Deputy Prime Minister speech on the state of UK nature

Nick Clegg gave the keynote speech at the RSPB's State of Nature conference.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Nick Clegg

Highlights of the speech

Watch highlights of the speech by Nick Clegg at State of Nature conference

Full transcript

Like millions across the UK, one of my earliest memories is being sat on the sofa with my parents, eyes glued to the television, as Sir David showed us another of the world’s natural wonders. I still watch with my kids today.

Sir David’s message now, as then, was that nature defines us and must be respected and conserved.

It’s a message that applies as much to Britain’s diverse natural landscape as it does to the rainforests of Borneo and Brazil. From the food we eat and energy we use to the way we live and make our living, our natural environment is an indelible part of who we are as a nation.

For generations, it’s inspired our greatest poets, writers and artists – Keats’ nightingale, Wordsworth’s daffodils, the Brontes’ moors and Turner’s landscapes. In fact, ask anyone to describe our country and, inevitably, their mind will turn to our greatest natural landmarks such as the White Cliffs of Dover, Giant’s Causeway, Scottish Highlands, the majestic peaks of Snowdonia and others.

This connection to nature is critical to our continued well-being and success. It gives us peace of mind. It keeps us healthy. It also provides essential natural services – such as the pollination of crops – without which our economy and society just wouldn’t function.

That’s in addition to the boost it gives industries like UK tourism, which generates billions of pounds for our economy. Every year, around 75 million trips are made to observe England’s wildlife. That’s over 5 times the visits made to watch Premier League football matches.

For too long, however, we’ve taken this valuable natural capital for granted. Only in the last 20 years or so, as more people have become aware of the global threat of climate change, have we begun to fully understand our own environmental impact.

Last year’s State of Nature report identified that 60% of the 3,148 species monitored had declined in the UK over the last 50 years. Around a third has declined strongly.

We’re not just talking about the rarest species here, but some of our most common wildlife. In the last 35 years, we’ve lost more than 2 thirds of the UK’s house sparrow population. That’s a massive decline, contributable to a range of factors such as the destruction of natural habitats, agriculture pressures and increased pollution.

It’s a stark warning. But, despite growing public concern, the natural environment has been allowed to slip down the UK political agenda.

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We believe that everyone, whatever their background, circumstances or political beliefs, has a duty to both help our country grow and secure a more sustainable quality of life for the future.

That’s why the Liberal Democrats joined the coalition government in the first place: to ensure that future generations did not have to pay the price for this generation’s mistakes, economic and environmental.

It’s also why, I was proud to add my backing to Bob – the red squirrel who is campaigning to put nature on the national agenda. I’ll also be encouraging my colleagues and others to do the same at voteforbob.co.uk.

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The serious fact is that, whatever the sceptics want us to think, green growth isn’t a contradiction in terms. Our natural resources are finite so, in the future, the only sustainable growth will be green. We need to start laying the foundations for tomorrow’s prosperity today – making every penny count and using what we have more responsibly.

The State of Nature Report reinforces the point that our environmental future is ‘a choice not a fate’ – American environmentalist, Donella Meadows. And that working together – whether as government, NGOs, nature experts, or one of the thousands of dedicated volunteers and millions of ordinary people who want to do their bit – we can choose to make a difference.

So, since 2010, we have worked hard to ensure the coalition government delivers an ambitious green agenda.

It’s true that we haven’t always won the day. Yet, we have achieved some important changes.

In 2011, we published the coalition government’s Natural Environment white paper. This was the first such policy document on the natural environment in over 2 decades. It set out a detailed programme to preserve our wildlife, land, rivers and seas for future generations. In the last 3 years, we’ve implemented 3 quarters of its commitments.

This includes establishing the Natural Capital Committee – a team of experts dedicated to monitoring and safeguarding Britain’s natural wealth.

Through our new Biodiversity Strategy, we’re taking steps to halt the decline in biodiversity both nationally and globally. In 2013 to 2014, we’re investing around £530 million in biodiversity conservation.

In planning, we’ve maintained strong protections for the Green Belt, National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, promoting sustainable development.

To rid our countryside of the blight of discarded plastic bags, we’re introducing our new 5 pence charge on single-use plastic carrier bags next year. We want this measure to cut the number of these bags being used and carelessly thrown away significantly.

We’re improving the quality of our soil, restoring England’s peatlands and securing the future of our woodlands. Through the Big Tree Plant, we will have planted over a million new trees by the end of this parliament, many in our most deprived areas. England now has 10% woodland cover – its highest level in 600 years.

Meanwhile over 95% of our Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) are being maintained in favourable or recovering status. That’s 1 million hectares of land: ranging from the moors in the eastern Peak District, near to my constituency, to London’s Richmond Park.

In our seas, we’ve created 27 Marine Conservation Zones. These help safeguard rare, fragile or important marine habitats and species including coral reefs, seahorses and starfish. More sites are planned for next year.

We’re managing our fish stocks more sustainably: securing an historic deal to reform the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy that will finally ban the wasteful practice of discards.

I’d like to pay particular tribute to Chris Davies who campaigned so long and hard on this and on so many other environmental issues as an outstanding MEP. The green agenda has been weakened by his loss in this year’s European elections.

We’re reforming the water industry to make it work more sustainably. We want to increase competition and ensure suppliers support the long-term resilience of our water resources. In fact, water companies are investing £3.4 billion to improve the environmental status of our rivers, lakes and coastal waters.

