Reviewing party manifestos: Conservative

Here’s the second of our analyses of party manifestos ahead of the General Election on 4 July. We’re responding to the manifestos of the top five political parties by vote share as they are published. 

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Conservative Party manifesto: our view 

On Tuesday 11 June, the Conservative party launched their 2024 General Election manifesto, called Clear Plan, Bold Action, Secure Future. Our policy experts have scrutinised it from a nature and climate perspective.  

The big picture 

In general, this manifesto lacks a coherent vision to recover nature across the UK. This is disappointing, as Nature Can’t Wait. 

Targets for nature 

In this manifesto, the Conservative party recommitted to leaving the environment in a better state for future generations and reminded us that they introduced the ambitious Environment Act whilst in government.  The Act includes ambitious legally-binding targets to halt the decline of nature by 2030. It’s therefore disappointing that there’s no mention of the crucial global commitments they made whilst in power, for example ‘30 by 30’, ensuring that 30% of the world’s land, coastal and marine areas are properly protected by the year 2030. The UK even played a lead role in securing this global target at COP15. But there is no clear plan for how to achieve these targets and we are concerned that the manifesto fails to set out the ambitious actions required to halt and begin to tackle declines in nature.  

On land 

The Conservative party say they want to ‘simplify’ the planning system. Whilst this sounds like an appealing prospect, without any qualification, this risks removing important environmental considerations. These are important for our nature targets, and quality of life. Nature will suffer as a result. ‘Nature Positive’ development, development that works with nature recovery in mind, is possible, but it must be supported by a robust planning system.  

We’re particularly concerned about the proposals relating to abolishing laws around nutrient neutrality. These ensure that housing developments do not add more pollution to water courses, which are already under pressure. Worryingly, this could be very harmful to the environment.  

This manifesto recognises that our beautiful countryside and coastlines are a crucial part of what makes the UK special. We welcome that the Conservatives are committing to leaving the environment in a better state, for future generations. However, restoring and maintaining these natural habitats (which the State of Nature report shows, are not in a good state) depends on them having strong environmental regulators: Natural England and the Environment Agency.  

We’re concerned about proposals on how these regulators will operate, and also about the phrase ‘balanced decisions’. This could mean a number of things. These bodies are vital: they’re a voice for nature and the environment. They also represent the natural environment in the wider decision-making process. Whilst we agree that these bodies need to improve accountability and need clearer objectives, we believe it’s right that regulating and enforcing laws remain their key focus.  

So much of the UK’s land is farmed, and some intensive agricultural practices are key drivers of the decline in our wildlife. Therefore, making sure our farmers are properly supported to manage land in a more sustainable way is vital to the recovery of nature. It’s therefore good to see an extra £1 billion pledged for agriculture across the UK and encouraging that they propose ring-fencing the agricultural budget to ensure it is protected in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.  

However, with the focus of the increased budget exclusively on increasing food production, we’re concerned that the proposals undermine the current focus on supporting all farmers to produce food in a more nature-friendly way, spending public money on public goods. In the past, direct subsidies for food production have shown to be wasteful and environmentally damaging, and recovering our biodiversity and mitigating climate change are essential to our future food security. The best way to ensure food security and boost the resilience of farm businesses isn’t just to produce more: it’s investing in healthy soils, thriving biodiversity, water quality and availability, and consistent and predictable climate we need for long-term food security and resilience. 

We’re therefore also concerned about proposals for a ‘legally-binding’ food security target’ and would want to see more detail. While at first glance this might sound like a welcome proposal, a narrow measure of food security risks negative unintended consequences for people, nature and climate. It’s vital that food security is understood and defined in terms of the health of the natural environment, access to healthy food and resilience to climate change. Without nature, there is no food. 

At sea

We welcome the commitment to consult on expanding the ‘blue belt,’ which creates marine conservation zones around the UK Overseas Territories, protecting vital habitats and unique species in waters under UK jurisdiction. However, the lack of mention of blue carbon, and the vague language around sustainable fishing was disappointing. In addition, there is no commitment to extra funding to expand the ‘blue belt’.  

Access to natural spaces 

The proposal to continue supporting programmes that increase access to green spaces for disadvantaged young people is a good one. But it’s not enough. Nature is vital for the wellbeing of all of us. This should go further – making more spaces for nature in urban and suburban areas and in all new housing developments. This then has benefits for health and wellbeing, for nature, and for mitigating the effects of climate change. Getting people out into the countryside isn’t sufficient. Access to nature should be universal to all of us, wherever we live.  

Therefore, we welcome the commitment to invest in the existing protected landscapes, alongside the designation of a new National Park. But it’s important that the new designations don’t further dilute the funding for protected areas, which is already insufficient. Currently, just 43–51% of the Protected Area network is well-managed for nature.  

It's vital that their proposed reforms to protect landscapes are followed through, so that they can fulfil their full potential for nature. It’s disappointing that the manifesto doesn’t mention urgently bringing forward regulations that the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act 2023 provides for. This Act gives councils powers to act against housing developers who fail to meet their commitments. This would make it much easier to meet environmental targets in National Parks and National Landscapes and help wildlife to thrive.  

We support their proposal to take action on waste crime, such as fly-tipping, impacting protected sites. However, to meet our Environment Act targets for nature’s recovery, and our international obligations, we need to see much more. We need to see investment in the Protected Area network (which includes sites legally protected for nature, such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest) to improve the condition of existing sites and an expansion of the network where a need is identified.

Taking action on climate change

The manifesto references the Nature for Climate Fund and how it will be used to deliver tree planting and peatland commitments. This fund is vital, and whilst we welcome reference to it, we’re concerned that there is no commitment to continue this fund beyond 2025. For decades now, it’s been clear that the cost of inaction on climate change vastly dwarfs the cost of action. There are multiple benefits for people, nature, and the economy. It is very disappointing that this fund is being viewed as an economic burden.  

It's good to see there is a commitment to treble the offshore wind capacity. But offshore wind needs to be planned effectively in terms of location and other pressures in the marine environment removed to create space for offshore wind and to mitigate its effects on nature. There is no reference to how this will be conducted effectively.  

We’re concerned about the proposals to continue with oil and gas licencing from the North Sea. These emissions contribute to climate change  which has major knock-on impacts on wildlife.  

In a nutshell

This manifesto is lacking in detail around nature and the climate, and in some instances, it proposes actions that are actively environmentally damaging. Despite reference to the Environment Act 2021, the manifesto does not contain the building blocks needed to meet the legally-binding targets to halt the decline of nature that the Act contains. However, proposals to expand the blue belt, and invest in offshore wind could be positive moves for nature.  

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