The DEFRA 25 year plan


Just because you are busy does not mean you are productive. The field of sustainability is broad and complex. The number of things that could be done and need to be done, is seemingly endless. Governments, like businesses and individuals, cannot do them all – we do not have the ‘bandwidth’ - so we need to choose. What exactly it is we are going to get busy doing?

DEFRA (the UK Government Department for Environment and Rural Affairs) has, finally, chosen. The result is a 151-page official document: ‘A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment.’ According to the official press release, DEFRA is going to get busy:

  • Cracking down on plastic
  • Helping wildlife thrive
  • Leading the world in environmental protection
  • Delivering a green Brexit
  • Embedding a ‘net environmental gain’ principle in the building sector
  • Connecting people (including school children) with nature

These are all laudable goals, but are they the right ones? There is plenty to keep DEFRA busy and looking busy. Politically that can often be enough, but presenting a long list of things that have been done and can be done, does not mean that what you are doing adds up to a lot.

It is not all bad though, a lot of debate and cross-department deliberation seems to have gone on into this plan and this is the first time in a while that a Prime Minister has made a dedicated speech about the Environment. It also reflects that DEFRA has been listening (if with quite selective hearing). There are things to grasp onto. But, after two and half years of waiting, it is fair to say that environmental organisations and commentators expected more. While most welcomed the ambition and rhetoric, the feedback ringing in DEFRA’s ears will be that the plan is ‘too little, too late’ (e.g. Friends of the Earth), lacking in teeth (e.g. New Economics Foundation) and, as George Monbiot brilliantly put, over reliant on gimmicks: ‘a plastic free aisle in the supermarkets will not deliver a plastic free isle.’ Oh, and despite a declaration that ‘we will provide international leadership and lead by example in tackling climate change’ (p. 110), the plan mentions the Government’s fracking plans precisely zero times.

The contribution environmental education can make to ‘improving the environment’ is consistently underestimated. Once again, here, it has been overlooked, both by DEFRA and most green commentators. We have grown used to this. Now, there are plenty of mentions of schools and education in the 25-year plan. There is good news for anti-litter educators (p. 91) and the UK’s heritage organisations (p. 113). Chapter three will encourage some in environmental education circles too. It praises forest schools and care farms and commits to the launch of a ‘Nature Friendly Schools Programme’ (p. 75). The #iwill campaign is to have an environmental theme as part of a wider 2019 ‘year of action for our environment’ (p. 80).  So, there are sure to be opportunities for canny environmental educators in the coming years.

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The most interesting, or revealing thing about chapter three though, is its title: ‘Connecting people with the environment to improve health and wellbeing’. One might hope that the aim here is to ‘improve the health and wellbeing’…. of the environment, this is after all a 25-year plan to ‘improve the environment’. The emphasis however, is on using ‘the environment’ as way to improve the health and wellbeing of individuals. As we know, when done well outdoor learning (in its many guises) can be beneficial to individuals and the environment; and therefore, society and the environment more broadly. Chapter three is revealing because when it does talk about encouraging people (young and old) to take action in their environment, the focus is mostly on greening local (mostly urban) environments. It all sounds a bit utilitarian; a ‘let’s improve our immediate environment so that it brings us health and wellbeing benefits’ approach. Will this way of connecting with the environment stimulate society to take action to preserve the environment at a global scale? Will we be altruistically moved to help societies and environments now and in future that we will never meet or visit? There is evidence to say this approach can achieve this, but plenty to say it doesn’t.

Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, cannot plead ignorance on education and he is better placed than most of his predecessors when it comes to influencing the Department for Education. But, the sweeping changes made during his time as Education Secretary dislodged sustainability from a position of some strength in our schools system. It is no great surprise to anyone then that DEFRA is reluctant to champion environmental education. However, it may be worth highlighting to DEFRA that to ‘improve the environment’ over a 25-year period, we are going to need motivated, knowledgeable and skilled people capable of implementing and driving through some quite radical changes. Mr Gove has been known to change direction in the past, so may well come round if a few things are highlighted to him:

  • The plan talks about appointing a National Tree Champion (p, 50) and explains how this champion ‘will encourage joined-up thinking on issues for trees’ – joined up thinking about trees is a skill and one we will need lots of people to have. Is a sole ‘encourager’ of it enough? Would it not make more sense to embed the development of joined up thinking on trees (and for that matter ecosystems) in our education system?
  • In the section on ‘expanding the use of natural flood management solutions’ (p. 52) the plan states that DEFRA will be ‘learning from the £15m Natural Flood Management funding to develop our knowledge, identifying and promoting practical solutions for local implementation.’ These learnings and the ability to develop solutions will require a solid grounding in flood management, water systems, climate change and systems thinking ability.  
  • Whatever you think of it as a strategy, Natural Capital based approaches will only be successful if there is, in the words of the plan (p. 144) ‘development of natural capital thinking’. It is a contested and difficult concept, developing thinking in this area requires education in the theory and practice of natural capital and the ability to think critically about its appropriateness as a tool to manage natural resources.

By marginalising environmental education DEFRA and their colleagues in the Education system are running a big risk. We are in danger of failing to develop future leaders with the requisite knowledge, skills and motivation to implement this 25-year plan (let alone one that has more teeth or any that will come after it.)

Lastly, any political plan and policy that follows on from it, needs public support. David Attenborough has done his bit time and time again, but he won’t be with us forever and he hasn’t always tipped the balance. Environmental policy, especially that which requires significant change, has often been met with resistance from large portions of the population. But, public support can and has been won when the public has had a chance to learn in a deep and meaningful ways. This starts in schools, extends in further education and continues through lifelong learning.

I saw a UNICEF tweet on the weekend, they weren’t referring the DEFRA plan, but it resonated with me: ‘Where there is education there is hope.’ Now more than ever we need to embed environmental education into environmental policy making.    

Morgan PhillipsComment