At the start of the year the third report of the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) outlined an ambitious set of recommendations as to how the Government could meet its oft-repeated commitment for this generation to be the first to leave the natural environment in a better state than it inherited. The report concluded that a comprehensive 25 year strategy is required to protect and enhance England’s natural capital, including new legislation, improved monitoring and accounting methods, a targeted investment programme and innovative financing. These conclusions were encapsulated in a set of nine clear recommendations.
Now, eight months and one general election later, the new Conservative Government has issued its response to the Committee’s report. In broad terms, the response welcomes its recommendations, praising the Committee’s role as placing the UK “at the leading edge” of an “innovative movement” and agreeing with its central assertion that safeguarding natural capital is integral to ensuring sustainable economic growth. Furthermore, in line with the Conservatives’ manifesto commitment, the response confirms that the life of the NCC will be extended until the end of this Parliament, with refreshed terms of reference and a key role in informing policy.
Recognising the value of natural capital?
Given that one of the BES’s priorities for this Parliament is that “the value of the environment to human wellbeing and prosperity – our natural capital – is recognised across government”, the Government’s broad support for the NCC work is welcome. But how substantially does the Government’s response engage with the report’s nine recommendations?
1. (and 9.) Government, working with business, NGOs and other parts of society, should fully develop a 25 year plan.
Developing a “25 year plan to restore the UK’s biodiversity” was a Conservative manifesto commitment, and the Government response confirms that this will be pursued. Key themes identified for the plan include improving monitoring and data collection, recognising the importance of local action, and prioritising strategic investments. However, no mention is made of the NCC’s recommendation that the plan should “be given effect in legislation”, or that it should include “clear evidence-based targets for natural capital”. Whether or not these recommendations are picked up as the plan is developed will be an important factor in its success.
2. Government should assign institutional responsibility for monitoring the state of natural capital.
While the Government recognises that improving natural capital monitoring is a priority, and will be one of the core components of the 25 year plan, at this stage it does not outline how responsibility for this will be assigned. The BES will continue to engage with this issue through the Natural Capital Initiative, with natural capital monitoring a priority for the year ahead.
3. Organisations should create a register of natural capital for which they are responsible and use this to maintain its quality and quantity.
The Government agrees with the “underlying premise” of this recommendation, and the response signals its commitment to continue to work with the NCC to develop rigorous corporate natural accounting standards and encourage their use. However it is reluctant to endorse the creation of “registers” of natural capital as a universal standard, preferring to encourage organisations with significant “land, air and water assets to consider how best they can manage these to maximise value and minimise risks”.
4. The government should urgently step up action to ensure that the Office for National Statistics and Defra meet the target of incorporating natural capital into the national accounts by 2020.
This recommendation is endorsed, with the Government confirming that this commitment has been reaffirmed in the recent Office for National Statistics “Roadmap” in order to meet the 2020 target.
5. The National Infrastructure Plan should incorporate natural capital in to each of the main infrastructure sectors.
Despite affirming that it strives for “all publically funded infrastructure investments to make a positive contribution to protecting and enhancing our natural environment”, the Government explicitly rejects the call for an investment programme to be formally included in the National Infrastructure Plan – a potential opportunity to demonstrate the recognition of the value of natural capital across government.
6. The government should revise its economic appraisal guidance (Green Book) implementing our advice.
Again, this recommendation is strongly endorsed; the Government confirming that “new draft text on natural capital” is being developed as part of the core guidance in the Green Book, reflecting the NCC’s recommendations.
7. The government should drive a substantial, long term, interdisciplinary research programme on natural capital to inform future iterations of the strategy.
The Government rightly identifies “the importance of evidence in informing our approach to natural capital policy” and points to two substantial research programmes already underway, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services for Sustainability (BESS), and the Valuing Nature Network (VNN). However, at a time when the future of the Research Councils is uncertain in light of the impending results of the Nurse Review, no additional commitments are forthcoming.
8. Government should determine how the plan to protect natural capital is to be funded.
While the Government acknowledges that finding appropriate funding mechanisms will be integral to the success of their proposed 25 year plan, and accepts the need for innovative approaches both within and beyond Government, it does not engage with the substantive funding recommendations made by the NCC, including the establishment of a “wealth fund” derived from the depletion of non-renewable resources and a commitment to capital maintenance expenditures. Unsurprisingly, funding decisions are to be deferred until after this autumn’s Comprehensive Spending Review.
Where next? Towards a 25 year plan
Read as a whole, the Government’s response to the NCC’s report paints a mixed picture. While they welcome the recommendations in broad terms, and importantly, accept the underlying principle of the vital importance of the natural environment to our economic and social wellbeing, the response falls short of endorsing many of the Committee’s more detailed recommendations. A number of environmental NGOs have raised concerns, with the RSPB’s Martin Harper stating that “the Government’s response does not match the ambition of the Committee”, and Wildlife and Countryside Link challenging the Government to strengthen the role of the NCC.
Certainly, a number of unanswered questions remain about the proposed 25 year plan for the environment: How will it be funded? How cross-departmental will it be? Will it propose any new legislation? What will be the remit of the new Natural Capital Committee? Last month, the BES endorsed Wildlife and Countryside Link’s proposal for the core principles of the Government’s 25 year plan, and we will continue to engage strongly with the development of the new strategy to ensure that it is informed by the best available ecological evidence.
What do you think of the Government’s response to the Natural Capital Committee’s report? If you are interested in contributing to our work on this issue, please get in touch with the External Affairs Team.