A perspective on the 25 Year Environment Plan from the Ecosystems Knowledge Network
Here are three things we think are important to consider about the 25 Year Environment Plan launched by Prime Minister Theresa May on 11th January 2018.
Our perspective is influenced by our role as the UK’s leading hub for practical resources, training and events on managing the environment as an asset. We serve over 2,000 professionals across the UK, working in fields from public health to permaculture.
See also our Press Release issued on the morning of publication of the Plan.
1. Local capability is national capability
The UK has an unrivalled tapestry of local and regional initiatives working to restore landscapes, natural features and coastline. Many of these are already managing the natural environment as an asset just as the 25 Year Environment Plan foresees. They don't simply care about all things 'natural'. They care about people's health, wellbeing and prosperity. They are our national capability to deliver the Plan.
Some of these initiatives have been running for decades, such as the network of National Parks and AONBs and inspiring one-of-a-kind initiatives like the Mersey Forest and the Glasgow and Clyde Valley Green Network. Others are just settling in to their work, as is the case with many of England’s Local Nature Partnerships (designated in 2011). Some, such as the Land Life and Livelihoods Initiative have arisen from communities themselves.
Old and young, big and small, initiatives such as these have huge untapped potential to put the ‘natural asset’ elements of the 25 Year Environment Plan into practice. We should not forget that the four natural capital ‘pioneers’ – put in the public domain for the first time in the 25 Year Plan – join a wealth of pre-existing initiatives who do great things with scant resource.
We would do well to invest in this local capability so it remains active for the next 25 years. Investing in these initiatives means funding staff who can mediate between the many sectors and interests with a stake in the condition of the environment. It also means helping them to share the practical know how about how to engage fellow professionals who think the environment is a luxury.
Good though they are, epic research tomes, like the 2011 UK National Ecosystem Assessment, aren’t written for use by the hard-pressed people who manage the environment street-to-street, field-to-field and hilltop to hilltop. Practical tools and guidance are needed. Learning how to implement such a grand plan needs to build from the bottom-up as well as top-down from ivory towers.
2. Financing natural infrastructure
Major natural infrastructure projects such as the £500 million Northern Forest announced in the 25 Year Plan can’t be expected to be funded largely by charity. Old-style funding models just don’t befit things we now know are providing billions of pounds worth of economic benefit.
In working out how to fund the 25 Year Environment Plan, we must be careful not to over-egg the potential for funds that compensate for the impacts of built development. It is hard to imagine how they can make much of a dent in meeting the costs of the vast environmental restoration requirements that flow from the new ‘natural capital’ analysis.
As identified by the Plan, the future for reviving natural assets is blending finance from different sources. The economic benefits of the environment are vast and diverse. The resultant financial jigsaw is complex. We need to work out how to package finance from financial services organisations, businesses, charities, philanthropists and government.
High-level initiatives like the emergent Green Finance Taskforce and the brand new Green Business Council are to be welcomed. However, we must consider that the world of green finance is at present focused on investment in low-carbon technologies. This community doesn’t yet recognise investment propositions relating to the very fabric of the environment itself. A lot of work is required to convince financial institutions in London that investing in peatland in the UK is better than investing in farmland in the US. On top of this, we must bear in mind that major environmental restoration projects such as new forests take decades to mature.
We therefore need to equip local projects and land owners to be able to create investable propositions. This is a long way from writing grant proposals or EU funding bids. Local organisations seeking to restore the environment in accordance with the Plan need financial acumen. They need to collaborate to offer the scale required for investment funds to become interested.
The Ecosystems Knowledge Network is demonstrating leadership on this critical finance question by organising the Natural Capital Investment Conference. Taking place on 1st March 2018, it will bring together the best minds on how to finance the ambitious natural capital restoration plans that everyone – now including HM Government – want to see delivered.
3. Working together across the UK
The 25 Year Environment Plan helpfully points out that many responsibilities for the environment have been passed from Westminster to government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is vital we recognise the innovation by government and non-government organisations in all parts of the UK. Natural Resources Wales is already in the process of implementing world-class Welsh Government legislation in the form of the Environment Act (Wales) 2016 and Wellbeing and Future Generations Act (Wales) 2015. Other parts of the UK would do well to study this carefully. Locally, every part of the UK offers much to learn from when it comes to managing the environment as an asset.
A healthy competition between UK jurisdictions in being world-leaders in environmental management is good. Competition should not, however, be at the expense of shared learning. UK jurisdictions share much in common; language, rivers, land and vision. It will be a pity if each part of the UK reinvents the wheel when it comes to managing the environment as an asset.
The need for working together across the UK is why the Ecosystems Knowledge Network operates at that level. Through our events, we are proud to share the best innovations between local projects around the UK. Consider for example, the ground-breaking Connswater Greenway in Belfast (funded by the Lottery), the Spirit of Llynfi Woodland in South Wales (funded by Welsh Government and Ford Motor Company) and the community dialogue that has taken place in the Carse of Stirling in Scotland (Scottish Natural Heritage).
To conclude, the 25 Year Environment Plan marks the end of an era in which we have simply slowed the decline of the natural environment. It places more emphasis than ever before on the vital functions of the environment for a sustainable economy, like reducing flood risk and improving health. The challenge is to foster local capability and finance at the monumental scale that befits such an ambitious, long term plan.