Time is running out to halt the decline of nature by 2030
We only have seven years to achieve our goal of halting nature’s decline, a target vital to not just farmers and nature lovers but all of us.
Declining biodiversity, alongside climate change, is the biggest long-term threat to food production in the United Kingdom. Unless we reverse the trend, our grandchildren may never know the wildlife we grew up with, like starlings or hedgehogs, just as we’ve lost so much of the abundant nature our grandparents enjoyed. We will also be more reliant on food from abroad.
Protecting and effectively managing 30 per cent of our land by 2030 is crucial to achieving our nature goals. Decades of intensive chemical-heavy farming and development have squeezed nature to breaking point. England is not as green and pleasant as it should be because we devote so little space to nature, with vast swathes of our countryside deprived of wildlife that once thrived there due to pollution and habitat loss.
A wildbelt would prevent most development in designated areas but needn’t frustrate our country’s important housebuilding goals
We’re blind to the nature we’ve already lost, not fully realising how quiet our once nature-abundant countryside was even a hundred years ago. Since the Second World War, we’ve lost 97 per cent of our meadows, 80 per cent of our chalk grasslands and more than half of our ancient woodland – all of which were vital habitats and beautiful green spaces for people and wildlife. Two-fifths of species in England have declined since 1970 and 15 per cent face extinction today.
The UK isn’t alone; this is a global problem. Claims that the UN’s COP15 biodiversity summit in Montreal last month was the last chance for nature are not hyperbole. It’s crucial that we achieve the headline goal of protecting 30 per cent of our land for nature by 2030 which countries around the globe have now signed up to. On paper our country is close to delivering on this promise, with 28 per cent of our land protected. But, in practice, we are miles behind as little of it is effectively managed for nature.
Research shows that as little as 5 per cent of our land is effectively managed for nature. Biodiversity is in retreat in large parts of our national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) and other protected sites. Studies have revealed that on average, nature-conserving sites of special scientific interest within our national parks are worse for biodiversity than “unprotected” land. Only 26 per cent of our most important sites for nature are in a favourable condition in national parks compared to 39 per cent nationally.
With little time to achieve our ambition, and many countries following the UK’s lead, it’s time we took a new approach by creating a wildbelt. Our existing land designations are not working. Much of the land people think of as nature-friendly, like the green belt, is not designed to protect nature but to prevent urban sprawl. Our national parks and AONBs are landscape designations rather than explicitly nature conservation areas. While our nature-focused designations are failing to prevent biodiversity decline. We desperately need a new designation specifically aimed at restoring nature.
Establishing a wildbelt is also an opportunity to reconnect people with nature. The poorest households are 40 per cent less likely to live closer to publicly accessible nature-rich green spaces than the richest 10 per cent of households. By establishing wildbelt near towns and cities we can bring wildlife to people, with all the physical and mental health benefits it brings, potentially saving the NHS £2bn a year through nature-delivered public health improvements.
A wildbelt would prevent most development in designated areas but needn’t frustrate our country’s important housebuilding goals. It would sit above most existing designations, such as the green belt, where development is already restricted. Councils should be able to designate wildbelts in their local plans to avoid conflict between new homes and nature recovery. By bringing nature close to people, wildbelts could even complement nearby developments in their area, creating greener communities.
Other designations would still have a huge role to play. National parks make up almost 10 per cent of England’s land, so it’s vital that these special places not only protect the beauty of our landscape for people but actively restore nature. The government should introduce a statutory duty on national parks and AONBs to revive biodiversity and strengthen national park management plans to deliver thriving habitats and wildlife, as recommended by the government-commissioned Landscapes Review.
Delivering these two changes are vital if we are going to achieve our 30 by 30 target and encourage other countries to do the same. That’s why I am picking up the baton from David Simmonds and Gary Streeter, who proposed amendments to the Levelling Up Bill to create a wildbelt and reform national parks and AONBs, respectively. While it may not have succeeded in the House of Commons – although there were supportive sounds from ministers – I hope to succeed in the House of Lords, where I will seek to amend the same Bill to deliver for nature.
There’s no doubt that our country’s ambition for nature inspired other nations to act at COP15 in Montreal. With the right policies, we can deliver this ambition and halt the decline of nature by the end of the decade. I hope my colleagues in the Lords will back these sensible policies and that ministers will soon adopt them.
Lord Randall is a Conservative peer.
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