The second State of Nature Report, published back in September 2016 by more than fifty nature conservation organisations, provides an overview of how nature is faring the UK. In the long term (1970-2013) 56% of the nearly 4,000 species studied had declined and 13% of the nearly 8,000 species assessed were found to be at risk of extinction.
Changes in the way we manage land was found to be having the greatest impact on species. In the foreword Sir David Attenborough described how “our wonderful nature is in serious trouble and it needs our help as never before…if conservations, governments, businesses and individuals all pull together, we can provide a brighter future for nature and people.” With the UK viewed by some as ‘nature depleted’ what is being done to (or might be done) to help nature – and what might this mean for rural communities? I offer three points.
Firstly, how does Government (through its policies and public investment) seek to secure the future of nature?
In 'A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment', Government sets out what it will do to improve the environment, within a generation. This 25 Year Environment Plan, published in January 2018, contains proposals to deliver a Green Brexit in restoring nature and focuses on six key areas for action (i.e., air, water, plants & wildlife, environmental hazards, resource sustainability and the natural environment). It also lists 4 ways of managing pressures on the environment: by adapting to climate change, minimising waste, managing exposure to chemicals, and enhancing biosecurity.
There are a number of policies underpinning the Plan – from improving how Government manages and incentivises land management (farming) through to clean seas (sustainable fisheries) and resource efficiency (food waste, litter). Chapter 2 of the Plan, for example, focuses on how to ‘protect and recover nature’. Here proposals include publishing a strategy for nature, developing a Nature Recovering Network, the reintroduction of native species and reviewing National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). The emphasis in chapter 3 is on connecting people with the environment to improve health and wellbeing. Here proposals include the development of environmental therapies, encouraging children to be close to nature in and outside of school, creating greener infrastructure and making 2019 the ‘Year of Green Action.’
This Environment Plan sits alongside the Government’s Industrial Strategy – which considers how productivity can be increased through the environment; and the Clean Growth Strategy which seeks to mitigate climate change and deliver green growth.
The Natural Capital Committee (NCC) is an independent advisory committee established by Government to advice on the sustainable use of natural capital. Its current remit includes helping the Government with the 25 Year Environment Plan. The Committee’s latest annual report, sets out its work in 2017 with particular emphasis on working closely with Government’s four natural capital pioneer test beds; supporting the development of national natural capital accounts (and incorporating this into public sector appraisal guidance such as the Green Book); and developing other tools to assist the measurement of natural capital and how it is changing over time.
In March 2018 the Select Committee on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 published the findings of its inquiry into whether the NERC Act is fit for purpose. Titled ‘the countryside at a crossroads’, the document traces the abolition of the Commission for Rural Communities which was tasked with speaking up on behalf of rural communities in raising questions over the extent to which Government decisions are taking account of rural circumstances and needs?
The document also describes how the other body created by the Act, Natural England, has been subject to funding reductions leading to concerns over its ability to fulfil its wide ranging remit: how does Natural England balance its statutory, advisory and chargeable activities? Where will the management and maintenance funding for the National Trails network come from?
The document cites the ongoing loss of biodiversity since 2006, Government proposals to create a new environmental body to hold it to account following Brexit and the role of natural capital in altering the way we understand, approach and seek to manage nature. The Committee’s overall vision is for “balanced protection and promotion of the natural environment and a reversal of the biodiversity decline. This must be coupled with better recognition of the potential of rural communities and the rural economy, and a greater effort from the Government to ensure that policy changes do not work to the detriment of rural areas.”
Between 27 February and 6 May 2018 Defra ran a consultation on the future of agricultural policy in England. This 64 page document sets out the Government’s ambition for a ‘reformed agricultural and land management policy to deliver a better and richer environment in England.’ The document reiterates the Government’s commitment to payment for the delivery of public goods alongside a new environmental land management system underpinned by natural capital principles “so that the benefits the natural environment provides for people and wildlife are properly valued and used to inform decisions on future land management.
