Biodiversity and the Big Society – The IEEM Summer Conference

Yesterday the BES policy team attended the IEEM summer conference on biodiversity and the Big Society. The conference was centred around four main themes;
– What will localism mean for the environment and biodiversity?
– How will measures to protect the environment be funded?
– How can we reconnect people with the environment and encourage volunteering?
– What will our landscape look like in the future?

Richard Benyon, Minister for Natural Environment and Fisheries, opened the conference speaking about the recent Natural Environment White Paper, the Government’s vision for the future of our landscapes, and how localism fits in with this vision. Whilst localism may be able to help deliver some of the visions of the recent White Paper it is clear that many questions remain, and that there are funding and communication barriers which need to be overcome. These barriers were discussed in detail by Mike Oxford and Adam Wallace who identified the key challenges facing ecologists.

Past experience has shown that financial support and good infrastructure is vital for the Big Society approach to work. However government departments, local authorities and communities are increasingly being asked to do more with less, and dramatic cuts to the budgets of environmental projects in government have instigated debate around how environmental projects might be funded now, and in the future.

Nick Perks from the Environmental Funders Network reviewed the relative role of government funding and philanthropy in sponsoring environmental projects, suggesting that it is unrealistic to assume philanthropic funding can fill the gaps left by the cuts, as government funding is so important for environmental projects. Polluter pays schemes are one suggestion for attracting more money towards environmental projects, however Nick indicated that this is likely to be unpopular with business and developers and therefore politically unfeasible.

In local authorities cuts to the budget of biodiversity teams have been more severe than in other areas. Ensuring that Ecology is better recognised as a profession was the main theme of Penny Anderson’s (IEEM President) talk, in order to protect the role of professional ecologists within local authorities and to ensure the importance of preserving the natural environment is recognised.

Reconnecting local people with nature is one of the key messages of the recent Natural Environment White Paper, and one area in which there already appears to be a great deal of success. Matt Davies from Greenspace Information for Greater London gave an interesting talk about engaging local people in biodiversity data recording through Bioblitz initiatives, an intensive session of biodiversity data recording over a 24 hour period designed to reconnect people with nature and encourage dialogue between local people and experts. The Alexandra Palace Bioblitz attracted over 8000 volunteers and was featured on the BBC programme Springwatch demonstrating the level of public enthusiasm that exists.

Catherine Chatters from Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust also reported a great deal of success in engaging volunteers from a variety of backgrounds including local schools and businesses in the New Forest non native plants project. Volunteers were able to make a significant contribution to the health of their local rivers and marshes through coordinated action to efficiently remove and prevent the spread of a range of invasive species including Giant Hogweed and Himalayan Balsam. However she stressed the importance of adequate funding for the success of the project, emphasising that professional leadership is vital for supporting and enthusing volunteers in their work and to gain cooperation from local landowners and retailers which stock the invasive plants.

Local Authorities are also taking greater interests in the needs of local people and the Beam Parklands case study presented by Paul Johnson, Director of Environmental Consulting at Arup, showed that through effective consultation with local communities a landscape can be created that delivers multiple benefits including biodiversity conservation and enhancement, educational opportunities for young people, and recreational space. Local people were involved in every stage of the project which transformed neglected wetlands into a valuable community space, teeming with wildlife.

The final talk of the day by the Landscape Architect Merrick Denton-Thompson OBE presented a vision of the future land use, extrapolating current trends to 2050, and examining challenges and opportunities for the environment. In the controversial talk, which initiated debate in the audience Merrick suggested that food shortages will play the key role in shaping landscapes of the future, and as the wealth of other countries increases the UK will have to become self sufficient. He also indicated that all landscapes will have to deliver multiple benefits (food production, carbon sequestration, energy, biodiversity conservation), and there would be strict penalties for non-compliance.

Overall the conference was an interesting and useful experience, with lively debate over localism, the funding challenge and communication.