Thursday 7 July 2011

The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature

Well the Natural Environment White Paper that we have all been waiting for has now been published and we have had some time to think about its contents.

Since before the election, the Wildlife Trusts, along with other environmental NGOs have been pushing for a new impetus for the natural environment. The UK failed to meet its 2010 biodiversity targets, wildlife is in continual decline and we are struggling to meet other environmental standards. More of the same is not an option. Is the Natural Environment White Paper, entitled “The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature” going to be the step-change in the ambition for the environment that we are all hoping for?

The starting point…
Taking the messages from “Making Space for Nature” and the “National Ecosystem Assessment” together, we have to conclude that whilst the natural world is essential to our existence, biodiversity in the wider environment is reducing and our current scatter of wildlife sites does not comprise a coherent ecological network. Our ecosystems are consistently undervalued and many of our essential ecosystem services are in continual long term decline.

So does the white paper set the right direction?

Generally I would have to say that the overall trajectory looks good. I have been fairly critical of government in past blogs – it seemed to be environmentally floundering - but I said then that the white paper is a major opportunity to turn this around.

The Wildlife Trusts have therefore welcomed the white paper. However, I am concerned that there is insufficient detail to be confident that Government is fully committed to making the vision a reality. The paper lacks the sense of urgency we believe is required.

There a re 4 key areas in the White Paper:

  • Nature Improvement Areas.

  • Local Nature Partnerships

  • Ecologically coherent planning,

  • Biodiversity offsets.

Nature Improvement Areas. I prefer “Ecological Restoration Zones” as it said what they should do – restore ecology. Nature improvement sounds weaker. Nevertheless the concept was promoted by the Wildlife Trusts and we are pleased it is in the white paper. However, they are currently non-statutory and there will be a competition for the first 12 such areas. As the aim is to restore a coherent ecological network, just 12 are hardly significant. There should be lots of them everywhere, and connected throughout the landscape. In Sussex alone we have identified 75 biodiversity opportunity areas. That gives a better idea of the scale needed. 12 for the whole country really is just a start. Hopefully we can look forward to the parallel development of Nature Improvement Areas everywhere, embedded in the new planning framework and with the funds to deliver.

Local Nature Partnerships were promoted by The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and CPRE in the lead up to the white paper. The proposal is for around 50 in England, so they will have to be strategic in outlook, should work at a landscape scale and should be outcome focused. All good stuff. But timescales to form these are too short so it will be hard work to form coherent structures so that these strategic partnerships link up with all the really local partnerships. If we are not careful the rush to form LNPs, and attract the money that’s on offer, will actually set people up in competition and effectively undermine partnership working.

Ecologically coherent planning. It remains to be seen how ecological coherent the planning system will be at a time when government seems to be loosening up planning laws. A general reference to a National Planning Policy Framework seems unconvincing and whilst it does mention a presumption in favour of sustainable development I thought that had been the case – at least on paper – since 1992. I am sure it is right to look for win-win solutions where both development and the natural environmental are delivered at once but there will be conflicts and at present it looks like the same old story where development will take precedence.

Biodiversity offsets offer huge dangers but also huge opportunities so must be looked at carefully. Done badly it could de-value nature and be a licence to destroy. Done well, and underpinned by firm protection for wildlife, it could be a major mechanism for enhancement. Fortunately the DEFRA team working on this are aware of the dangers and the benefits.

Some may feel that the white paper has deliberate “trip hazards”, designed to make something that sounds good very difficult to implement in practice. The jury is out but I remain optimistic. Unrealistic timescales, feeble resources, limited practical ambition and questions regarding reconciliation with other government initiatives are all worrying. But it also mainstreams ecological restoration and the valuing of nature. I’ll take Caroline Spelman’s introduction to the white paper as setting the tone for its ambition:
“Too often, we take for granted the goods, services and amenity value that nature freely provides us. They risk being lost as a consequence. We can and must do things differently.”

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