Mike Burke, Head of Sustainable Development, Natural England, tells us about the lessons that can be learned about nature through the coronavirus outbreak.
The last few months have been hugely challenging for everybody with all of our lives affected in some way or another.
The Government is now thinking about how we as a country can get on the path to recovery and there is much talk about the need for this to be a green recovery. This means learning from some of the lessons learnt during lockdown, for example the heightened awareness of the role that the natural world plays in our own health and wellbeing.
The importance of nature in creating a sense of pride in people’s hometowns and counties, and the positive impact it can have on local economies is being increasingly recognised. But we know that our natural environment is in decline and we need to make a concerted effort to help nature recovery across the country.
Last week the independent think tank, the Institute of Public Policy Research, published its ‘A Plan for Nature in the North of England’ report. In it there are a number of recommendations which highlight the need for organisations both within and outside the environment sector to collaborate and align decision-making across the north, and agree a strategic vision for nature in the north of England.
This is already beginning to happen through Nature North, a collaborative group of environmental and heritage organisations who are working together and taking a strategic approach to nature recovery in the North along with the 11 northern Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs).
What is particularly striking about this report is that it is not written from within the environmental sector. The report’s strong case for nature is based on an objective evidence-based analysis and liaison with a wide range of sectors and interests. The report sets out the societal benefits that nature provides, and there is also a strong focus on creating great places to live and work. This is a headline theme from the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, and resonates now more than ever.
The value we derive from the natural environment for society and the economy is truly vast. It is seen in how natural systems are vital for our water security, the extent to which healthy biodiversity is vital for farming (via pollination and soil), and in the ways that access to beautiful and wildlife rich natural areas contribute to tourism. On top of that our natural environment holds hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon and helps make society more resilient in the face of what are already inevitable climate changes.
Additionally, we have in recent weeks come to recognise even more the vital importance of our local greenspaces for our physical and mental wellbeing. News reports paint a stark contrast between those who have access to a garden or a local park and those who do not. So we need to work harder to ‘level-up’ access to nature. We need to do better at ensuring that those marginalised in our communities have a voice about what local greenspace they most need. Natural England is looking at how we can drive a step change in this regard through our work on social prescribing and nature recovery networks.
One practical mechanism to achieve better places to live and work is through developing local shared plans, working across sectors and with Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) in partnership. We are working on how standards for green infrastructure can be best applied locally, and we want to test how local nature recovery strategies and biodiversity net gain might best underpin social, health, economic and environmental renewal. Natural England is exploring this in places like Greater Manchester, the Tees Valley and in the Oxfordshire-Cambridgeshire Growth Area. We are doing this working with our close partners, like the Environment Agency and environmental organisations, but also we are forging new partner alliances as wider society starts to recognise the fundamental way in which nature affects us all. In doing this we believe that we can also help stimulate a green economic revival with more green jobs.
So which path will we take to recovery? Now is a time to take stock of what we have learnt about nature through this crisis. In short I think this falls into:
- Nature underpins our society in a multitude of ways, but we often only recognise this in times of crisis – like floods and disease
- Nature fundamentally affects our personal wellbeing, and access to nature is a major equality issue which we can no longer ignore
- Local communities have a strong sense of civic pride and will act powerfully around a shared purpose if the imperative is strong enough
At Natural England, we are looking at how we can help develop more inclusive partnerships and enable them to realise their full potential. We believe local action of businesses, local government, community and national bodies is critical to finding more effective ways to build stronger, healthier, wealthier, and more climate resilient futures for our children.
Mike Burke, Head of Sustainable Development, Natural England