So, the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan is finally here – all 151 pages of it. If you relied on its coverage in the media rather than reading it, you might be forgiven for thinking two things.
One, that it doesn’t have very much to do with water companies, with its focus on plastics pollution and plans for a Northern Forest. Two, that it’s a damp squib, with NGOs and politicians lining up on the day to say how the Plan lacked both bite and pace.
At one level, I get the bite and pace point. When you see images today of plastics-throttled wildlife on the BBC, talk of zero plastic waste in 2042 with no hard legislation or new public money to back it up sounds cheap.
But, at least for the water sector, there is good reason to see the Plan as big news.
Philosophically, the Plan’s emphasis on inheritance and legacy resonates strongly. Ours is a sector which operationally lives by the second, but whose assets in some cases span the centuries and which plans firmly 5 years out increasingly with eye ahead to the next 50 years.
Notable, too, is the place of water in the Plan. Water is explicit in two of the Plan’s primary goals – clean and plentiful water, and reduced risk of harm from flooding and drought – and is implicit in most of the others.
It’s also good to see reference to the clean-up of the country’s rivers and beaches over the last 50 years, and to initiatives taken by individual water companies and the sector as a whole. The latter includes plans for new refill points where people can top-up water bottles for free: expect to hear more about this in the days and months ahead.
Then there are the strategies in which our sector has a live interest and contribution to make – such as the strategies on peat, nature recovery and chemicals. Not to mention Government ambitions to tackle climate change, highly relevant to a sector as energy-intensive as ours.
The list doesn’t stop there. The intention to move away from today’s Common Agricultural Policy to a system of public money for public goods is welcome – as the Plan recognises, “farming is now the most significant source of water pollution” in the UK. And some water companies have helped lead the thinking on natural capital, a concept key to delivering the Plan’s ambitions in the longer term.
Of course, I could pick out weaknesses in the Plan. The curious under-statement of policy to tackle climate change. The time it will take to reform public funding for farming (“after a period of stability to ensure a smooth transition”). And the vagueness around some ideas, such as “net environmental gain”.
But I think it would be unfair to conclude that there is therefore no bite or pace to the Plan, at least for the water sector.
The target on leakage by 2025, for example, provides genuine grit for water companies. The Plan’s aim to set a target for efficient use of water is well placed: but we already know that the Government is looking for something ambitious here. Much hard work lies ahead to make sure the target is well-specified, and that the full range of policy tools is available to help achieve it.
And as for pace? Apart from the prospect of annual progress reports on the Plan to keep Government on its toes, 2018 already looks to be a pretty busy year.
Consultations are imminent on future funding for agriculture, relevant metrics to support the Plan, a strategy for peat and the form of an independent statutory body to hold Government to account on the environment. Not to mention the need for water companies to consider how the Plan should inform the business plans they are currently preparing for 2020-2025.
Ultimately, the Government has been brave (in true Sir Humphrey fashion) to re-affirm its commitment to leave the environment in a better state than we found it and to say how it plans to do that. For as long as this Government is in power, and for as long as Michael Gove holds high office within it, I think we should anticipate no let-up in their strength of purpose.