Michael Gove’s recent speech at Kew Gardens made clear the scale of the task that still remains to be done to reverse the loss of nature and to restore it in this country. The Government has made a Nature Recovery Network for England a centrepiece of its new policy framework to achieve just this.
Several weeks ago we wrote a blog posing several important questions about joining up nature policy. This is the latest in a series of posts aiming to answer those questions.
The Nature Recovery Network is a proposed network of spaces providing key habitat and space to help enhance and restore nature. The idea has the potential to deliver some of the indisputable conclusions of the Lawton report – that we need spaces for nature to be bigger, better, more and joined up. A Nature Recovery Network can do more than just this though. It’s a chance to deliver for nature, for people and for society and the economy too.
Some parts of it will be new or restored habitats for wildlife. If these are provided at scale, then they will provide places where natural processes can start to return and even take control. We think it will be better, where possible, to provide larger areas of habitat than more smaller ones.
Other parts of the Network might provide increased access and wellbeing to nature for people. Our own work through the Future Parks Programme will showcase how you can provide greater access to nature for people. I was recently in the Peak District on the Eastern Moors where the RSPB and the National Trust work together delivering incredible spaces for people to get outdoors on the doorstep of Sheffield. The amounts of people running, cycling and walking dogs through an impressive and healthy landscape was really pleasing to see.
Finally, the Network will be able to deliver for society and the economy by restoring ecosystem services such as flood mitigation (by re-opening former flood plains) or carbon storage. These are services that we know provide an often unrecognised economic benefit.
Of course, these three objectives are not mutually exclusive, and will overlap in many places. The decision about what to deliver where must be based on two foundations. First, strong scientific evidence about where people’s wellbeing can be enhanced, where the opportunities for nature creation and restoration are, and where ecosystem services could be restored. By combining these three factors we could maximise the nature bang we get per buck. Second, the involvement of communities and of a wide range of stakeholders will be needed – from nature conservation organisations and Local Authorities to developers, landowners and farmers. Their priorities must be reflected in regional Nature Recovery Network Plans and Maps, and there needs to be a flow through of these regional plans into local decision-making. The governance arrangements and a duty to deliver the Network should be set in primary legislation through the Environment Bill.
To make all this happen, we’ll need a body that leads the process – and we think that Natural England has the best potential to play this role in bringing together stakeholders and evidence to deliver nature restoration at the landscape or catchment scale. But, if Natural England were to play this role, then years of funding cuts would need to be reversed. This needs to happen anyway if the Government is to deliver its ambitious programme for the environment.
Delivering huge new areas of habitat will come at a price, but it should also be seen as an investment in people’s wellbeing, in tackling flooding and climate change and in restoring our ailing soils, insect populations and waterways.
The Network will need to be integrated with the planning system, including major infrastructure – through the new biodiversity net gain provisions – and with the new farming system. Farms could be one of the most important places where the Network is delivered, making the wider countryside more hospitable to nature. Regional partnerships will need to innovate and look for new sources of private funding.
No central Government funding has yet been allocated to the Network – this feels like a big missing piece of the jigsaw if we are to proudly stand on the world stage at major conferences in 2020 and have confidence in saying that we are taking every step we can to turn around the precipitous declines in nature in our countryside.
Written by Matt Williams, Public Policy Officer for the National Trust