The National Forest is set to become a model for improving tree cover across the whole UK, the government has said, as ministers vow to act on promises to plant hundreds of thousands more trees nationwide.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says it wants a 12% level of tree cover in the UK by 2060; and the National Forest - based in Swadlincote but covering 200 sq miles of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire - has helped plant 8.9 million trees over the past 25 years, as well as attracting more than £1 billion of investment.
Planting more trees is just one part of a new Environment Bill due to go before MPs today, along with cleaner air measures and powers to stop the export of plastic waste to developing countries and a charge on a number of single-use plastic items, following in the wake of the successful 5p plastic bag charge introduced in 2015.
Announcing the publication of the bill, Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers said it “sets a gold standard for improving air quality, protecting nature, increasing recycling and cutting down on plastic waste.
“We are facing climate change and our precious natural environment is under threat. We need to take decisive action,” she said.
“This will build on the UK’s strong track record as the first major economy to commit to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and will drive further action in this super year for the environment, culminating in the UK welcoming the world to the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in November in Glasgow.”
The bill enshrines into law the 25-year ‘green plan’ set out by former Prime Minister Theresa May, and includes legally-binding targets which organisations must meet - or face action from a newly-established independent Office for Environmental Protection.
And a review of international advancements in environmental protection will take place every two years, with the UK’s approach incorporating these where needed.
The plans replace the UK’s current obligations under EU law, but allows the country to diverge from EU regulations in future - a position which the government insists will allow the UK to “lead the way” in tackling environmental issues.
On air pollution, Defra has said it would introduce an "ambitious" target to reduce five major pollutants - ammonia, nitrogen oxides, non-methanevolatile organic compounds, fine particulate matter and sulphur dioxide - by the end of this year initially, with a "deeper cut" by 2030.
But it's not yet clear what powers will be available to local authorities to reduce pollution in their areas, and many of these legally-binding targets will not be in place until after the government has led a consultation, likely to end in 2022.
And critics today warned that the bill was too vague, and failed to guarantee that existing rules would not be “watered down” in a post-Brexit Britain.
West Midlands Friends of the Earth campaigner, Chris Crean, said:
“If the government wants to show global leadership on protecting our environment it must set out legal guarantees in the Environment Bill to ensure existing eco-laws aren’t watered down in a post-Brexit world. This bill does not offer that guarantee.
“A strong environmental watchdog is crucial, but will be useless without the resources, independence, and teeth to hold businesses and government to account.
“Measures to stem the tide of plastic pollution pouring into our environment are certainly welcome, but ministers must get to the heart of the crisis by introducing a binding timetable to phase-out the use of all non-essential single-use plastic.”
And Polly Billington, director of UK100 - a network of local council and business leaders focused on clean air - urged ministers to "strengthen" its pledges by setting a definitive deadline.
"We know that 700 people die every week from the effects of toxic air pollution," she said.
"We need to give new powers to local authorities to address this health crisis, including for clean air zones and a national vehicle scrappage scheme to clean up our transport system.
"The Government should strengthen its plans by setting a clear deadline and target for when it will meet the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines on pollution."