came into the department, it felt like I had a tough hand and people might remember I was told when I would walk in, you’re going to break the law on Monday by not having these targets ready. It’s great to see Dame Glenys here, by the way. But nevertheless, it was a department that was really fighting hard to deliver multiple elements of what we were trying to do to improve the environment, as well as those legal deadlines. But we had those legal deadlines and we met the one for the Environmental Improvement Plan, thanks to the three massive pieces of legislation that we introduced in the years after Brexit.

These were the Agriculture Act, the Fisheries Act, and of course, the absolutely world leading Environment Act. But we should all rightly be proud of what the United Kingdom has delivered in the last six months since we published our Environmental Improvement Plan, working closely with many of you as our delivery partners, and I know that you want to do more, and I want you to do more. I want us to do that in a collaborative way. But also look at what we’ve achieved since over perhaps a decade. If I think that plastic packaging recycling is up by nearly twenty percentage points in a decade, annual sales of single use plastic carrier bags down by 1.62 billion since 2016. That’s a reduction of 77% and counting, with more bans on the most littered single use items coming later this year. And on air quality, we should also recognise we’ve seen real improvements, including a 73% fall in sulphur dioxide emissions since 2010 and our new plan sets out the next phase of action right across pollutants. We’ve enhanced over ten thousand miles of rivers in the last seven years with much loved species like seals returning to our estuaries. There’s less cadmium and mercury in the water environment. Phosphorus is down 80% and ammonia by 85% in our rivers, compared to 1990 when water companies were privatised. The biggest environmental infrastructure investment from the water sector ever will now help us target action for protected nature sites as part of the new Plan for Water, which is designed to make polluters pay to sort out their mess, and have the clean and plentiful water that we need for people, for farmers and wildlife alike. That’s why we’ve created and restored over a quarter of a million hectares of priority habitats since 2010. That’s an area the size of Dorset, and 28% of the UK now designated as protected areas.

But even beyond protected sites, we’re investing £268 million to create and restore habitats in the last financial year. We’ve also made a positive boost for nature mandatory for all new developments as we build homes across the country. Now in the last planting season alone, we’ve put well over three thousand hectares under canopy. That’s a new record and I understand it is about four million new trees, up 40% on the previous year. We will also extend the public forest estate providing even more woodland and it’s great to see William Worsley here today as well.

So a few weeks ago, I was delighted to announce the new £25 million Species Survival Fund to support thousands more wonderful species, water voles, lapwings all the like by creating connecting and restoring habitats like grasslands, woodlands and wetlands, and the 48 local authorities are being funded to work closely with local communities, landowners and experts and those recovery strategies will map out the areas where our efforts can achieve the greatest impact. Already our schemes supported more than 450 species backed by a five fold increase to £10 million a year for Natural England’s dedicated programme. So with our new duty on public authorities to help conserve and enhance biodiversity, for the first time nature is now absolutely embedded in the heart of decisions that government will take. That is there for the long haul and it is guided by the Environmental principles that we have set out.

As I say, this is thinking about what we’re doing at home but of course our role is around the world as well. So whether it’s our world renowned Darwin Programmes that have been supporting species and communities, pangolins, snow leopards, St. Helena’s rare Cloud Forest, to some of the most important seabird colonies in the world on Gulf Island. We’ve been doing that across 140 countries since 1992. And our £100 million Biodiverse Landscapes Funds is working on some of the world’s most important biomes from the Lower Mekong to the mighty Kavango Zambezi where five countries are working together across the River Basin. We created over one hundred marine protected areas in the last decade and taking us to 178 MPAs, covering 40% of English waters. And I’ve already mentioned the three new highly protected marine areas. Alongside the brilliant blue belts that protect an area of ocean greater than India over the UK overseas territories, from the South Sandwich Islands to Tristan da Cunha. We’re pouring that expertise and experience into the Blue Planet Fund, including support for the vast trans boundary collaboration, protecting over 500 square kilometres of the eastern tropical Pacific. That first made headlines in Glasgow at COP26. That was thanks to a historic collaboration between Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica.

