Green Matters: Harnessing the UK's Environmental Improvement Plan – Biosecurity, beauty and heritage

13 minute read
01 March 2023

Over this five-part Green Matters series we have looked, in turn, at each of the 10 stretching goals covered in the UK's Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP) and the considerations and opportunities for businesses. In turning to the final two goals, we focus on the area of biosecurity and aims to enhance beauty, heritage and engagement with the natural environment.

While these will have broader benefits across society, there are a number of implications for business and, in some areas, financial consequences for getting things wrong.

Goal 9: Enhancing biosecurity

Key points

Enhancing biosecurity is critical to protecting public health, wildlife, farm animals, increasing the resilience of plants and trees and bolstering trade. Taking action, such as improving the import regimes and certifications for plants, can reduce the risk of pests, pathogens and invasive non-native species. These can, in a relatively short time, threaten the habitats and eco-systems in the UK that have developed over thousands of years.

Thanks to increased travel and a changing climate, the number of invasive non-native species has increased since 1960. In addition to new plant and animal species, the UK has to cope with pests and pathogens. In 2022, the UK dealt with the largest bird flu outbreak and will be dealing with the costs (natural and economic) of ash dieback, which the Government expects to cost more than £15 billion in the coming decades. The EIP also highlights the plant pathogen, xylella fastidiosa, which could impact over 550 plant species across Europe, affecting annual production by up to €5.5 billlion.

Biosecurity threats can impact human health too – the EIP notes that in the past 30 years, more than 30 new/newly recognised human health conditions have been identified, including the virus responsible for COVID-19. Over 70% of these have been zoonoses - diseases that are transmissible from animals to humans.

Improving biosecurity is clearly fundamental to nature, human health and comes with a very large price tag for getting it wrong.

Reducing invasive non-native species (INNS)

There are more than 2,000 INNS established in Great Britain and last year, the Government committed to reducing the rate of introduction and establishment of INNS by at least 50% by 2030.

It is reported that Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) will work more closely with landowners, industry and voluntary organisations to tackle INNS and will improve enforcement in this regard. The 2014 Grey Squirrel Action Plan (yes, it's a thing!) will be updated with measures to 'manage' grey squirrels in order to reduce the suggested £37 million of damage caused by squirrels.

Plant biosecurity

The Plant Biosecurity Strategy for Great Britain was published at the start of January 2023. The EIP notes that the strategy will be delivered, strengthening the current regulatory regime and ensuring more biosecure plant supply chains, as well as more responsible societal behaviours, are being established. Expect greater testing, possibly import bans, for coffee from certain countries, olive products, lavender, rosemary, and almonds before they are imported.

The Government will also publish an updated Tree Health Resilience Strategy, which will aim to improve the baseline for the diversity, health and condition of the UK's trees, woods and forests.

Animal health

The EIP notes a need to continue to drive forward standards in the health and welfare of animals on farms, with a focus on the eradication of endemic diseases among cattle, pigs and sheep. The EIP also addresses Bovine TB, with an aim to develop a vaccination programme and to phase out the controversial badger culling policy.

What does this mean for businesses?

Unlike a number of other goals set out in the EIP, the biosecurity goal presents fewer commercial opportunities for businesses. However, the health and financial consequences for all businesses of failing to enhance the UK's biosecurity are clear and alarming – and fresh in our collective minds following the COVID-19 epidemic.

Goal 10: Enhancing beauty, heritage, and engagement with the natural environment

Key points

The EIP ends on a high note – it reminds us that "spending time in nature is part of what makes the UK such a special place". In our recent briefings, we have deliberately focussed on those aspects of the EIP that will have a particular resonance with the commercial world: those who will face new regulation to secure the EIP's objectives. While there will be impacts and opportunities for businesses in relation to goal 10, the main objective is to encourage us to get outside and enjoy nature.

Improve access to nature

By the end of 2024, the Government wants to have a fully walkable England Coast Path – all 2,700 miles of it! It won't just be the headline-grabbing trails addressed, but accessible routes to and through nature will be developed and existing paths will be enhanced, as well as new cycle paths created.