The new system aims to deliver benefits such as improved air, water and soil quality; increased biodiversity; climate change mitigation and adaptation; and cultural benefits that improve our mental and physical well-being” (page 8). On 1 May 2018 The Wildlife Trusts published a report ‘towards a wilder Britain – creating a Nature Recovery Network’. This document identifies a need to map important places for wildlife which need to be protected as well as key areas where habitats should be restored. With an ambition to ‘bring back wildlife to every neighbourhood’, the report calls for Nature Recovery Maps to be the foundation of future farming and planning policies.
For me these documents draw attention to six main themes: (1) the need for data and metrics – to define, measure and understand the current – and future – state of nature and the environment. (2) What should we try to protect? Should the approach be about the (sustainable) use of nature, preserving ‘pristine nature’, somewhere in between or something else? (3) Debates around valuing nature: should and/or how do we put a monetary value on nature and the environment? Does putting a monetary value on the natural world help or hinder us in seeking to protect it? (4) Governance –what institutions do we have or need to deliver a greener future? (5) The natural environment follows physical rather than administrative boundaries – how will the post Brexit approach be developed in England? And how will this align to policies being developed in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland and further afield? (6) The need to balance strategic visions, ambitions and long term goals with practical delivery on-the-ground.
Policy discussions around nature and the environment all too often focus on how nature is under threat or subject to loss. Funding is then subsequently targeted on designated areas, sensitive areas and the most degraded sites. This can leave people feeling disconnected or having no association with the place and landscape in which they live. How can we address this focus with fulfilling the potential of rural communities? How can we get more people to care and consider nature and the environment perhaps more than they might do at the moment?
Secondly, what other policy approaches to nature and the environment are there – and what might we learn from these?
It is apparent that an occupation with protected area status and meeting policy commitments often leads other approaches to be overlooked. While usually associated with urban areas – as a response to provide spaces where people can reconnect with nature – ‘regional parks’ are one example of how nature can be brought back into neighbourhoods at a local level.
A regional park is a special area of land which can cover a single or several administrative boundaries. In Scotland, for example, the Countryside (Scotland) Act 1967, section 48A, defines regional parks as “large areas of countryside, parts of which are available for informal countryside recreation.” Currently Scotland has three regional parks: Clyde Muirshiel, Lomond Hills and Pentland Hills. In France, a parc naturel régional or PNRs cover ‘an inhabited rural area that is nationally recognised for its valuable local heritage and landscape, but also for its fragility. Such parks lean on extensive sustainable development plans allowing the protection and promotion of their resources.’ There are 40+ regional parks across France, covering some 13% of its total land mass. Lithuania has 30 regional parks, all established in 1992 but which can be traced back to the Nature Conservation Law in 1959. In New Zealand there are 31 regional parks, all administered by regional councils (the top tier of local government).
There is renewed interest in regional parks in a rural context. In June 2017, for example, the National Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (NAAONB) joined representatives from 20 European states in signing a ‘regional nature parks – working for Europe’ declaration. The declaration calls on European states to make greater use of the regional nature park family: “Europe’s rural areas provide the life support system of our continent.
They are the locus of the management and nature conservation of our natural resources…It is clear that the long-term viability of rural areas needs an integrated, visionary approach. Europe’s regional nature parks make a significant contribution to the sustainable development of rural areas…Having strong parks means having strong rural areas” (page 2). The declaration focuses principally on three policy areas: (i) sustainable agriculture, (ii) nature conservation and landscape protection, and (iii) connecting citizens to their region.
The Association of German Nature Parks (Verband Deutscher Naturparke, VDN) project ‘Europe’s Nature, Regional, and Landscape Parks’ from October 2014 to July 2017, revealed how Regional Nature Parks were created throughout Europe from the 1950s against a backdrop of industrialisation, intensification of land use and some of the negative effects of this on people, nature, landscapes and species.
