Alister Scott

Alister Scott

Professor Alister Scott at the School of Property, Construction and Planning at Birmingham City University writes on the recent publication of the National Ecosystem Assessment

“Good planning is key to the delivery of a good quality natural environment. We have today a Natural Environment Service in crisis which needs protecting and investing in”.

There is much to welcome in the recent National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA) report(1). The value of nature has always been under-represented in resource management decisions and whilst many might be troubled about putting financial values on nature, it certainly reveals to people that nature has wider value to us all and is not just the preserve for David Attenborough’s and scientists. It gives people a stake even if they are unsure how such values were ascribed and how they vary from place to place and from person to person.

It is interesting to note that much of the press focus has been on these ascribed values (eg £300 view of green space) but the report has much more to offer. However, reading it in its entirety is likely to be something that few public ever do; its sheer size makes it challenging and the summary report is still 60 pages long, way beyond the scope of many politicians! One early finding in the report is that the public do not really understand the ecosystem approach and ecosystem services. This is serious as it reflects the malaise of ‘scientific elitism and imperialism’ which alienates the public and makes them increasingly sceptical of scientists. Surely as academics we need to make the problems we research and our frameworks, findings and debates more intelligible rather than remaining ‘intoxicated by the eloquence of our own verbosity’.

Lesson 1 : The NEA report is welcome and provides important messages concerning the value of nature but it needs to convey its messages in clear, accessible and meaningful vocabulary using a conceptual framework that is understandable by the public and policy makers alike. Currently it runs the risk of being marginalised as people fail to engage with the EA idea; ecosystem approach and services are not user friendly terms and we need to be smarter in the way we develop and communicate science at all levels.

The report does contain a useful and valuable inventory of what is happening to nature in the UK. It is clear from the evidence presented across the different habitats that many of our ecosystems and their associated ecosystem services are declining and have been for some time. This demands urgent action involving Defra and its key agencies Natural England; Environment Agency and Forestry Commission and, crucially, local decision makers and land managers. Yet despite the recent Environment White Paper (2) the significant cut in budgets for these agencies may jeopardise such
action. With previous plans for privatisation of forests and ideas for privatisation of national nature reserves there is a real worry that nature itself might become embedded in some form of privatisation agenda now that there is a databank of values, which suggests that there is a profit to be made somewhere by someone. Nature is perhaps too important to be reduced to such vagaries; here I offer a similar argument to the reforms of the NHS. We have a National Environment Service where competition, profits and margins are not helpful concepts and risk distorting or hyping the true value of nature and the need for its effective management for short term gain. So whilst the Defra White Paper is welcome in providing targeted opportunities for nature we need to be mindful of the risk of privatisation and indeed recognise that many of the new schemes in the White Paper are merely recycling much of the monies previously available within what were successful Biodiversity Action Plans (BAPs) – now cut . This recycling of old wine in new bottles for ‘cheap’ coalition gains is counterproductive and threatens many of the good partnership working schemes and relationships previously set up.

Lesson 2: Nature is too important to be privatised. In effect we have a National Environment Service and given that habitats and species are still declining and deteriorating, co-ordinated action is needed to address this at the appropriate scale.

In stressing this need for action, the NEA report used various scenarios (green; business; top down; bottom up and status quo storylines) to illustrate potential future impacts. Yet there is still inherent fear amongst policy makers that following a green agenda is inimical to economic growth. The NEA shows that our natural environment has real benefits to society and has ascribed values for comparative purposes. However, maintaining and improving those values depends on long term actions and resources which improve the quality of the resource. The spatiality of ecosystem services means that there are currently winners and losers and there is an urgent need to improve the quality of the environmental resource to all. Here, landscape and health agendas (cultural services) can be subject to ‘postcode lotteries’. Moreover, historically designation was expert-led and focussed attention and human and financial resources on the ‘best’ or most ‘valuable’ landscapes, habitats and species with implicit assumptions about those areas or features not worthy of designation. Today we have more egalitarian agendas based on new approaches involving connectivity, inclusion, green infrastructure and active public engagement. Whilst practice still has to fully embrace such considerations there are emerging examples of good practice; however my own research tends to find that these are in spite of policy initiatives rather than because of them.

Lesson 3: Nature in its (often unacknowledged) role of our fundamental source of life, health and well-being needs continued long term support set within notions of environmental and social justice. Budget cuts threaten this in the short term.

There remains one principal challenge of the NEA which hasn’t really featured in press reaction thus far relating to the tension and separation between the environment and the planning system. NEA falls under the mantle of Defra. However, this framework needs to involve all the key government departments, particularly DECC, BIZ, and CLG to be successful. The planning system is perhaps key here given its central role in shaping places and managing the environment. Today, planning is under the helm of ‘Captain Pickles’ and is sailing its own course of reforms in somewhat stormy waters.

On the face of it, this course seems ill-prepared to engage with the NEA. First the National Planning Framework needs to incorporate the ecosystems approach to shape planning policy and guide decision making requiring ecosystem services to be specified, analysed and used in planning decisions (as material considerations).

Yet there is clear evidence that the framework will be nothing more than a synthesis of existing statements, set within ideas of maximising sustainable economic development. Second, nature and ecosystems do not recognise boundaries. Yet the abandoning of a regional tier hinders such strategic planning and, with a focus on localism, will ensure that local authorities and their elected councillors look inwards to their populations rather than outwards to their wider environment. Third, Local Enterprise Partnerships, the principal tool for economic development, scarcely have any environmental remit or representation which again presents a piecemeal and potentially contradictory approach to development. Fourth, at the local level we will have neighbourhood plans which, by definition, will not be considering wider environmental linkages. There is an urgent need to plan at a landscape/ ecosystem scale through collaboration with interested stakeholders. The models provided by the Water Framework and the Habitats Directives through river basin management groups and special areas of conservation committees respectively are useful here but need to command a stronger government steer beyond a simple duty to co-operate. We need to respond to the NEA within a new model of environmental governance that plans at the ecosystem scale and that does mean refocusing on strategic planning. The worrying fact is that the planning system is going in exactly the opposite direction to this.

Lesson 4: The environment needs to be elevated up the policy agenda within improved governance championed by the Coalition government. The NEA and emerging national Planning Framework provide the primary vehicles to achieve this. Policy also needs to be co-ordinated across the government departments in order to prevent contradictions.

In summary good planning is key the delivery of a good quality natural environment. We have a Natural Environment Service which needs protecting and investing in. The NEA has identified real challenges for all of us interested in championing nature and preventing its free riding. The dilemma is that policy is creating a situation where such knowledge will be lost amidst a plethora of different strategies and plans all being pursued in splendid isolation whereby this country and nature will be in a right pickle.


1 Defra 2011 The national ecosystem approach
2 Defra 2011 Environment White paper



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Alister Scott

Alister Scott

School of Property, Construction and Planning at Birmingham City University