Rt Hon Caroline Spelman MP speech - ‘Securing our sustainable natural environment in the years ahead’ – Environment Agency

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

Rt Hon Caroline Spelman MP speech - ‘Securing our sustainable natural environment in the years ahead’ – Environment Agency.

Thank you Chris (Smith, EA Chair) and thank you for inviting me here today.

As you know, I returned from Nagoya earlier this month. And, whatever the environmental ups and downs we will inevitably experience in the coming decades, the solid achievements of those few weeks in Japan must set the standard in the difficult years ahead. We now have international recognition that the loss of this planet’s biodiversity is serious, that it must be halted and that developing nations must be rewarded for the benefits their biodiversity brings to others.

We have a new realism too. Rather than unrealistic targets which cannot be met, we now have a strategic plan which sets out what all countries are expected to do, with a series of sub-targets to ensure that it really happens. And we know that we must start taking urgent steps to adapt to the climate change which is already happening - as well as taking action to mitigate it.

The clear message from Nagoya is think global, act local - because it is at the national and local levels that we can actually make the greatest difference to biodiversity within a healthy natural environment. Biodiversity relies on a sustainable environment - on the quality of our water, soil and air as well as on suitable habitats.

So our work on environmental protection is essential to achieving the goals we set out in our Business Plan published last month. It is also essential to capturing the public benefits that a healthy natural environment offers - as well as avoiding the carbon and financial costs of cleaning up a poor one. With our commitment to being the greenest government ever, we know the decisions we take now must stand the test of time. Defra’s Departmental Plan puts sustainability right at the centre but we must also mainstream sustainable development across everything we do in government. So I am working with my cabinet colleagues to ensure we drive this approach forward through every single Department.

And, two weeks ago, this Government published its Action Plan for doing so - clearly setting out our priorities of leadership, accountability, efficiency and effective governance. Three elements are of particular importance here.

Firstly, improving the sustainability of our supply chain - so that Government builds stronger relationships with its suppliers and manages risk and cost effectively.

Secondly, reforming government sustainable delivery - by developing new tools and solutions to deliver greater efficiency and leading across the public sector.

And thirdly, being honest and open about our environmental performance by publishing departmental and supplier information.

Achieving our environmental outcomes will require flexibility locally, and a much closer engagement with stakeholders and communities in both planning and delivery.

The Environment Agency, Natural England and the Forestry Commission are already planning how they will work more closely together and with civil society to improve efficiency and customer service. This is just one of the ways I hope our delivery bodies can find the savings they must make while protecting environmental outcomes.

Our action plan for the Big Society Agenda includes the engagement of charities, businesses, user groups and volunteers in a much wider range of action, from managing local flood risk to helping achieve our Water Framework Directive aims. There are challenges to be overcome yes, but there are also opportunities to be seized.

Defra’s Business Plan clearly lists supporting a strong and sustainable green economy, resilient to the effects of climate change as one of our three priorities.

Climate change is already affecting us all and each sector in our economy - including agriculture - must play its part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I am encouraged that, in England, the farming industry is working in partnership to meet this challenge, using measures that make good business and environmental sense.

Agriculture is also on the frontline when it comes to experiencing the effects of climate change - making it even more important that that farmers and land managers act to adapt to these effects to produce sustainably and deliver the wider environmental benefits we expect.

Indeed, every part of society is going to need to adapt to ensure our national resilience in the decades to come. The Adaptation Sub-Committee’s first report, published in September, identified five priority areas for adaptation.

In planning - where the new National Planning Policy Framework will list our economic, environmental and social priorities.

In our infrastructure - where the new system of National Policy Statements will help ensure that thinking about adaptation is built in from the start for key types of major infrastructure.

We have also confirmed that providers of public infrastructure projects must provide a climate risk assessment under the Climate Change Act - the first reports will be published next year.

In our buildings - where the review of Building Regulations launched by CLG will lead to better design and ventilation standards for offices and homes.

In our use of natural resources - by using water more efficiently and addressing the pressures on our network of ecological sites.

And, lastly, in the way we plan for emergencies - where the Government’s major Strategic Defence and Security Review will include those ‘Civil Emergencies’ caused by natural events.

The ASC’s report showed us that while the UK has started to build up its adaptation capacity - including the Environment Agency’s management of flood risk - much more needs to be done across all sectors to translate adaptive capacity into tangible action. The UK’s first Climate Change Risk Assessment - currently underway and due to be published by January 2012 will provide us with an even better understanding of both the risks and the costs of climate change to our society, infrastructure and economy, and help us to plan for the future.

Insured losses from UK weather-related events now total £1.5 billion a year. Yet, according to Defra’s own figures, while one in three businesses in England have been significantly affected by extreme weather in the last three years, just one in four have done anything to increase their resilience.

This July was one of the wettest on record and yet 2010 also gave the UK the driest first six months in nearly 70 years. And only last week in Cornwall, I saw for myself the devastating impact of flooding on families and businesses alike. Standing in what had been only the day before, thriving businesses, now knee deep in muddy water and surrounded by the unmistakeable smell of flood water. And seeing too, Environment Agency staff on the ground, in shops, businesses and homes - providing practical help and advice as well as a shoulder to lean on. And - crucially - telling those families and businesses that this doesn’t have to happen again.

That new flood gates can be more effective than sand bags and door boards. That local flood clinics can provide advice on how to build flood resilience. And encouraging local people to take action - as the Cockermouth Flood Action Group did in setting up the system of voluntary flood wardens - to help their communities be prepared and minimise the impact, next time. That’s the kind of help that can makes the difference between a shopkeeper closing the door on his flood-soaked shop, turning their back and walking away for good - or having the knowledge to turn the situation around, confident that steps they take now will successfully minimise the impact of flooding next time around. We have to get this right.

