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Sunak seeks to burnish green credentials ahead of Cop28 summit

The search for a new national park for England and protection for urban wildlife havens and trees have been announced in a plan for nature set out by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
The search for a new national park for England and protection for urban wildlife havens and trees have been announced in a plan for nature set out by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The search for a new national park for England and protection for urban wildlife havens and trees have been announced in a plan for nature set out by Rishi Sunak.

The environmental package designed to boost access to nature comes ahead of the Cop28 climate summit which starts in Dubai on Thursday.

The Prime Minister, who will attend the gathering, said protecting nature is at the “centre of our action to tackle climate change”.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

But Labour tore into the Government’s record on the issue, claiming that under the Tories “the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world”.

The Government’s package includes the launch in the new year of the process to create a national park – a commitment set out in the 2019 Tory manifesto – a competition for a new national forest and 34 new landscape recovery projects across England.

The schemes will cover 200,000 hectares of land, including woodlands, rainforests and sustainable food production.

Two additional community forests will be created in Derbyshire and the Tees Valley.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mr Sunak also stressed that he wanted to protect nature in towns and cities.

“It’s wrong to think that you can only enjoy nature in the countryside,” he said.

“Being close to nature might also mean playing in your local park – something I’ve long promoted through the pocket parks initiative – or enjoying the trees in your local area.”

Conservation advisory body Natural England will consider locations for the new national park, with the Government making the final decision next year.

Environment Secretary Steve Barclay told ITV’s Good Morning Britain he wants it close to an urban area to maximise public access.

Sycamore Gap tree felled
Forensic investigators from Northumbria Police examine the felled Sycamore Gap tree in September (Owen Humphreys/PA)

“I think one of the things we’re looking at is perhaps access to national parks and whether it should be nearer to some urban centres, and I was talking to the chief exec of Natural England about this last night,” he said.

“So we’re very open that it’s not that the Government is going to decide where this is. There’ll be a process of consultation led by Natural England, working with Government on it, but that’s what we want to use the next year to decide.”

As part of the green package, local residents will need to be consulted before councils chop down trees in their areas.

Powers to legally demand consultations on any proposed felling were contained in the 2021 Environment Act but will now be enacted after rows over trees being cut down in cities including Plymouth and Sheffield.

The environmental push will also allocate £2.5 million to connect children with nature, and there will be £15 million to support national parks and national landscapes.

Mr Sunak said he shared the nation’s anger at the “vandalism” of the Sycamore Gap tree felling earlier this year, adding that it fundamentally demonstrated Britons’ love for the environment.

“We must do all it takes to protect these much-loved spaces and ensure that love for the natural world continues into the next generations,” Mr Sunak said.

“As I head to Cop28, we are reasserting the UK’s leading role in promoting our iconic landscapes and keeping nature at the centre of our action to tackle climate change.”

Three arrested in protest against tree felling
Tree trunks and branches lie on the ground in Rustlings Road, Sheffield, which was the scene of protests against tree felling (Dave Higgens/PA)

Shadow environment secretary Steve Reed said the Conservative Party is overseeing the “destruction” of the British countryside.

“Under their watch, the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, and waterways face the highest levels of illegal sewage discharges in our history,” he said.

Greenpeace UK’s head of nature, Ariana Densham, said: “Less than a year ago, the UK Government made an international commitment to protect at least 30% of the UK’s land and sea by 2030.

“With just six years to go there’s still a mountain to climb and today’s announcement barely equips us for scaling one of the foothills.”

The general secretary of the Prospect trade union, Mike Clancy, also took issue with the Government’s nature announcement.

“Bold-sounding initiatives can’t hide the true state of our rivers, shorelines and natural landscapes,” he said.

Mr Clancy also hit out at Tory funding cuts to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, adding that the department’s budget is expected to be cut by more than £500 million by the end of next year.

“Without adequate funding for the guardians of our natural environment, there is little chance the Government’s rhetoric will be able to meet its stated ambition,” he said.