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Red card on environment for 'greenest government ever'

Published on the BBC News website on the 16th September 2014


correspondent, BBC News


Bee and Flower

MPs are critical of the government for failing to protect biodiversity


The government is failing to reduce air pollution, protect biodiversity and prevent flooding, a cross-party body of MPs has said.

The Environmental Audit Committee dished out a “red card” on these three concerns after examining efforts made since 2010.

The MPs said on a further seven green issues ministers deserved a “yellow card” denoting unsatisfactory progress.

The government said it strongly disagreed with the findings.

After coming to power in 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron stated he was committed to leading the “greenest government ever”.

A year later, a natural environment White Paper had the ambition of being “the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it inherited”.

Dirty air

To put these ideas to the test, MPs decided to look at 10 key measures of environmental protection.

On air quality, The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) said the government deserved a red card.

The MPs found that emissions of airborne pollutants rose in 2013 after being steady for a number of years before. Under the terms of an EU directive on dirty air, the UK failed to meet the standards required in 34 of the country’s 43 zones.

This led to the European Commission taking legal action to force a more rapid clean up.

However an assessment carried out by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that London and two other regions would not meet the legal limits until 2030.

“A whole generation of young people in our cities will potentially have their health impaired by pollution before the government meets air quality safety standards,” said committee chairman Joan Walley.

PM River Parrett

The prime minister visiting the site of dredging on the River Parrett

“That is not acceptable. We need to see much more urgent action in this area and we will be looking at this area in more detail when we publish the results of our inquiry later this year.”

On biodiversity, the government also scored red.

The latest sustainable development indicators showed a decline in the counts of three of the four bird populations that are seen as key indicators for the state of the UK’s wildlife. The MPs found that invasive species were also on the rise and becoming more prevalent.

The third red card meted out by the EAC was for flooding and coastal protection.

The committee pointed out that 2.4 million properties are still at risk from flooding from rivers or the sea, while three million are at risk from surface water.

The government’s attempts to deliver natural flood alleviation measures were rated as “consistently poor” by Wildlife and Countryside Link in 2013. Nine of the 24 water areas in England and Wales were said to be experiencing serious water stress.


‘Deeply committed’

In a statement, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) vigorously disagreed with the MPs’ assessment.

“We are deeply committed to improving our natural environment. That is why we will be spending more than £3.2bn – compared to £2.7bn in the last parliament – on protecting the country from floods.

“We are also working to improve air and water quality; and to protect wildlife habitats both on land and at sea.”

The MPs argued that there should be an overarching environmental strategy that would set out a strategic principle that would guide protection over the next five, 10 and 25 years.

To make this work they have proposed a new Office for Environmental Responsibility to advise on appropriate targets and monitor and publish performance against the strategy and its targets.

“I want the parties to use our report as both a wake-up call and a template for the measures that need to be put forward,” said Ms Walley.

“Consistent action by successive governments will help ensure that the benefits of nature are available to future generations as much as they are to ours.”

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

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