The State Opening of Parliament and Queen’s Speech is always a significant event in the political calendar. It allows the Government to present its domestic agenda and set out the laws it wishes to pass over the parliamentary year. Full of colour, the elaborate ceremony is a tradition dating back over half a millennium and is steeped in history.
The Queen’s Speech of July 1970 is of particular significance as, for the first time ever, it mentioned the ‘environment’ as a direct issue. Voters’ concerns about pollution and conservation in the run up to the election a month earlier had led to all major political parties backing an environmental agenda. Whereas the 1966 election saw no mention of the environment in any of the main political parties’ manifestos, they had all committed to a cleaner, less polluted Britain by 1970.
And so, in her speech, the Queen announced that "My Ministers will intensify the drive to remedy past damage to the environment and will seek to safeguard the beauty of the British countryside and seashore for the future”. That led to the Government establishing the first ever Department of the Environment and appointing the world’s first Environment Minister, Peter Walker.
Almost 50 years on (and 23 Environment Secretaries later), we are even more aware of the damage that we have caused to our natural environment. Successive domestic and EU laws have aimed to sustain a healthy, wildlife-rich natural world, yet as last week’s State of Nature Report showed, nearly 1,200 species are threatened with extinction from Great Britain and 58% of species now show negative trends in abundance.
The Wildlife Trusts have long called for ambitious new laws that aim to turn this around and put nature into recovery, and we hope the next week’s Queen’s Speech will mark another significant point in history, by including an Environment Bill that will do just that. We were pleased to see the Theresa May’s government announce its intention to bring forward a new Environment Bill last year and are now calling for the Government to introduce the full Bill.
To meet the scale of the current environmental crisis we face, a new Environment Bill must set legally binding targets to restore nature and clean up the environment, create a powerful, independent watchdog to ensure that these targets are fully implemented, and, crucially, enable the creation of a Nature Recovery Network. By working alongside the Agriculture Bill, the Environment Bill can lay the foundations for a new approach to land management that would support the recovery of nature.
There is growing public support for remedying the damage we have inflicted on our natural world, both here in the UK and across the globe. Parliament has recognised the scale of the challenge: almost six months ago MPs of all parties came together to declare an environment and climate emergency.
The time is now to meet those words with action. We can once again make history and show the world that we can lead the way in tackling this emergency. We need the Government to urgently bring forward an Environment Bill and for all MPs to ensure that this crucial legislation matches that ambition.