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
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
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
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.