Just two years ago we had a UK general election and Buglife produced a summary of the manifesto commitments that would affect bees and other little animals that make the planet function. Here we look at the 2017 election manifestos and give you a digest of their wildlife content.
A 2014 survey showed that bee decline was the number one environmental concern of the UK public. The loss of pollinators remains one of the gravest threats to food security and environmental health and MPS often receive more mail on this issue than any other.
The economic and wellbeing reasons for protecting our pollinators and other wildlife are compelling, so our political representatives should take this issue very seriously.
The parties are less committed to conserving bees than they were in the 2015 election. Although three of the main parties retain a mention of bees in their manifestos, the breadth and level of commitment is reduced. The Conservative Party have dropped their commitment to use agri-environment payments “help our bees to thrive”, the Liberal Democrats have dropped their proposal to introduce a new protection for nesting bumblebees and the mentions of bees in the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green manifestos are limited to banning neonicotinoid pesticides.
Given the wealth of scientific evidence that neonicotinoids have devastated our wild bee populations in recent years, banning them is a very sensible measure, and we are delighted that three parties make this commitment, up from the Green Party alone in 2015.
However bees are also suffering due to wild flower loss, air pollution, development pressures, disease and other issues that must also addressed. The actions needed are set out in Buglife’s own Pollinator Manifesto but they are missing from the election manifestos.
Pesticide regulation is even more crucial in 2017 than in 2015 the EU does the heavy lifting on pesticide regulation, but in two years the UK may have to take on this huge responsibility. It does so at a time when the flaws of pesticide regulation have never been more under fire. Acknowledged loop holes in the pesticide approval process have yet to be closed, leaving wildlife exposed to further neonicotinoid type disasters, and the UN Human Rights Committee recently released a report highlighting the breadth of failure of pesticide regulation and calling for a new global treaty. It is not clear how the UK will resource this new work or where the knowledge and experience to protect the public and environment will come from. It is extremely concerning that all the parties have ducked this issue and make no mention of pesticide regulation.
In 2015 the Conservative manifesto appeared to align itself with the pesticide industries desire to water down pesticide regulation and the Green party indicated that they wanted to strengthen pesticide regulation – this is I am afraid all you have to go on this year if pesticides are an important issue to you!
National Habitat Networks
Developing a national network of wildflower meadows is an essential step unfortunately national habitat networks appear to have slipped down the political agenda.
Habitat networks were a commitment in both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat 2010 manifestos, and in May 2010 the coalition agreement committed the Government to “introduce measures to protect wildlife and promote green spaces and wildlife corridors in order to halt the loss of habitats and restore biodiversity.” This commitment was not fulfilled and was dropped from the 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos. In 2015 the Labour Party did promise to “ensure the development of coherent ecological networks to protect wildlife and reverse the decline of pollinators.” but in 2017 this commitment has evaporated. The Green Party is the only party to retain a slimmed down commitment to a national wildlife network committing to “Promote a network of new interlinking local ecological spaces on both land and sea, ensuring that both our wildest places and urban green spaces are protected and allowed to flourish”.
A New Environment Act
Brexit presents the opportunity to put our natural environment on a much stronger footing, but Brexit also erodes environmental protection. To secure a safe and healthy environment after Brexit UK environmental NGOs are clear that new legislation is required to commit us to achieving measurable environmental outcomes, this call has also been made by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee and the Treasury’s Natural Capital Committee.
Four parties have made a commitment to introducing new legislation for nature, but not Labour the Conservatives or the SNP. The Liberal Democrats make a commitment to a wide reaching new Nature Act “to put the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) on a statutory footing, set legally binding natural capital targets, including on biodiversity, clean air and water, and empower the NCC to recommend actions to meet these targets”. This is just one of five Lib Dem green law commitments, as they also commit to Green Transport, Zero-Carbon Britain, Green Buildings and Zero-Waste acts. The Green Party proposal is more focussed on the biodiversity and farming “an Environmental Protection Act to safeguard and restore our environment, protect and enhance biodiversity, promote sustainable food and farming, and ensure animal protection”. Plaid Cymru says they will “update and consolidate Welsh wildlife legislation, creating a new Wildlife Act for Wales”. While UKIP will “safeguard protection for Britain’s wildlife, nature reserves, areas of outstanding natural beauty, countryside, and coastlines in a new Environmental Protection Act”.