That’s why I’m so pleased to be able to announce on behalf of Defra and the Environment Agency, the launch of our consultation on a new flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy (FCERM) for England. A strategy which builds on what we already have but uses a wider range of measures to manage risk in a joined-up way that balances the needs of communities, the economy and the environment. The proposals meet the Pitt Review’s recommendations and they also set out the Environment Agency’s strategic overview responsibilities.

There are five key aims of these proposals - all aimed at enabling people, communities, business and the public sector to work together:

We need to ensure there is a clear understanding of the risks of flooding and erosion - both nationally and locally - so investment in risk management can be better prioritised.

We need to set out clear and consistent plans for risk management so that communities and business can make decisions about how they manage the remaining risk.

We need to encourage innovative management of flood and coastal erosion risks -  which takes account of the needs of communities and of the environment.

And, as last week’s events reinforce, we need to ensure that our planning for and response to emergency floods work and allow communities to respond properly to flood warnings.

And, of course, to recover more quickly after these events have happened. This strategy helps prepare all of us for a future when Cumbria’s and Cornwall’s may well become more frequent and I would encourage the widest contribution to our consultation.

In July we announced a £2 million boost in funding to help local authorities deal with flood risk assessments. At the same time we published the National Flood Emergency Framework, offering councils and others a one stop shop of guidance and advice on planning for, and responding to, floods. We fought hard - and successfully - to ensure reductions in flood spending were kept to a minimum against a backdrop of up to 50% capital spending cuts in some Departments.

Total flood spend over the next four years is only 8% less than the previous four and we expect to provide additional protection to 145,000 households. And, at the Association of British Insurers Conference, which I am attending immediately after this event, I will be launching a consultation on reforms to the current funding system - to make it fairer, more innovative and offering local communities the chance to have a better say in how they are defended from flood risk. But water is not just about floods. We have made a commitment to publish a Water White Paper by next June. It will focus on the challenges that lie ahead for the water industry, pointing to the way ahead and providing a policy framework to get there.

We need to review the current regulatory system - minimising unnecessary burdens, increasing flexibility and supporting greater consumer choice to deliver innovative solutions and sustainable growth for the long term.

The Water White Paper will also offer our responses to the Cave and Walker reviews and the conclusion to our review of Ofwat’s remit. It will link up with the Natural Environment White Paper and I have been very encouraged by the rate and quality of the 15,000 responses we have had to our Discussion Document.

Responses from businesses, from local authorities and charities and - overwhelmingly - from individuals show that our natural environment is clearly a national priority.

When we publish the White Paper next Spring, it will offer a compelling and integrated vision of the value of our natural environment, capital and the services it provides. It will provide a programme of activity to put the value of the natural environment at the heart of Government accounting and decision-making, including policies on water, the marine environment, air quality, biodiversity, soil health, landscapes and recreation. And, while we are still analysing responses, it’s clear there is an emerging consensus that working at the scale that works best for the environmental issues involved must be the way forward.

And we only have to look at Modbury in Devon to see what consensus can achieve. Modbury’s 43 individual retailers, its residents and local environmentalists all agreed to stop using plastic bags. What started as a pilot three years ago is still going strong today and other towns - both in the UK and in Europe - have asked them for help in launching similar initiatives. Of course different parts of the country will have different environmental priorities - and find individual solutions - but by acting at this local level collectively we can make a national difference.

The positive impact that businesses can have is will be even greater - particularly when it comes to waste. We are aiming for a zero waste economy. Not one where there is no waste - but one which fully values its materials for what they are: resources. And one which, as a result, extracts the maximum economic and environmental benefits from them. Where good design minimises waste from the start and the resources that go into a product are easy to extract when that product reaches the end of its life.

The Review of Waste policies we are currently carrying out will look at all aspects of waste policy from the start of the supply chain through to its end - creating a closed loop supply chain. The call for evidence, which ended last month, was well supported - we are analysing the responses now and aim to publish our preliminary findings next Spring.

The Review will challenge business to go faster and further in eliminating the waste used in production and packaging and in delivering products which can be re-incarnated as something new - again and again. Like the Nike 2010 World Cup kit which included a T-shirt made from eight plastic bottles taken from Japanese and Taiwanese landfill. Or the construction company which has developed synthetic wood which can be re-used again and again, creating an almost infinite lifecycle. But we will also work with business - expanding the scope of voluntary responsibility deals, building on the achievements delivered so far by agreements such as Courtauld and the construction commitment.

Our findings will challenge Government and the Environment agency too - to provide businesses and consumers with the right policies, information and incentives to make it easy to do the right thing at home and in the workplace.

And we’ll be looking to the Environment Agency to help those businesses - particularly small businesses - which want to comply with regulation while also taking a firm line against those who deliberately ignore the law or harm the environment. We also think it’s time to reduce the proliferation of regulation generated by Government and the burden it places on businesses and civil society. So we’ve introduced the ‘One-in, One-out’ rule - no legislation involving costs can be introduced without removing existing regulation of the same value.

In Europe too, we are working to reduce the burden of EU legislation - working together to achieve our environmental objectives with minimum burdens. Both Defra and the Environment Agency face some serious challenges and we have made some serious commitments. We will be working with business, the third sector, communities and user groups to meet them.

We will need the support, the innovation and the dynamism of everyone here today to shape an environmental and economic legacy we can feel proud to hand over to the generations to come.

Thank you.