Friday 15 October 2010

The Natural Environment White Paper 6

The Lawton review is a pretty good starting point as a general guide for how well our environment is working in terms of delivering our ecological requirements.

Its conclusion is clear:

“…England’s collection of wildlife sites .... does not comprise a coherent and resilient ecological network even today, let alone one that is capable of coping with the challenge of climate change and other pressures....”

However the report also concludes that
“Making space for nature to establish such a network will make efficient use of scarce land and resources, and deliver many benefits to wildlife and people.”

So – we’ve failed so far and we must do better in future.

The report therefore sets out 24 recommendations for what needs to be done in order to make the coherent, resilient ecological network that we need. Together these recommendations provide very helpful background for what we should be asking for from the new Natural Environment White Paper.

I will now summarise just a few of these recommendations (probably including something of my own bias!) – readers may like to consider them, maybe download the document itself, if you want to respond to the full (15 question) consultation:

First ecological networks should be identified and protected, for instance through planning policies. Furthermore the important elements that make up networks (internationally important sites, SSSIs, priority habitats, Local Wildlife Sites, ancient woodland etc) must also have strong protection. There should be no question of throwing the baby out with the bathwater – conservation and enhancement of what remains is the first priority.

A key recommendation is then for the establishment of Ecological Restoration Zones (ERZs). These should be “large, discrete areas within which significant enhancements of ecological networks are achieved, by enhancing existing wildlife sites, improving ecological connections and restoring ecological processes”.

It also recommends that we need to make space for water, restoring natural processes in river catchments and reducing the pollution and nutrient loads that flow into rivers.

An impetus from this review is therefore for the development of significant areas where ecological restoration takes place – not just looking after what we have now (although that is the vital first step) but major landscape-scale restoration of the environment. The review recommends 12 ERZs to start with. But, in my opinion, if we are talking about rebuilding the ecological health of the entire country then that must be seen as just a start. This does not mean that these zones are “wild” areas, left entirely to nature and where people are kept out. Sustainable management for multiple benefits is the starting point.

The review also touches on how this might be implemented. Current financial mechanisms (such as Environmental Stewardship and tax incentives) need to be better directed and modified, and new ones need to be brought in. The government should promote economic approaches that will favour conservation management by stimulating the creation of new markets and payment for ecosystem services, to ensure that the values of a wider range of ecosystem services are taken into account in decisions that affect the management and use of the natural environment. There could be new systems of “biodiversity offset” developed – where impacts on the environment in one place are “offset” by payments for enhancement somewhere else. These seem, to me, to be pretty good principles, although there could be a lot of devil in the detail.

In summary I think there are two major themes coming out of the review that a new Natural Environment White Paper must address:

  • First is the theme of major landscape-scale ecological restoration – Ecological Restoration Zones, river catchment restoration, re-instatement of natural processes and a large “ecological network” philosophy. England has failed to meet its 2010 biodiversity objectives so what is needed now is an order of magnitude grater than anything contemplated in the past.
  • The second is in recognising the value of ecosystem services and developing financial mechanisms to pay for them. We can no longer ignore the value what nature provides for us. Often this will mean paying landowners for the multiple benefits that environmentally sensitive land management can provide – whether by grants, incentives, tax mechanisms, direct market payments or biodiversity offsets.