NGOs have for some years supported a statutory role for the Natural Capital Committee so that it is able to hold the Government to account its management and protection of natural resources. For the first time one of the parties, the Lib Dems, makes it a manifesto commitment. They do not stop there in legislating to put environmental into the heart of government, also committing to “a Cabinet Committee on Sustainability, chaired by a cabinet minister, establish an Office for Environmental Responsibility to scrutinise the government’s efforts to meet its environmental targets”.
In 2015 the three biggest parties all committed to introducing a 25 year plan to recover nature, only the Conservative Party has retained the commitment although the Green Party has also committed to “a longterm 25 year target for biodiversity, water and air quality”.
Money for Farm Wildlife
Given that Brexit throws into doubt the future of agri-environment payments to help farmers look after wildlife it might have been expected that this would feature strongly in the manifestos. Instead the picture is more ambiguous than in 2015, with only the Green Party making a clear commitment to spend more money on farm wildlife. The Conservatives commit to establishing a new agri-environment scheme but make no commitments about continuing current levels of funding for the scheme.
In 2015 Plaid Cymru, boasted that it has “opposed the maximum transfer of funds” to deliver environmental objectives, but no mention is made of this in 2017.
Brownfield Wildlife Protection
For pollinators and many other endangered species the destruction of sites through development remains a significant cause of declines and localised extinctions. One complication is that while many think of brownfield sites as being ideal places to develop, in practice the definition of brownfield includes many sites that are key to conserving wildlife, but their wildlife importance is often not properly recognised in planning decisions (see this blog for more info).
None of the parties make any statement about protecting brownfield wildlife, and the Lib Dems, Greens and UKIP all make varying commitments to focus future development on brownfield land, with UKIP reaffirming their aggressive 2015 policies towards ‘brownfield first’ development.
The Green Party Land Value Tax pilot proposal is a concern; it could risk applying a strong economic force that would drive the development of sites in sought after locations, regardless of their ‘value’ to wildlife.
One of the problems with the current planning system is the lack of a right of appeal on the basis of environmental harm. The developer can apply and appeal endlessly, but wildlife has no escape route, a single poor decision is terminal. In 2015 both the Greens and Lib Dems proposed a “community right of appeal” linked to the compliance with the Local Plan – while not a solution, this would be a significant step towards a balanced planning system. The Lib Dems have dropped the policy from their 2017 manifesto.
BREXIT and Environmental Legislation
In 2015 the political debate on EU environmental protections was focussed on the Habitats Directive, which was being consulted on at the time. There are no specific mentions of the Habitats Directives in the 2017 manifestos, instead front and centre is the much bigger question of how we will preserve the environmental progress made through the EU in recent decades and secure existing legal protections for the environment.
The parties vary considerably in their level of commitment to existing environmental protections. The Green Party is the front runner with repeated commitments to keep the protections they “will ensure that existing environmental laws are retained, or enhanced, no matter our future relationship with the European Union. We will ensure that important principles – such as the Precautionary and Polluter-Pays principles – are transposed into UK statute books”. The Lib Dems appear resolute, while Labour and SNP are also firm. The Conservative Party want to bring across the protections and review them later. UKIP are the most concerning not only do they state that the “natural environment has suffered as a consequence of EU policy” and say that the UK should repeal EU environmental legislation that has a detrimental effect, while fancifully accusing the Water Framework Directive of causing flooding and killing people.
BREXIT risks hugely undermining the ability of the public to get environmental justice, particularly as new rules in England will severely limit the ability of charities and individuals to hold decision makers to account through Judicial Review. This problem is highlighted by Labour and the Lib Dems, with Labour suggesting the most comprehensive solution “Labour government will consult on establishing an environmental tribunal with simplified procedures to hear challenges to unlawful government decisions, like those made on the air quality strategy, without engaging in prohibitively expensive processes”.