As the risk of floods and other extreme weather events increases, the coalition government is investing record levels of resources – £3.2 billion over the course of this Parliament – to strengthen our flood defences and protect against the erosion of our coastline.

Central to all these measures’ success is our work to tackle global climate change.

In government, we have fought tirelessly to reduce carbon emissions and boost our sustainable energy generation.

This includes reforming our electricity market to help increase investment in low-carbon energy. In the last 4 years, the coalition government has more than doubled the share of total electricity generation which comes from renewables.

We have also committed £3.9 billion to the International Climate Fund to help developing countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, eliminate deforestation and protect their biodiversity.

These are all important measures to preserve our natural heritage. Yet we still have a long way to go. Wherever we can, we are committed to pushing our coalition partners – present and future – to go further and faster.

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Most importantly of all, we need to keep pushing back on those myths that dismiss our natural environment as either an unaffordable extra or a commodity to be used without concern for the future. Essential to that is ensuring people’s connection to nature is something we cherish and maintain.

With over 3 quarters of us now living in towns and cities, and modern life increasing in speed all the time, there’s a genuine risk of us living more and more of our lives indoors or online - away from the natural world.

That has serious consequences for the health and development of us and our children. Many young people now know more about playing Angry Birds on their phone than they do about spotting real birds when they’re outside.

To counter that, we need to have cities that make space for nature and a countryside that is open and accessible for all to enjoy.

Over the last 4 years, the coalition government has been focused on tackling the UK’s lack of affordable housing. Communities across Britain – both urban and rural – are desperate for more homes.

But we also recognise that too little thought has been given in the past to how we meet that need without destroying our natural environment.

We know it can be done. In the early 20th Century, Britain needed thousands of new homes for its workers. In answer the greatest planners of the time, Ebenezer Howard and Raymond Unwin, designed and built Garden Cities.

These communities sought to combine the best of British design with practical urban living and the harmony of our natural environment. Letchworth was the first. Today, in line with their founders’ vision, these communities still offer those who live and work there access to green spaces and countryside, alongside modern infrastructure and transport links.

So I’ve been working to develop a new generation of Garden Cities. We want local people to take the lead: coming together to plan for their own future. The government has now published its Garden Cities Prospectus, inviting local areas to submit their ideas for garden cities or suburbs near them. We’re already discussing potential expressions of interest with several communities.

My ultimate aim is that every new home in a Garden City should be within 5 to 10 minutes of a green space, whether that’s a park, public garden, woodland or other open space. We want these developments to show that progress doesn’t have to come at the cost of our natural landscape.

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I also want to see far greater progress in opening up Britain’s coastal paths. Over the past 5 years, the right of permanent public access has only been added to a further 123 kilometres of England’s 4,000 kilometres of coastline, despite the Marine and Coastal Act making this public access a legal obligation for government.

At this rate, we will have built High Speed 2 and the UK’s first space port – all before our coastal path is completed. You’ll be able to fly in space, before you can walk around our coast.

That’s just not good enough and I’ve been pushing for this process to be speeded up.

It hasn’t been easy, but I’m pleased to announce today that the government will be putting the funding in place to ensure the path is completed by 2020.

As more natural spaces like this become available, we need to inspire more people to visit them. Sometimes, you can live just ten minutes walk from a park and never even realise it.

In this day and age, people expect to be able to get information like this at the swipe of a touch screen and there really is no reason why information about our nearest parks and green spaces should be any different.

Currently, different public bodies hold this data – whether it’s Ordnance Survey, Defra or other public sector organisations – with no single resource available to the public.

That’s why I’m pleased to announce today that we are working with Ordnance Survey to produce a new official, online and free Green Spaces Map.

One of the first of its kind in the world, this map will display every bit of publicly accessible green space in England and Wales – ensuring that you’ll never be far from nature again.

We will also make this data openly available to software developers. We want them to find new and innovative ways to use this data and improve the way we all access, manage and preserve our natural environment. Just like the apps that tell you when your bus or train is due, they could produce new and exciting solutions to help people plot cycle rides through parks, choose where to live, plan a visit to their nearest nature reserve or even help town planners to protect local natural landmarks. The sky really is the limit.

Finally, one of our greatest natural treasures is the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Established in 1759, Kew Gardens is one of the world’s most important botanical research and education facilities.

It is home to over 30,000 living plants, millions of preserved plant specimens and, through the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, is helping to save the world’s rarest plants from extinction.

As such, Kew Gardens is now a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the UK’s leading tourist destinations. Yet, like every publically funded organisation, Kew has been facing a squeeze on its budgets in recent years.

Given Kew’s scientific and environmental importance, the government is focused on ensuring that its great work can continue. That’s why I’m pleased to announce today that I have secured £1.5 million of further government funding for Kew Gardens until April 2015.

This is something that I know a lot of you have been campaigning for and marks, I hope, another important step towards protecting our environmental future.

In conclusion, none of us want our sons and daughters to have to explain to their children about how our country’s natural wealth was carelessly lost.

All of us have a duty to act now. The evidence clearly shows our natural world is at risk.

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Thank you.

Published 3 September 2014
Last updated 8 September 2014 + show all updates
  1. Added video of speech highlights.
  2. First published.