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Call to 'catch up' on nature issues

The Government is failing to deliver on most of 20 key environmental commitments, including taking action on flooding, according to an assessment by leading charities.

Ministers are failing to improve flood defences and prevent unnecessary building in areas at high risk of flooding, the second annual analysis by Wildlife and Countryside Link of coalition pledges to look after the natural environment found.

The traffic light assessment also gave the Government a "red" for failing to introduce a carefully managed and science-led badger control policy to tackle TB in cattle and to bring in a ban on wild animals in circuses.

The Government was also judged to have failed on its pledge to ensure marine conservation measures were brought in.

The Nature Check report found the Government is only fully delivering on two, international-focused, commitments to oppose the resumption of commercial whaling and pressing for a ban on ivory sales.

The remaining pledges scored an amber grade, including promises to protect wildlife and promote green spaces, to reform the water industry to improve competition and conservation and maintain the green belt and other protections.

This year's report registered progress on reviewing the direction of forestry and woodland policy, creating a presumption in favour of sustainable development in planning and reforming the planning system to give more control to communities.

But the environmental and wildlife groups warned that without renewed political will and action, the Government was in danger of slipping backwards again.

The coalition's image is suffering as a result of its failures, with just 17% of people polled for the organisations agreeing that it is the "greenest government ever", as pledged by Prime Minister David Cameron when he came to power in 2010.

But people are deeply concerned about the environment, the ComRes survey of more than 2,000 people revealed, with 84% thinking it boosts their quality of life, and more than four fifths (81%) wanting to see it protected at all costs.

Dr Elaine King, director of Link, said the Government was keen to demonstrate leadership on the financial crisis, but Mr Cameron's leadership to protect natural capital was lacking and the public felt the Government was failing on its pledges.

"The Government lags behind public opinion on the environment, as the attempt to sell off our forests demonstrated. It needs to catch up.

"A healthy environment - and the public benefits it brings - is a critical part of everyone's quality of life, not an optional add-on.

"The Government's continued use of rhetoric that promotes growth over the environment is a worrying sign that the fragile progress made so far may not last.

"We want to see the Government recognise the value of nature and ensure that all departments recognise that the natural environment underpins sustainable growth."

She added: "Our poll shows that only a third of the British public believe that the natural environment is less important than economic growth."

In terms of flooding, the Nature Check report warned that flooding could only be tackled effectively by considering an entire catchment, and in isolation flood control could just be moving the problem downstream.

The new funding programme for flooding, which involves contributions from local authorities or private sector sources, makes it harder to get funding for schemes that deliver multiple benefits, for example both reducing flood risk and helping wildlife.

Experts also warn not enough money is being spent on flood defences, and the money that is may not be focused on the highest priorities such as towns rather than agricultural land.

The report calls for more alignment between flood management and other policies, such as protecting nature, and for a halt to building on flood plains, unless vital and approved by the Environment Agency.

A spokesman for the Environment Department (Defra) said the report did not give the Government credit for all the work it had done to protect and enhance the natural environment.

"We have been working on an ambitious programme of policies and we've made good progress across many areas."

The spokesman said the Government had taken forward most of the recommendations of the Pitt Review of the 2007 floods, and that "we are now better prepared than ever to respond to flooding".

He said the Government remained committed to creating a network of marine conservation zones in UK waters, that the badger control policy was "science led", pushed for a greener EU common agricultural policy and radical reform of EU fisheries policy, and was working to bring in a ban on wild animals in circuses.

"We all have a responsibility to protect and improve our environment, and we need to work together to do this.

"We have funded Local Nature Partnerships, and Nature Improvement Areas, both of which provide new opportunities for local people to play a bigger role in protecting and improving the environment in their areas."

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, speaking on BBC Breakfast, said it was "very unfair" to criticise the Government over its work on flood defences, given the "extraordinarily difficult" economic circumstances it had inherited.

"There are always claims on the public purse," he said.

"What you could also give us credit for is the partnership arrangement we have opened up with local government, so we are not just spending 2.17 billion, which is a huge sum over the spending round, and only a 6% reduction, we also have opened up partnerships with local councils which this year alone have brought in over 70 million.

"There are a whole range of schemes which didn't quite make the cut under previous arrangements which will now go ahead. As we speak today, over 50,000 properties have been saved against the current weather which is absolutely exceptional. Over the period of this Parliament, we will protect a further 145,000 properties.

"Given the current financial constraints we are under, that shows the real priority this Government gives to flooding and flood protection."

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