And having led the UK delegation to the conference in Montreal, where our brilliant UK team helped to get a new global nature agreement over the line, we continue to co-lead. And that is a critical way of making sure that this isn’t just about the north, telling the global south how to protect nature when they’ve got a lot more of it than we have. This is about supporting the global ambitions of coalition committed to making sure we secure the action and the finance needed to bring it to life, to bring it to life around the world. Whether that was our global summit at Lancaster house, the very kind reception undertaken by the King at Buckingham Palace. Engagement with the financial sector, we had various receptions at Number 10 and in the city, and launching with our French friends, a new initiative on high integrity, biodiversity credit markets in the recent summit that President Macron hosted. Frankly, I challenge you to find a comparable country anywhere in the world that has done as much as we have domestically and internationally.

One of the things that I’m really clear on is that we need to make sure that we continue that activity. Of course, other people’s minds might turn to the election next year, but we’ve got to keep our eye on the prize and what we can do for the long term. That is why our 25 Year Environmental Plan that we’ve updated is absolutely critical to that. As I said, we talked about biodiversity net gain, that should be in place by November, so that every development puts 10% back more into nature.

Now, one of the things that Defra ministers have been doing a lot of very recently is not necessarily going to zoos, or some of the other activities. But actually we’ve been going around the country to our agriculture shows. And while Trudy, Rebecca and I have just had a little bit of a treat, seeing mummy sloth with a little baby sloth. Or indeed seeing the Sumatran tigers and our other ministers, Lord Benyon and Minister Spencer are undertaking parliamentary activity so they’re mad jealous of our experience. But we have been going around the country and speaking to farmers, because I’m very conscious that the change of the transition that we are seeing with Environmental Land Management schemes is a big one. And it needs to succeed. And of course, farmers will listen to other farmers. That’s why it’s great. Three of our ministers are farmers, and the other two of us we represent very rural constituencies. We know these communities, we know the decisions that they’re considering.

That is why it’s important that we continue to listen to the people who look after 70% of our land in this country, and why we work with them to make it work. Because if we don’t then nature will lose out and we cannot afford for that to happen. Going to Groundswell it used to be like the Woodstock or the Glastonbury of farming, it’s now gone very mainstream, but that’s great because we want what we do to be mainstream, and we will want to bring more farmers with us as we go. I can assure you will like Countryside Stewardship Plus when we put out the details later this year, and a further round of landscape recovery as well as more grants and partnerships, getting cutting edge kit out of labs and into the fields where farmers can really put it to the test.

But their bottom line will always be about producing food. It’s critical that the health and welfare of the animals they tender is top notch and also for the natural environment on which they depend, as well as us too. We will continue. we are undertaking all the work necessary to bring in our due diligence obligations on forest risk commodities, protecting global forests, we will publish the map and the framework about our 30 by 30 commitment. And we will continue to say more about what we’re going to do to restore our vital blue habitats. I’ve already said that I’m passionate about aspects of this, I’m going to do G20 next week in India, in Chennai, and will continue to promote this as being absolutely critical. And I think I’ve got the treat of going to the world’s second largest mangrove forest. I can’t tell you how excited I am. But we need to keep that journey going and that’s why we’ll go to UNGA, we will go to COP28, we’re getting the global environment assembly, we’re seeing the launch next month as well of the fund to accompany the CBD. And we will continue to not just think about the world but to deliver our Environmental Improvement Plan, to deliver the plan for water, and we will not let up on those who harm our environments, who pollute. And we’re relentless in driving improved performance from water companies. Because I expect this better, the public expects better.

While there are many other things I could list, and I’m sure Matthew will give me a list of the things that I haven’t mentioned, one of the things I’m also want to stress is that I will ensure we invest properly in science, and research and evidence that is absolutely vital, to make sure that we continue to understand the measures that we do and the impact that they have. This isn’t about trying to fiddle around with the numbers. This is about making sure future generations have an environment, thinking of our climate changing right around us. Forty plus degrees only 100 miles away in France, while we’ve got rain in July. But nevertheless, it’s why we have to adapt. It’s why we have to be agile. It’s why nature itself adapts. And that’s why we need to continue to make sure we have our focus on this precious Earth. This precious planet. And it’s great we’ve got precious people here who are going to help us deliver. Thank you very much.

Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs
The Rt Hon Thérèse Coffey MP