Sustainable Development and Corporate Responsibility
While there are several areas where the environmental commitments in the manifestos look weaker than in 2015, but pleasingly there are some areas where new commitments are made.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals tie all countries in the world into targeted measures to protect the planet for future generations, including reversing biodiversity decline by 2020. After a first mention in the 2015 Lib Dem manifesto, they make their first appearances as manifesto commitments – Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems. Labour take the prize as they are the only party to acknowledge that the Sustainable Development Goals also apply to us, not just other countries!
Concern has been growing that Companies are not pulling their weight on environmental issues, one way to fix this would be to improve the quality of their environmental reporting and ensure board level responsibility for their environmental record. Both Labour and the Lib Dems make a clear commitment to improving the situation and the Conservatives also leave the door open for this to happen. Such a change could profoundly improve how society treats the environment. This is what they say:
Conservative – “Boards should take account of the interests not just of shareholders but employees,
suppliers and the wider community”.
Labour – “Labour will amend company law so that directors owe a duty directly not only shareholders, but to employees, customers, the environment”.
Lib Dems – “Reform fiduciary duty and company purpose rules to ensure that other considerations, such as employee welfare, environmental standards, community benefit and ethical practice, can be fully included in decisions made by directors and fund managers”.
The Conservatives, Lib Dems and UKIP all commit to giving ancient woodlands greater protection from development pressures. A measure which should help highly endangered deadwood beetles and flies!
Conservative – “We will continue to ensure that public forests and woodland are kept in trust for the nation, and provide stronger protections for our ancient woodland.”.
Lib Dems – “Reverse the current sharp decline in the rate of woodland creation by aiming to plant a tree for every UK citizen over the next 10 years, and protect remaining ancient woodlands.”
UKIP – “Current legislation does not go far enough in protecting natural woodland habitats. We will amend the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to give ancient woodlands ‘wholly exceptional’ status, putting them on a par with listed buildings, registered parks and gardens, and World Heritage Sites”.
It is worth noting that in 2015 Plaid Cymru was the only party to commit to tackle the growing problem of invasive species and their associated economic and environmental impact. Despite Brexit potentially offering an opportunity to clamp down on the pathways that are bringing invasive species into the UK, this issue is not mentioned by any of the manifestos.
Other Wildlife Commitments
Of course it’s not just British pollinators and bees that are in difficulty.
Conserving marine life is an urgent priority and Labour, Lib Dems and the Greens commit to or infer they will complete the UK’s network of Marine Conservation Zones (a Blue Belt). The Conservative commitment is a little more ambiguous “continue our work to conserve the marine environment “.
Five other policies from single parties deserve a mention because of their potential to help bugs:-
1) The Conservatives “will help Natural England to expand their provision of technical expertise to farmers to deliver environmental improvements on a landscape scale, from enriching soil fertility to planting hedgerows”.
2) The Conservatives “will continue to lead international action against climate change, and the degradation of habitat and loss of species” and “will champion greater conservation co-operation within international bodies, protecting rare species” and would “work to extend the Biodiversity Convention sign up from UKOTs”.
3) The Lib Dems point out that “Traditional indicators of economic activity such as GDP are poor guides to genuine prosperity and wellbeing.” and “will therefore introduce a National Wellbeing Strategy covering all aspects of government policy, including health, housing and the environment”.
4) UKIP make an extensive commitment to incorporate wildlife into development “UKIP will amend planning legislation to promote inclusion of trees and open space into new developments. The need to build new homes must be countered by the human need to breathe in open, green spaces. We will also require new developments to use permeable or porous surfacing materials for single-storey, ground level domestic car parking and front gardens, so rainwater can drain away to help prevent flooding. Figures analysed by the RAC Foundation show some seven million front gardens now contain concrete and cars rather than flowers and grass”.
5) UKIP also highlights the impacts of plastic pollution on marine life “After years of sunlight and pounding waves, they break down into microplastics which are ingested by plankton, shellfish, shrimp, fish, birds, turtles, other sea animals and ultimately humans. We will investigate the practicality of introducing a deposit scheme on plastic drinks bottles to encourage recycling.” Labour and the Green Party also commit to reducing plastic bottle pollution.
What do the manifestos say on bees and wildlife? – At a glance table.