The 25 Year Plan for the Environment, published by Defra in January 2018, sets out ambitious, but much needed aspirations for the natural and built environment in England. The policy to embed an “‘environmental net gain’ principle for development, including housing and infrastructure”, requiring planning authorities to ensure net gains across their areas, is a great step-change in the right direction. That said, there are some concerns to be had when delving into the detail of the document. The population of phrases like “seek to” and “explore” add a degree of uncertainty around how these aspirations will be delivered.
For me, what is needed to make real change, and a better change for the environment, can be simply put – change, continuity, and financial commitment.
Firstly, change is needed in the way that government departments work together – bigger, better and joined up thinking about the natural environment across government departments is essential if we’re going to make significant positive changes to the environment. Key to this is consistent policy, messaging and application across departments, which is not just promoted by Defra but by other departments including the Treasury, Department for Transport, and Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. For example, the theme of natural capital is found across the 2018 update of the Treasury Green Book, but this now needs to be applied in practice. There are leaders in industry, but we need a fair system with a new Environment Act and a strong organisation policing it.
Whilst we need change, we also need continuity. In a time of exciting new thinking, we need to recognise and build on what is already working, such as designated sites. Protected areas need to be “more, bigger, better and joined” (2010 Lawton Report), but the current network of statutory and non-statutory designated sites are essential as the starting point for landscape-scale thinking to deliver real benefits.
We also need to maintain geographic continuity across the UK – with wildlife, water, air, soil and pollution crossing borders, a coherent approach needs to be taken. With this in mind, organisations like the role currently provided by the Joint Nature Conservancy Council for wildlife will become increasingly important.
We can look at the current finances for nature conservation in the UK and see losses, such as those driven by austerity policies, but we can also see gains such as the Heritage Lottery Fund. However, behind these losses and gains we must not lose sight of the starting point of these funding changes. The reality is that we are not looking back at a time when there was enough investment in our natural capital and trying to get back to past funding levels, we are looking at a situation where investment has been insufficient and much more is needed.
On the positive side, we now have the tools to demonstrate many of the environmental benefits to the economy and society, not just the altruistic reasons for investment in protecting and enhancing natural areas. Whilst there is some clever thinking on new funding streams, which should be applauded, we must not be complacent and think that this will be sufficient to slow or reverse the decline in our natural capital.
Can this work?
I have been fortunate enough to be part of some of Atkins’ ground-breaking projects in this area. Examples include Camley Street Natural Park, where our ecosystem services valuation helped unlock new funding, and Medmerry, where our study showed that traditional flood management cost benefit analysis hugely underestimated the benefits of a project. So, the answer is yes, applied with care, natural capital thinking can make a positive difference for people and nature.
About the Author: Claire Wansbury (FCIEEM CEcol CMLI CEnv) is an Associate Director of Ecology at SNC-Lavalin’s Atkins business. Claire has over twenty-five years experience as a professional ecologist. She advises on mitigation and enhancement relating to habitats and species, general biodiversity, and on valuing natural capital and the ecosystem services it provides. She is currently chairing the Project Steering Group for CIRIA’s practical guide to biodiversity net gain.