Government Launches White Paper for the Natural Environment

The UK Government this morning launched the first White Paper concerned with the management of the natural environment for 20 years, at a reception at the Jodrell Laboratory, Kew Gardens. The BES was present to hear Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Richard Benyon, Minister for the Natural and Marine Environment, give speeches to launch a consultation seeking the views of the public and private sectors on what the White Paper should contain.

The Secretary of State said that the new Government wished to ‘seize the day’, with a fresh impetus to protect the natural environment, highlighting the importance of the environment to the health and wellbeing of the UK’s population. She said that society needs to make faster progress in halting environmental degradation and that making the case for the interdependence between the economy and the natural environment was a fundamental tool to allow this. Ms Spelman said that protection of the natural environment lent itself well to the coalition Government’s ‘Big Society’ agenda, with many community and voluntary groups active in environmental conservation already. She emphasised that her ‘mission personally’ was to link climate change and biodiversity in the policy sphere, later, in questionning, commenting that public understanding of biodiversity lagged 10 – 20 years behind that of society’s appreciation of climate change.

Richard Benyon emphasised that the Defra team wished to use the skills, know-how and expertise of the environmental and conservation communities to inform the development of the White Paper, and encouraged engagement from those in the audience. A small expert panel has been convened to drive the development of the Paper, including Sir Graham Wynne, former CEO of the RSPB, and an Inter-Departmental group of civil servants will work to involve all Government Departments in the formulation of the policy. Discussion groups, some which Richard Benyon hopes to chair himself, will be held around the country to seek the views of interested stakeholders.

During the question and answer session which followed the White Paper was welcomed by the RSPB, NFU and Pondlife, amongst other organisations. In answering a question from the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Richard Benyon stated that the White Paper represented the ideal opportunity to carry forward a scheme of ‘Conservation Credits’, first proposed in the Conservative Manifesto (pre-coalition). Defra officials are currently generating ideas for how such a scheme could be implemented in the UK, drawing on experiences internationally.

It was clear that both Defra Ministers are committed to the principle of better valuing the environment as a means to better conserve it. One key challenge will be bringing other Departments, particularly the Treasury, on board with this and making sure that Caroline Spelman’s ambition to ‘put the value of nature at the heart of policy-making’ across the UK is fulfilled.

The BES will be responding to the consultation to inform development of the Natural Environment White Paper (deadline: 30 October). To contribute your views please contact the BES Policy Team.

The Natural Capital Initiative is organising a workshop series on ‘Biodiversity Offsetting’, to inform policy development on an offsetting, or ‘conservation credits’ scheme for the UK. Find out more at the NCI website.