Our Director Mark Walton picks through the plastic litter to find the gems in the government’s 25 year environment plan.
Yesterday the government published the much delayed 25 year environment plan.
It has been (rightly) criticised for being vague and lacking detail regarding how it will be implemented, but it can’t be criticised for lack of content. Within the 151 pages are a wide range of promises, from the creation of a northern forest and a network of green corridors, to new green infrastructure arising from development.
There is a lot here to welcome, however the lack of specifics is concerning, and the dissonance between some of the aspirations and the context in which they need to delivered (austerity, the weakness of the planning system and the crisis facing our parks and open spaces) is jarring. It takes a leap of considerable faith to see some of these welcome words being translated into effective action.
So let’s dive into the weeds and pick the gems from the plastic litter.
Woodlands and natural resources
The promises to expand woodland cover and make sure that existing woodlands are better managed are to be welcomed, as is the recognition of the their potential to provide a wide range of social, environmental and economic benefits. Our work on the Making Local Woods Work programme is demonstrating the potential for social enterprise woodland management to maximise these benefits. The prospect of a new ‘northern forest’ offers the opportunity for the creation of green jobs and renewable resources to help fuel the northern powerhouse.
Connecting people and environment
Likewise the commitment to explore how the NHS can work with civil society organisations to offer social prescribing and mental health therapies is good news. It offers the potential for local authorities and land based social enterprises to develop new services and income streams that recognise the health and wellbeing benefits of the assets they manage and the work they do.
Valuing Public Goods
We have long argued against the payment of agricultural subsidy on the basis of land ownership. As the plan rightly states this “concentrates money in the hands of those who already have significant private wealth, without improving environmental outcomes”. It promises a new system that ensures public money is used to deliver public goods.
We hope that it will create new opportunities for smallholders and community food enterprises which deliver multiple social and environmental benefits whilst contributing to local economic resilience and producing high quality local food.
Once again the devil will be in the detail and a consultation is promised in the spring.
It is also good to see recognition of the fact that national spatial data and strategies could support the development of proposals that offer the maximum wildlife, economic and social gain. We are currently working to develop our Land Explorer tool to enable common good land users to access geospatial data that can help them deliver and develop their projects, and are working closely with Ordnance Survey and Land Registry to explore how open geospatial data can deliver public benefits.
So far so promising…. but as noted above there are issues too.
Planning and green infrastructure
The plan promises to embed an ‘environmental net gain’ principle for development, including housing and infrastructure. The stated ambition is that local authorities will develop locally-led strategies, and planning authorities will target environmental enhancements that are needed most in their areas, and give flexibility to developers in providing them. This is all laudable but is one of the starker cases of dissonance between the warm words of the plan and the harsh realities of the real world the rest of us live in.
Local authorities already struggle to force developers to deliver on their planning obligations, development control is often too weak to ensure that those green and blue assets that do come forward are of good quality, and many authorities can no longer afford to adopt and manage new green spaces arising from development. So with a planning and enforcement system so weak, the pressures for new homes and infrastructure so strong, how can we have confidence that environmental net gain will be delivered, and if it is how will it be managed when local authorities are so desperately under resourced?
We need a planning system that better supports common good land users as well as creating new green spaces.
Indeed the question of long term management hangs over many of these ambitions whether they are for new woodlands, new green and blue assets arising from development, or existing parks and open spaces. Those we currently have are frequently under-managed and under threat, a fact the plan fails to acknowledge. Whilst the recognition of the value of natural capital and the services and benefits the natural environment provides is welcome, we are a long way from translating these values and benefits into sustainable revenue streams.
There is much work still to be done and that work will require investment.
It is also disappointing that the only mention of the green belt reinforces the notion that its sole purpose is to prevent urban sprawl.
This precious peri urban land has great potential for the production of timber, food and other renewable resources for our town and cities, and provides the most accessible countryside for most urban dwellers. The purpose of green belt, and its unique potential to deliver social, economic and environmental benefits to the greatest number of people, needs to be recognised and explored within the next 25 years.
As stated at the start one of the main criticisms of the plan has been the lack of proposals for its implementation, however three key mechanisms are proposed – even if only in outline.
Funding. There is a commitment to explore the creation of a Natural Environment Impact Fund which would blend capital from a range of sources to provide technical assistance funding and repayable finance to projects with the potential to improve the natural environment and generate revenue.
Regulator. A new, independent, statutory body is promised to give the environment a voice, “championing and upholding environmental standards”.
Measurement. In addition to the usual collection of statistics by government and others, natural capital assessments will take place on a roughly 10 year cycle using the 2011 UK National Ecosystem Assessment as a baseline.
So…. Vague? Yes, and with some aspirations that seem impossible to deliver in the face of wider national policy and practice. But there is welcome recognition that the environment is a social justice issue, and that woodlands and green spaces create social, economic and environmental benefits.
We’re looking forward to getting stuck in, helping to fill in the blanks, and ensuring that the benefits our environment provides are shared for the common good.