Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.
Preserving what is good about our country so we can safely pass it on to future generations is at the heart of Conservatism. It is something that – as Tory MPs – we should all care about. Whether “Leaver” or “Remainer”, North or South, rural or urban, all of us share a common duty to conserve those vital parts of our shared heritage which make Britain great.
Our natural environment – our hedgerows, woods, moors and heaths – is one key element of this shared heritage. Indeed, the preservation of our country as a green and pleasant land is something we can unite around. Lady Thatcher recognised this with her pioneering work on the environment which culminated in the Environmental Protection Act, but this Government has continued this tradition.
From our commitment to Net Zero; to the Prime Minister’s undoubted personal enthusiasm for green projects; to the Government’s 10-point green plan that will transform our economy and will result in the creation of 250,000 new jobs, there can be no doubt in the public’s mind about the Government’s determination to ensure that we “build back greener”, and I believe this mission statement can bring the Party together as we look to deliver on our manifesto over the rest of this Parliament.
The Environment Bill (currently going through the House of Lords) is a worthy next step in the Conservative march towards establishing ourselves as the champions of the environment. It is a truly momentous piece of legislation and contains a number of brilliant policies.
One of those initiatives is “Net Gain”, a world-leading initiative that will ensure that various types of property are developed in such a way that the biodiversity value of the site (i.e. the sum total of habitats currently there) increases at the end of the build. According to the Government’s studies, this will save 9,644 ha of habitat per year, and will create an additional 5,428 ha.
Net Gain has a long history. For years it has been called for by academics and campaigners. The version of the policy set out in the Bill itself has been in development for nearly a decade, and was announced by Michael Gove over two years ago. The eyes of the world are on us as we become the first major economy to take such an ambitious step. Get it right, and countries around the world will start emulating what we’re doing – with major gains for the whole planet. It is very exciting that it is finally about to see the light of day – as long as we don’t allow some in Whitehall to delay this crucial initiative.
Buried away in the response to the response to a recent consultation is a proposal from the Government for a two year “stand still” transition period. In other words, we are about to voluntarily delay this policy. This puts at risk the destruction of 19,288 ha of habitat – that’s over 30,000 football fields. Without a considered rethink, we risk turning a flagship policy we have been developing for 10 years into something that looks like backsliding.
Let me be clear – as often with major policy changes, there are sensible reasons for a transition period. There are various things that have to be prepped – local authorities will need additional resources; there are strong arguments for brownfield sites to be exempt for at least two years; and we need to make sure that small developers can easily access the tools they need to comply with the new rules. But all of these points are arguments for a two year phasing in of the policy, not a two year stand still.
To meet the (rightly) lofty ambitions set by the Prime Minister, the Government should be bold and set out a better plan for the Net Gain transition period. They should announce a phase-in with the details described above, so we can start restoring our environment from next year after the Bill gets Royal Assent.
And they should set out a plan for rolling out the new technologies that small developers can use to comply with these new requirements (an obvious thing for the Government and Natural England to do is to set up an accreditation scheme that reviews and approves these new technical solutions to ease the transition).
If parts of the policy aren’t ready by the time the Bill gets Royal Assent (such as the purchasing of offsite plots and biodiversity credits) then those bits of the policy can be held back. But let’s try and do as much as we can as fast as we can – we shouldn’t stop the whole policy just because one or two bits need a little extra time.
Property developers, both large and small, have rightly welcomed Net Gain. The industry is ready, and we should be too. It is time the Government shows the sort of ambition the Environment Secretary recently championed and that we have committed to in the G7 2030 Nature Compact.
Instead of committing to a course that results in the destruction of 30,000 football fields worth of habitat, let’s announce that we are going to save 30,000 football fields. That would be a worthy next step in the Government’s path, and would turn a potential own goal into a bright, ambitious win which the Party can get behind.