Since their inception, the focus has been on the sustainable development of rural areas and the benefits this brings for people and nature. Their work explores the development of regional nature parks (overall and in individual European States) and looks at their future development (as innovative and dynamic regions). Regional nature parks are viewed as “lovely places where people want to live…They are Living Landscapes.” The 24 May 2018 is the European Day of Parks and the EUROPARC annual conference in September is being held in the Cairngorms National Park.
There is no one size fits all model for regional parks, rather a variety of models have been used to establish and manage them. And whilst their geographical size and scale may be smaller compared to some protected landscapes, and there is not always a national policy driver for their establishment or development, they clearly contribute to community wellbeing as well as environment sustainability and economic growth.
Thirdly, what examples are there in England of bringing communities together around rural places to renew and promote their relationships with landscapes?
While there are no regional parks in England currently, Pennine Prospects has facilitated conversations regarding a proposed South Pennines Regional Park – and what this would mean for the area and its communities. This builds upon a track record of delivery which sees the regeneration company promoting, protecting and enhancing the heritage and environment of the South Pennines by working with and for local communities and businesses.
‘Our Common Cause: Our Upland Commons Enabling vulnerable communities to enhance iconic places’ is a Heritage Lottery Funded development project that is aiming to improve outcomes, trial practical conservation and increase people’s enjoyment and understanding of commons on Dartmoor, the Shropshire Hills, Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District.
Convened by the Foundation for Common Land, with the National Trust acting as the accountable body, project partners include: Dartmoor, Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District National Parks, Shropshire Hills AONB, Cumbria, Devon, Shropshire and Yorkshire Wildlife Trusts. NFU, Natural England, RSPB, South West Water, Duchy of Cornwall, Moorland Association, National Sheep Association and the Open Spaces Society.
While much policy attention has been on developing schemes to generate more green space in England's towns and cities; there are examples of rural communities (working in partnership with others) to create green spaces in the countryside: from planning ( incorporating green spaces into neighbourhood planning or designating Local Green Spaces in Local Plans) to projects that seek to make amenity land accessible to the local community.
Much of this work and the approaches emerging here chime with The Policy Statement from the 11th OECD Rural Development Conference held in Edinburgh in April 2018 and Rural Policy 3.0’ takes a ‘place-based view of rural development in considering the different conditions and needs of communities depending on their geographies…and their local specific assets, such as “natural capital”.’
If we are to take a place based approach where people feel connected to nature; what happens needs to be from the bottom up: by this I mean based on local desires, visions, values and ideas – which should not sanitise the environment nor attract the ‘usual suspects. ‘What happens needs to involve local communities developing a plan – perhaps taking practice from elsewhere but using this to fit local circumstances.
What happens needs to lead to practical delivery on the ground – actions that deliver what members of the local community want so they can see things happening and continue their support. And what happens needs to take account of the bigger policy picture but not be determined by it: no matter how clunky this policy context might seem local communities should seek to use their voice for people and the environment (what strategic conversations do you need to have to be able to fully deliver your action plan?)
On the one hand there are concerns amid Brexit that there will be a policy vacuum, with further reductions in public funding, resources and expertise leading to further nature depletion. On the other hand, there are opportunities to develop new and more collaborative ways of working and to rethink rural communities relationships with nature and the environment.
What existing or new priorities should Defra, its devolved agencies and other Government departments champion to support rural communities? How or where are rural communities fitting in shaping these priorities going forward? And what more can be done to support rural communities who want to have a greater role in understanding, managing and appreciating nature?
Jessica is a researcher/project manager at Rose Regeneration; an economic development business working with communities, Government and business to help them achieve their full potential. Her current work includes helping public sector bodies to measure social value; supporting a community group to develop a new approach to delivering services; and evaluating two projects providing a range of help to past members of the armed forces. In her spare time Jessica sits on the board of a housing association. She can be contacted by email firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 01522 521211. Website: http://roseregeneration.co.uk/ Blog: http://ruralwords.co.uk/ Twitter: @RoseRegen
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