Policy will be promoted by increases in the amount of green and blue spaces for people to enjoy – these will be in both rural and urban areas. It's likely that developers will be required to provide financial contributions to such public open space as part of their schemes, but there may be obligations to provide parks and open space within developments themselves.

Green infrastructure

The EIP recognises that good quality green infrastructure has health and wellbeing benefits, as well as being critical for improving air quality and climate change adaptation (see our earlier article on the future of urban green space). The Green Infrastructure Framework was recently published, setting targets for developers and planners to create green and blue infrastructure as part of their schemes – that framework will be monitored and its impacts assessed.

The National Planning Policy Framework (when amended) will encourage more tree-planting in new developments – lining new streets, in parks, and community orchards. It will also see a new commitment being set to ensure that anyone can reach green or blue spaces within 15 minutes of their home.

Protecting landscapes

Protected landscapes constitute nearly 25% of England's land area and the EIP recognises the value they have for climate, wildlife, and people. Areas of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB) will be rebranded as National Landscapes, and the EIP hopes that two new such areas will be designated and two more extended.

Wellbeing and education

Spending time in the beauty of nature has been recognised as beneficial for the nation's health. A recent initiative to improve mental health (green social prescribing) has benefitted more than 6,000 people and the EIP proposes an ambition to extend social prescribing to benefit over 900,000 people by 2023/24.

The final objective in the EIP relates to education and encouraging children to connect to nature. It's reported that the Department for Education will have a renewed focus on nature and sustainability, bringing climate change into the curriculum; encouraging education providers to think of school land as a "National Education Nature Park" to inspire children to take action to improve their environments; developing a new Climate Action Award in 2023/24; and delivering a Natural History GCSE by 2025.

What does this mean for businesses?

Despite the focus on human enjoyment and wellbeing in goal 10, there are clearly impacts and opportunities for business here too. Most notably, developers will bear the cost and responsibility to deliver much of the proposed green and blue infrastructure. It also seems likely that obligations relating to landscaping provision and public realm improvement will be strengthened to encourage greater and higher quality provision (and these will be quite separate from biodiversity net gain works).

We expect greater calls for developers to contribute to, or provide, improvements to the accessibility of nature, which will typically be offsite. Onsite wellbeing features will be increasingly adopted to differentiate schemes. In addition, developers who can articulate and measure the impact of their proposals on the wellbeing of the communities who live in and near their developments, will surely be at an advantage at Planning Committee stage.

How is our organisation managing its impact on nature?

Throughout this five-part series of articles we have written extensively about the goals outlined in the EIP, which the Government hopes will improve nature. In doing so, we're conscious that, like so many organisations, we are looking hard at the whole spectrum of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) topics relevant to businesses. We have made a great deal of progress in some areas, including climate change, diversity and inclusion and support for our people, but recognise there is more to be done.

The area of 'Nature and biodiversity' forms a key part of our own approach and strategy in relation to ESG. In recognising the challenges to taking direct action in this area across our own premises, we have committed to a public objective in our Carbon Reduction Plan to prepare a 'Nature Plan' by April 2023. This new plan will consider how we can best influence colleagues, clients and suppliers and will tie in with our carbon reduction, wellbeing and community programmes.

In seeking to support a nature-positive approach, most recently we have: supported Walworth Garden (close to our London office) in donating new bee suits; invited bee keepers with portable hives to our premises; distributed 'Beebombs' to our people and at client events; engaged with our local communities through running two nature photography competitions; and held a biodiversity essay competition, challenging university students and graduates to identify ways that law firms could do more. The competition attracted a large number of entries, with the overall winner receiving an expenses paid internship with our Environment legal services team, and the runners-up invited to an open day.

Want to learn more about the new EIP?

For more insight into the 10 goals set out within the EIP, read the full Green Matters series below:

If you'd like to find out more about any of the points raised here or to consider the impact of the EIP for your business or organisation, please contact sustainability partner Ben Stansfield and senior associate Emma Cartledge-Taylor.

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