Conservation 21: the ‘new’ conservation strategy for the 21st century

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Last month, Natural England published their new strategy (available here). In essence, many of the things included within it have been said before, either by them or by the environmental NGOs. However, it comes as a breath of fresh air to see everything in a single NE document, and one that gives us a clue as to the discussions that are being had at Defra re life after Brexit. The report suggests that we need to do things differently in the 21st century when it comes to conservation. It accepts that we need to build partnerships and work together, do more to improve public engagement and involvement and think on a much bigger scale. However, actions speak louder than words and we will have to wait and see how it plays out in practice. Further, it makes no suggestion that there will be any more money available for nature conservation on a governmental level, indeed it suggests the opposite (”We need an approach that fits within the context of constrained public sector funding”).

The strategy has 3 guiding principles:

  • create resilient landscapes and seas
  • put people at the heart of the environment
  • grow natural capital

We are still very much at the beginning of the 21st century conservation journey. We are living on the cusp of a change of strategy, hence this report, but we remain heavily influenced by the twentieth century origins of conservation policy and practice. Although strategy began to reach out beyond National Nature Reserves (NNRs) and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) a number of years ago, with the dawn of environmental stewardship, nudging farmers to improve conservation practices on farms, landscape scale conservation has not been on the agenda. State of Nature has told us that biodiversity continues to decline and that we need a radical change in the way we manage conservation policy. Research shows that people (especially children) are less ‘connected’ to the natural world than ever before , hence the need for NGOs such as People Need Nature. Further, the national policy discourse relating to nature often ppresents it in a negative fashion, as a constraint, rather than an opportunity. It is often seen as the poorer relation in terms of subjects dealt with by Defra.

A new approach is needed, and it is brilliant that Natural England are taking steps to not only recognise this but to work to change things. However, what do they really mean in their report by their 3 guiding principles? This post will briefly outline some thoughts on each. NE say that the Conservation 21 report is about encouraging a conversation. This convesration must be as inclusive as possible. The 25 year environment plan consultation will broaden this conversation and it will be down to us involved in the environment sector itself to get as many people talking about it as possible. Once complete, it will set out a more detailed strategy for nature conservation in this country for the coming decades. All of us involved in the environment sector look forward to seeing it develop.

Creating Resilient Landscapes and Seas

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NE aims to build on the principles of the Lawton Report (2010) which broadly called for the mantra of ‘more, bigger, better, joined’. They want to shift the focus towards ‘Nature Improvement Areas‘, rather than small islands of reserves to defend, looking at strengthening connectivity and wildlife corridors. This will require looking at the world in a new way, bringing people on board to a far greater extent, improving education links and understanding waht makes places unique and special. In NE’s words they want to shift towards the ‘macro scale’.

It is clear that a change in strategy is needed and anything that calls for more joined up thinking and working in partnership must be a good thing. However, it must work in a practical manner, the resources must be there to back it up and enable sufficient ‘nudging’ (perhaps unlikely) and there must be sufficient monitoring to ensure we can judge its success. Designations are of course still extremely important, but they are no longer enough (were they ever enough in the first place?). A landscape scale approach is needed to shift the discourse to one of involvement and holism.

People at the Heart of the Environment

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There is an acceptance in Conservation 21 that people need to be brought on board more. However, who are these people? Where do they live? How will they be engaged? NE praise the environmental NGOs for the great amount of public engagement work they do and suggest they should be ‘supported’ (what does this mean?) to be able to do more. They also suggest that they will do more listening. However, this requires all groups of people to speak in the first place. The real challenge is to get people who do not think about nature and the environment as an everyday topic (let’s be honest – most people in the UK) to engage with the subject. This is perhaps the biggest challenge of the strategy. I like the idea of ‘shared plans for places’ and engaging all members of communities on a local level, but again, the groups should be careful to be representative. It’s here where the whole environmental justice debate becomes extremely relevant. So, good aims on this front, but the challenge of how to put it into practice will be a hige challenge. After all, the NGOs are already pouring huge amounts of resources into engagement (although perhaps more could still be done).

