Moving Forward with the NEWP – One Year On

Secretary of State at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Caroline Spelman MP, announced yesterday that the Government would make £750,000 of extra funding available to create additional Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs). Those NIAs that were not successful in the first round, in which 12 NIAs were chosen, but which nonetheless made it through to the final stage of the process, will now be supported. Defra Minister Richard Benyon MP stated that, funds permitting, the next Comprehensive Spending Review would see additional support for further NIAs brought forward.

The Secretary of State and Minister also announced that forty one Local Nature Partnerships (LNPs) have now achieved this status. These include LNPs in London, North Yorkshire and York, Somerset and Bedfordshire. LNPs are envisaged as ‘self-sustaining strategic partnerships of a broad range of local organisations, responsible for championing a systems approach to managing their local area and ensuring that the environment is valued in decision-making.

Both the Secretary of State and the Minister were speaking at an event organised by Policy Exchange to mark one year since the publication of the Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP) for England. They were joined on the platform by President of the British Ecological Society, Professor Georgina Mace FRS, and Professor Dieter Helm, chair of the Government’s Natural Capital Committee.

Reflecting on developments in the year since the NEWP was launched, Caroline Spelman stated that the UK had played a leading role at the Rio+20 negotiations to secure a commitment in principle to draft new Sustainable Development Goals. Leadership from the UK had also been vital, Ms Spelman suggested, in securing a universal pledge to protect forests and recognition that the value of natural capital must be factored into all of society’s decisions. Closer to home, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) will launch shortly a roadmap on including natural capital in national accounts; a commitment from the NEWP. With the formation of Nature Improvement Areas, Local Nature Partnerships, the Natural Capital Committee and the Ecosystem Markets Taskforce (the interim report of which was also launched yesterday), the Ministers felt that there was much to be celebrated in how the NEWP has so far been implemented.

Professor Dieter Helm paid tribute to the NEWP in his speech, suggesting that the inclusion of natural capital valuation early in the document will be looked back on as a turning point in attempts to value the natural environment in this country. In the same way that the Stern Review succeeded in incorporating climate change considerations into the economic mainstream, so the NEWP will galvanise efforts to do the same for biodiversity and ecosystem services, with these no longer being treated as valueless and therefore as ‘add ons’ to decision-making.

The Natural Capital Committee (NCC) will report on how and where natural assets are being used unsustainably, Professor Helm said, through conducting a natural capital ‘asset check’. Natural capital will be embedded into the heart of national accounts, whilst the Committee will also advise the Research Councils in the UK on research priorities to inform future advice. Professor Helm emphasised the importance of a natural capital asset register, as without understanding the environmental assets we have in England it is not possible to understand therefore whether these are being used sustainably. The input of ecologists and economists into the work of the Committee will be vital, Professor Helm suggested. The BES already has a link to the Committee, with Professor Rosie Hails MBE, chair of the Natural Capital Initiative and member of the Council of the BES, sitting as one of the five expert members of this group.

Professor Mace likewise emphasised the importance of ecologists in moving forward with the implementation of the NEWP and in making the vision outlined in the Lawton Review of England’s protected area network a reality. Professor Mace hailed the long tradition of nature conservation in England, suggesting that the country is well known for these efforts. However, Professor Mace said, there are some weaknesses in how we have delivered nature conservation to date meaning that our traditional approaches may not be fit for purpose.

Nature conservation in England has tended to focus on protected sites and species in a piecemeal fashion, Professor Mace suggested, often driven by committed local groups. There is therefore no overall coherence to networks of protected areas. Conservationists have also tended to be too negative in their approach, focusing on ‘slowing the loss’ of biodiversity rather than on restoration. Conservation has also assumed the position of a poor relation compared to other land uses; conservation has been practiced where other land uses, such as agriculture or development, have been discounted as not profitable or practical. The common root to all of these problems, Professor Mace suggested and as Professor Dieter Helm also acknowledged, is the undervaluation of nature. To move forwards and to practice nature conservation in a rapidly changing environment, sound science and evidence will be fundamental, Professor Mace suggested. Natural, social and political scientists will need to work together: the interface between social and ecological science will be critically important.

The Defra Ministers used the event as an opportunity to make further announcements from Government. An extra £400,000 will now being made available under the Darwin Initiative Challenge Fund, supporting projects focused on biodiversity in the UK’s Overseas Territories. The Secretary of State also welcomed the UK becoming the first country to declare formally its membership of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), pledging to contribute £1.6 million to the initiative over the course of the next six years.

During the question and answer session at the end of the event those present broadly welcomed the NEWP and were positive with respect to the efforts that the Government has made to date to move forward the commitments the paper contains. However questions were raised regarding the need to bring other government departments on board with the NEWP, ensuring that this is a cross-government, not Defra only, initiative. One questioner asked whether environmental protection could be reconciled with the Coalition’s push towards economic growth. Caroline Spelman replied that growth in the economy is vital but that this must be ‘sustainable growth’, underpinned by resource efficiency and innovation; in waste processing and recycling for instance. Sustainable development is at the heart of everything that the Government does, Ms Spelman emphasised.

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was also highlighted by the audience, questioning whether local authorities will be able to develop plans that adhere to the sustainable development principles it outlines. Ms Spelman was clear that a ‘lever has been pulled’ by the NPPF, with local authorities now having a legal obligation do develop plans balancing social, economic and environmental considerations. Although not discussed in detail during this session, the expertise and evidence available to local authorities in the development of local plans is a genuine cause for concern. As identified at a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Biodiversity Group that the BES Policy Team attended last week, only 30% of local authorities employ an ecologist with redundancies across this sector of specialists. In order to ensure that the aspirations of the NEWP and the Lawton Review are met, and that the environment is valued as speakers suggested, it will be vital to assess and monitor the implementation of the NPPF.