New England Biodiversity Strategy – What do you think?

Defra today published the Government’s new strategy for biodiversity, ‘Biodiversity 2020: A Strategy for England’s Wildife and Ecosystem Services‘. The BES Policy Team has been reading through the document today but we’ve so far only managed to get through half of this. We’re therefore posting up initial details of the Strategy and a more in-depth analysis will follow next week.

The new England Biodiversity Strategy sets out the direction for biodiversity policy for the next decade, on land (including freshwaters) and at sea. The Government’s mission, stated in the document, is to “halt overall biodiversity loss, support healthy, well-functioning ecosystems and establish coherent ecological networks, with more and better places for nature for the benefit of wildlife and people.” In her introduction to the document, the Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman MP, also states that the Government’s longer term ambition is to “move progressively from a position of net biodiversity loss to net gain.” The Government are clear that they think the England Biodiversity Strategy “seeks to deliver a real step change” in biodiversity conservation.

From our initial read of the document, it isn’t clear whether the contents of the document match this ambitious objective; we hope to be able to provide more of an insight into this next week. What does seem apparent is that much of the document draws directly from, rather than building upon, the Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP), launched in June. Some of the content does seem new, but many NGOs in the environment sector criticised the NEWP for a lack of detail about how the objectives within it would be delivered. We’d be interested in your views on whether you think the Biodiversity Strategy makes delivery any clearer.

Defra divides the main areas for action into four headings: A more integrated, large-scale approach to conservation on land and at sea; Putting people at the heart of biodiversity policy; Reducing environmental pressures; and, Improving our knowledge. These draw on the five strategic goals to result from outcomes at the 2010 COP-10 negotiations on the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan (to which this document is the Government’s direct response). Under each of these headlines, a number of ‘Priority Actions’ are outlined. In addition to the mission statements introduced by Ms Spelman in the document’s introduction, Chapter One of the Strategy explicitly states that these priority actions are together intended to provide ‘better, more, bigger and joined’ sites for nature; hereby directly drawing upon the Lawton Review of England’s wildlife network (read a summary of this on the blog).

1. Integrated Approach

– The development of 12 Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs) through a national competition, with £7.5 million in support provided by Defra between 2011- 2015.
– An increase in the proportion of SSSIs in ‘favourable’ condition (currently, according to the latest analysis by Natural England, this stands at 36.5%)
– An ecologically coherent network of Marine Protected Areas by 2016 (UK is already obligated to provide this under the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive)
– Agreeing a programme of targeted action with partners for the recovery of priority species
2. Putting people at the heart of biodiversity policy
– Getting more children learning outdoors, removing the barriers which prevent schools from taking children outside the classroom
– A new green areas designation so that communities can protect areas of green space of importance to them
– Helping people to ‘do the right thing’, by facilitating them to make sustainable choices – for example, through wildlife gardening
– Better accounting for biodiversity through the development of ‘new and innovative finance mechanisms’ (draws on the Ecosystem Markets Taskforce, announced in the NEWP, which is business-led and will report to Government in 2012-13 on the potential to develop new markets for green goods and services, and on the initiatives to facilitate Payments for Ecosystem Services schemes, also announced in the NEWP).
3. Reducing Environmental Pressures
– Defra announces its intention to work with a number of different sectors, encouraging them to reduce the pressure they place on biodiversity (agriculture, forestry, planning and development, water, marine, fisheries). There is also a section on tackling the impacts of pollution and invasive species.
4. Improving our knowledge
– Improving access to knowledge through the sharing of data and clear communication of evidence.
– £5 million over three years to support volunteer recording groups and those organisations that support them at national and local level, and the National Biodiversity Network.
– £1.2 million to support data sharing (a new fund for biodiversity recording in the voluntary sector). In partnership with volunteer groups, the Government will develop a ‘new and innovative approach to biodiversity recording’.
– Government will also launch three area-based pilots to trial new approaches to wildlife recording, data sharing and interpretation services to better meet local and national needs.
– There will be a follow-up phase to the National Ecosystem Assessment, developing practical tools for decision-makers and expanding on the ‘societal response options’ chapter (examining the mix of future actions most likely to secure best overall value from ecosystems, for nature and for people).

There is nothing in the Executive Summary at least about support from Defra for long-term monitoring, in particular the Countryside Survey. Support for research and data-gathering seems to focus on facilitating volunteer effort, as part of the Big Society. This could be elsewhere in the document, but a brief search through the rest of the text failed to pick up these terms.

Further analysis will follow, but it is worth posing two initial questions here, which occurred to us when reading through. It doesn’t always seem clear in the document which of the actions will be the ultimate responsibility of Government and which will fall to the conservation sector and wider civil society. The document alludes to the ‘biodiversity partnership’ in a number of places, by which it means Government, NGOs, community groups, industry and business. The document does occassionally make explicit those areas where the ‘biodiversity partnership’ is expected to lead, for example in a section under ‘putting people at the heart of biodiversity policy’, the Strategy states that “Government will contribute…by helping the facilitate the sector in this role and creating the conditions whereby people are empowered to make a difference.” Elsewhere it isn’t always clear when ‘we’ means the Government and ‘we’ could mean the wider environmental community.

Secondly, despite the upbeat tone of the document in relation to planning and development, the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework, as currently drated, does not reflect the sentiments outlined here or in the NEWP. A Priority Action within today’s Strategy specifically states that a ‘strategic approach to planning for nature within and across local areas’ will be taken, which will ‘guide development to the best locations; encourage green design and; enable development to enhance natural networks’. The document also states that the NEWP sets out the Government position on planning for the natural environment. As drafted, the NPPF makes only brief mention of ecologically coherent networks and the need to take the environment into account is undermined by the ‘presumption towards sustainable development’ which runs throughout the draft Framework. ‘Significant’ weight is to be given by local authorities to economic growth, whilst the environment is given ‘great weight’; a subtle, but very important distinction. It is not enough that the NEWP be the Government’s position on planning and the natural environment as in all liklihood local authorities will only see, and pay heed to the NPPF. The economy must not be weighted above all else in the NPPF, and the environment must be given due consideration within the document. With the NPPF, the Government has the opportunity to translate the commitments in the NEWP and in the Biodiversity Strategy into positive action on the ground; a clear example of where ‘joined up Government’ is necessary.

We’d welcome your views on the England Biodiversity Strategy as these, and any comments on the NPPF and how these documents relate to the NEWP, will inform our response to a current Select Committee inquiry into the Natural Environment White Paper.