Growing Natural Capital

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Natural capital is, in essence, the world’s natural resources – geology, water, soils, air and living organisms. They provide a range of goods and services. It is of course an idea, and one that receives a mixed response. Acceptance of natural capital has knock on impacts such as the prospect of habitat banking and the trading of ecosystem services. Not everybody is comfortable with this. Nonetheless, it has been placed as a core pillar of the NE strategy for the 21st century. The focus will be on how to enhance the natural capital situated within Nature Improvement Areas. It will work to shift the emphasis towards a long term stewardship approach.

A good plan?

Fundamentally, I believe that there is a lot to be applauded about this report. It sets out an agenda that is not overly complex to understand (one of the first challenges). It does however pose immense challenges in terms of actually putting it into practice. It will require a wholescale change in the way conservation is structured and managed. There is still a lot of work to be done in terms of filling out detail, and I am sure that this will be a priority for NE over the next few years. I am being quite positive about it because I believe that we need to be positive and get behind these fresh ideas. It was pessimism that took us to Brexit. Having a positive attitude is going to be the only way to make Brexit work for all of us.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Conservation 21: the ‘new’ conservation strategy for the 21st century

  1. I have to disagree with the positive tone of your blog. This strategy is framed around the ‘outcomes approach’ which is focused on “delivering better long term outcomes for the environment by understanding people’s interests and needs, and working towards a shared vision”. This fails to recognise that if we are to save England’s wildlife, these outcomes must define what nature needs, and what nature needs has to become something people want to deliver. Overall, the strategy appears to assert that conservation is something, which should be in line with the Government’s social and economic policy, rather than ensuring Government policy seeks to secure positive outcomes for nature. It relies on an inaccurate, out of date misrepresentation of current and recent nature conservation in order to depict its approach as new. Of concern is NE’s clear indication that they intend to vacate their role as a regulator and to become an “enablers and facilitator”, almost becoming some kind of “environmental ACAS” whose main job is to find compromises rather than to deliver the outcomes that nature needs. The strategy is intended to set out the agencies strategic framework for the ‘outcomes approach’ and yet makes no commitment to any tangible outcomes – no reference to England’s Biodiversity strategy of the Aichi Targets. This strategy might be positive coming from an NGO but NE is supposed to be the statutory regulator, if they do not use their powers to regulate or enforce they are lost to the conservation toolkit.

    • Many thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      I agree that by leaving out any reference to its role as a regulator NE might be inferring that they are undergoing a fundamental change of identity. However, I do not believe that they are inferring that they are leaving this role behind. They will continue to be the governmental regulator. Designated habitats are not going to disappear and they will require a body to oversee their legal protection. NE is trhe obvious body to continue doing this. However, at the same time, personally I cannot see an issue with them embracing the social and economic elements of strategic protection for nature. The biodiversity strategy and, as you effectively put it, ‘what nature needs’ must play a part in shaping policy. However, implementation is just as important and I think that it is beneficial to see that this is at the forefront of the minds of all government departments and non-departmental public bodies, such as NE. I am not being positive for positivity’s sake. I agree that the science should come first. However, it is also clear that a fundamental shift is required. NE should remain first and foremost a regulator. However, it should not be prevented from stating its view on what policy should do. NE advisers are already acting as facilitators when it comes to agri-environment, nudging farmers one way or the other as to what would be the best course of action when it comes to individual agreements. The next step is to shift this towards a larger scale, working with a greater number of partners to facilitate beneficial nudges.

      • Having said this, I agree that there are some worrying elements that are mentioned in the report. Some phrases will require clarification, but this is all part of the ‘conversation process’ that will take place in the light of the 25 year plan.

        For example:

        p.6 ‘approaches that constrain us…’ (what approaches? how do they constrain us?)

        p.6 ‘and over time look at how we move away from the post war separation of areas for ecological study and conservation from areas for landscape and people to enjoy.’ (this is a concerning statement. It’s not always appropriate for these two to be combined. Separation exists in some places for good reason).

        p.7 ‘ we will support innovation and the co-creation of ideas, encouraging local ownership and governance.’ (NE are jumping on the ‘localism’ bandwagon now – but what does their vision of localism look like?)

        p.7 ‘collaborate over funds and funding mechanisms’ (we can only assume this is a sign of less governmental spending)

        When it comes to the appropriateness of the tone of the report, we mustn’t forget that, as well as a regulator, NE are an advisory body for government. This is part of that advisory process. ‘We will work with Government and others to develop the appropriate national policy framework’ (p8).

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