A hedgehog walking through deep leaf litter.

The environment plan also includes a fund that will help to conserve rare species in the UK, including hedgehogs ©Piotr Krzeslak/Shutterstock

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Everyone should live within a 15-minute walk of nature

The UK government has released plans to restore nature and make sure that everyone in England lives within 15 minutes' walk of a green space or water.

The Environmental Improvement Plan includes commitments to create new wildlife habitats and a new fund to protect the nation's rarest species. But some organisations are concerned that it is not going far enough. 

The UK government has announced plans that would mean every person in England will live within a short walking distance of nature.

Unveiled this morning by the UK's Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey, the plan includes commitments to create or restore 500,000 hectares of habitat for wildlife through 25 new or enlarged national nature reserves, restoring 644 kilometres of England's rivers, new targets for reducing plastic, glass, metal, paper and food waste by 2028, and a multi-million-pound 'Species Survival Fund' to protect the nation's rarest species.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, says, 'Protecting our natural environment is fundamental to the health, economy and prosperity of our country.'

'This plan provides the blueprint for how we will deliver our commitment to leave our environment in a better state than we found it, making sure we drive forward progress with renewed ambition and achieve our target of not just halting, but reversing the decline of nature.'

Reversing the decline

The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.

Over the past few centuries, industry, agriculture and urban expansion have done an incredibly efficient job in driving wildlife to the fringes. Where once white-tailed eagles soared over the Chilterns and grey partridges pottered amongst the fields, they have been left clinging on only at the very edges.

The impact of this steady and persistent diminishing of nature is increasingly being felt, as flooding, droughts and heatwaves become more frequent and more severe. But it is becoming clearer that we need to be working with the natural world in order to mitigate these problems.

An aerial view of agricultural fields.

Over centuries, the UK has pushed the natural world to the fringes as agriculture, industry and urbanisation has expanded ©Cristian Teichner/Shutterstock

Tony Juniper, the Chair of Natural England, says, 'We are facing into a series of environmental challenges that are very serious, pressing and which are connected to one another. If we are to take effective action then we will need an ambitious and integrated plan that is geared up to meeting some very challenging targets.'

'This can be done, so long as priority is attached to it and we remain focused on joined-up delivery. Success will not only bring benefits for our depleted natural environment, but also for jobs, food and water security, health and investment.'

The Environment Improvement Plan

The UK government has now released its Environmental Improvement Plan 2023. Its main goals are 'to restore nature, improve environmental quality, and increase the prosperity of [the] country.'

The government sets out to achieve this through a number of different avenues. It will include support to create or restore close to 50,000 kilometres of hedgerows a year by 2037 and establishing 3,000 hectares of new woodlands along England's rivers.

The plan also hopes to tackle sewage spills into the England's rivers with upgrades to 160 waste treatment plants by 2027, while also getting to grips with the increasing pressure on the water system in the face of pollution, housing and the climate crisis. 

A picture looking down a river, fringed on both sides by trees.

The new plan includes the ambition to restore 644 kilometres of England's rivers and establish 3,000 hectares of woodland along their banks ©Glen Berlin/Shutterstock

From November 2023 all Ministers will be required to consider environmental enhancement and protection in all new policies and pieces of legislation. Finally, the plan also commits to the creation of a new fund that will support the conservation of the UK's most threatened species, including red squirrels and hedgehogs.       

But there are concerns that this latest plan is just repeating earlier commitments and not going far enough with what is needed to reverse the UK's loss of wildlife. There are also questions about where the funding will come from.

Craig Bennet, the chief executive of The Wildlife Trust, says, 'The Government promised voters 'the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on Earth' in their 2019 manifesto – but unprecedented nature declines are worsening and there's a big mountain to climb to address the climate emergency. So a plan that matches the Government's earlier ambition is desperately needed.'

'This plan must ensure the whole of Government is acting to halt the chronic loss of nature and tackle this existential threat to our prosperity, our ability to produce food, and to have enough clean water.'

The Wildlife Trust is calling on the government to provide more desperately needed funding, estimating that there is a shortfall in the region of £1.2 billion.

With the populations of many species continuing to decline in the UK without showing many signs of recovery, it will require bold thinking and solid backing to really stop and reverse the dramatic loss of biodiversity seen across much of the country.