How do we join up nature policy? Part 1: 8 key questions

Nature is in troubling decline – the word ‘freefall’ may not be inappropriate – particularly when it comes to the loss of wildlife. To achieve the aim of restoring and protecting our natural environment, we’ll need to think and act big.

Malham tarn, Yorkshire, ©National Trust Images/John Malley

At the National Trust, we’re no strangers to this. We aim to play our part in restoring the environment, and we do this across our 250,000 hectares of land and by working with other organisations to explore landscape-scale approaches to conservation. We aim to create or restore 25,000 hectares of habitat for wildlife by 2025. Our ambition is big but only because the decline of the nature we all love requires it.

We frequently tell governments  about the importance of working at landscape-scale. The 2010 Lawton report ‘Making Space for Nature’ made this perfectly clear. It’s not enough to think about improving natural resources at one farm or on one piece of land, if the work being done doesn’t support the wider ecosystem and help create the “more, bigger, better and more joined up” habitat for nature.

But the policy complexity of this is not to be trifled with either. Of course, one thing is simple – money. If Government is to achieve its ambitious nature aims then it needs to put its money where its mouth is. Right now, hugely ambitious policy goals, such as the creation 500,000 hectares of new habitat, have no actual money assigned to deliver them – whilst the agencies responsible for taking care of nature continue to have their budgets cut.

Where desire to deliver real change to meet these sorts of ambitions exists, a range of individual interventions may be needed to deliver the outcome that you need. But our environment, and the public bodies and policies with a role in supporting it, are complex; individual interventions cannot be developed or considered entirely independently. Unless you step back and consider how the individual measures will work together and interact, you cannot really establish what their impact will be – and the risk of duplication, inefficiency or over-complication is real.

Cattle on the Shugborough Estate, Staffordshire ©Andrew Butler

The Government’s ambition is significant and clear: to leave the environment in a better state for future generations. The 25 Year Environment Plan (for England) outlined a number of policy interventions to achieve this, and many of these are now being worked through with a view to how they might operate in practice: the Nature Recovery Network (500,000 hectares of new habitat and 25 or more landscape or catchment scale projects), a new agricultural system, a framework of biodiversity net gain for the planning system.

This work is taking place alongside activity in other parts of Whitehall on policy that is relevant to the ambition environmental improvement, but not necessarily aligned in terms of ambition or focus – such as delivery of major infrastructure projects. In this first blog in a two-part series we do the slightly easier job of posing questions. These questions are about how to join up all these different bits of policy. In the second blog, we’ll try to provide our own answers.

As a brief recap, here are some of the big bits of policy that are resulting in more change for our environment now than I’ve ever seen during my career.

A new Environment Bill

Government is introducing a new Environment Bill to replace the environmental protections we have under the European Union, such as a watchdog to ensure compliance with the law and, we hope, targets for improving the environment.

Nature Recovery Networks

The Government wants to create a Network that will include, but not be limited to, 500,000 hectares of new habitat outside of protected areas, at least 25 landscape or catchment-scale projects for nature.

A new farming system

The Government is also creating a brand new system for farming subsidies, that will properly reward environmental benefits using public money.

Biodiversity net gain 

The Environment Bill may be used to introduce ‘biodiversity net gain’ which would ensure that all or most local developments would have to deliver a net increase in the quantity/quality of habitat.

Other relevant policy

There are large new road, rail and housebuilding developments in the coming years across England, all of which will impact on the environment.

Government has recently launched a consultation on the concept of ‘conservation covenants’, which can legally guarantee management on land, for the benefit of nature, even if it changes ownership.

Upland heathland, Holnicote Estate, Somerset ©National Trust Images/John Miller

The Challenge

With so many proposals and strategic plans for helping nature and the environment, one of the main challenges is ensuring their integration with one another. At the same time, we’re keen that Government and others ensure that delivering for the natural environment doesn’t unnecessarily harm the historic environment. Nature and heritage often share the same spaces and face many of the same threats.

Delivering complementary approaches and outcomes will be extremely complicated. Trade-offs may be unavoidable, but can be minimised through early planning on how different schemes work alongside or with each other.

But our conversations with Government so far have at times caused us to raise our eyebrows – it seems that the urgency to design new policies (not just to tackle the environmental crisis but also in time for Brexit) means that there’s not always the level of join-up that would be most beneficial. Thinking about how these different bits of policy fit together is an even greater challenge than just creating them one by one (significant enough in itself). But it will be crucial to the long-term health of nature to do so.

Key questions that we think need addressing are:

  1. How will the Nature Recovery Network be funded?
  2. What role do Biodiversity Net Gain and the new agricultural system play, particularly in helping to deliver the Nature Recovery Network?
  3. Who should lead the design and delivery of the Nature Recovery Network?
  4. How can farmers and other land managers who are already helping nature, or who want to, best be rewarded by public and private money and be instrumental in success?
  5. What role will natural capital planning play?
  6. How can Government’s statutory agencies be champions of these policies, particularly when they face budget cuts on top of budget cuts?
  7. What is the role of conservation covenants in securing long-term change?
  8. How can the National Trust, with our 250,000 hectares of land and our expertise in the historic and natural environments, best help and play our part in achieving delivering the 25 Year Environment Plan?

We’ll be coming back with some thoughts and answers of our own.

Written by Matt Williams, Public Policy Officer at the National Trust

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