Tories fail to protect nature

Lake District
The Tory government in the UK is failing on its promise to protect 30% of land and seas.

The overall narrative from government has been so regressive, and so disappointing. We need to have a more intelligent conversation about growth in this country.

Just 3.2% of UK land and 8% of its seas are meaningfully protected for nature, with barely any added in the past year, according to environmental campaign groups.

In 2020, the government committed to protect at least 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030 – the so-called 30 x 30 target, as part of international moves to set new targets to halt the biodiversity crisis and restore nature.  

But two years later, barely any progress has been made, warns a new report by the Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL) – an umbrella organisation of nature NGOs including WWF and the RSPB. In the past year, the government has added protections to just 0.2% on land and 4% of the seas.


At the time of its pledge in 2020, the government claimed that around 26% of land in England was already protected. It pledged to protect an additional 4% – more than 400,000 hectares, the size of the Lake District and South Downs national parks combined – to reach the target.

However, it included national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) in its total. The WCL argues that these should not be counted towards the 30x30 target.

National parks and AONBs are primarily landscape designations, and are not protected nor managed for nature, it pointed out.

Even land that is managed for nature conservation, such as Sites of Special Scientific interest (SSSIs), Special Protection Areas, Ramsar sites and Special Areas of Conservation were not managed properly.

Only 40% are judged to be in “favourable” condition – the top ranking awarded following assessment – and only 22% have been inspected in the past six years.  


The purpose and governance of national parks and AONBs should be updated to give them a strong focus on recovering nature, WCL said. This was a recommendation of the government-commissioned Glover Review of landscapes, but this has yet to be implemented, despite the government acknowledging that it was necessary.

WCL sees a role for national parks and AONBs to contribute around 10% of the protected lands needed to meet the 30x30 target. A further 10% could come from bringing existing designated land, such as SSSIs, into good condition, as well as expanding the network.

A final 10% needs to be identified from other land designations to be protected for nature. For example, local wildlife sites and reserves and land owned by conservation NGOs could be layered together or strengthened to meet the criteria to be included in the 30x30 target, WCL suggested.

At sea, the official figure for the area designated as a Marine Protected Area stands at 40%. However, WCL calculates that only 8% is effectively protected for nature. More than 90% of Britain’s offshore marine protected areas are still being bottom-trawled and dredged, it pointed out.

The overall narrative from government has been so regressive, and so disappointing. We need to have a more intelligent conversation about growth in this country.

It is calling for an increase in Marine Protected Areas to 20% of seas, with proper management measures and monitoring in place, and a further 10% to be given the stronger designation of Highly Protected Marine Areas (HMPAs). The government has proposed several pilot HPMAs, such as the coast of Lindisfarne in Northumberland and Dolphin Head in the English Channel, but it is not yet clear how many of the sites will be designated.


What little progress has been made in protecting nature is being undermined by the current government’s deregulatory approach, dubbed by NGOs an “attack on nature”.

This includes plans to revoke hundreds of laws that protect wild places and ensure standards for water quality, pollution and the use of pesticides; announce the creation of “investment zones” where planning applications would be exempt from most environmental regulations; and a review of plans to reward farmers for restoring nature and preventing pollution from entering rivers under the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS).

Speaking at an event to launch the report, Beccy Speight, chief executive of the RSPB pointed out that the UK was a founder member of the so-called “High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People”, and as such, needed to set an example to other countries at COP15, the forthcoming UN nature talks in Montreal in December, which aim to secure a new deal on nature, including the 30x30 target.

Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, said that the UK needed a clear project plan to achieve the 30x30 target, with interim targets along the way. “Instead, we see this attack on nature. The overall narrative from government has been so regressive, and so disappointing. We need to have a more intelligent conversation about growth in this country.”

In addition, there is “unquestionably” a move within government, with both ministers and officials, to move from science-based decision making to more political decision making, for example, in the designation of protected areas and species, he said. This would be the next “attack on nature”, he said, and environmental groups need to have it on their radar.


Also speaking at the event, Lord Benyon, government minister for international environment, including the 30x30 target, acknowledged that the government’s messaging on issues such as the review of farming support had been “suboptimal”.

“I cannot be more clear, we are not going back to a system like the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy, which was extremely damaging to the environment,” he said.

“New administrations come and go. ELMS is here to stay, it will and should continue to be amended, and it could transform agriculture if done properly,” he said.  

He added that fears over the loss of EU laws were also unfounded. “I would not be in this job if we were going to have less or no regulation,” he said, adding that some would be “cut and pasted” into UK law.

This Author

Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and chief reporter for The Ecologist. She tweets at @Cat_Early76.

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