Natural England Chair Tony Juniper reflects on the Secretary of State’s Green Recovery speech which he delivered earlier today.
As we look to “build, build, build” as part of our economic recovery from the dreadful effects of coronavirus, we must think Nature, Nature, Nature. I am pleased that the Secretary of State’s speech today paved the way for such an approach, recognising that Nature needs to move to front and centre in how we plan for the future of our country at this pivotal moment.
Restoring Nature after decades of declines will bring so many benefits for our people, our environment and our economy and I am delighted to see the commitment to build back greener, with more diverse habitats that lead to a greater abundance of those species currently in decline.
One of the keys to this, as the Secretary of State notes, will be getting the right approach to the planning system, so that up-to-date data on the state o f Nature are available in each local authority. This will help enable Nature to be planned into developments at the outset, ensuring housing and other projects are not only able to be approved more quickly and cheaply, but will literally be greener by design. One tool that will really help to embed that different approach, whereby Nature recovery is a key focus at the outset in planning, is the concept of biodiversity net gain.
Net gain is an approach which I’m pleased to say has been led by Natural England and already reflected in some of work we do with developers, for example in relation to Great-crested Newts. Net gain is one new tool among several that will give added weight to another strand of Natural England’s work, namely to establish a national Nature Recovery Network so as to ensure that we have a strategic and practical approach to delivering the goal of leaving our environment in a better state.
The importance of creating more, bigger, better and joined-up greenspaces, especially near to where people live, has been reinforced by Covid-19, which has seen a surge in people visiting parks, beaches and nature reserves. Our long-running People and Nature survey which showed that in May, during lockdown, eight out of ten adults agreed that “being in Nature makes me very happy”. In addition, 41% reported visiting local green and natural spaces has been even more important to their wellbeing.
I am pleased that this connection between mental health and wellbeing on the one hand and more access to high quality natural areas on the other is being valued at all levels, including in policy. This was reflected in the announcement during the speech that a further £4m will be invested in a two-year pilot to bring green prescribing to four urban and rural areas that have been hit the hardest by coronavirus – a precursor to being rolled out across the country I hope. It’s a clear signal that building back better applies not just to bricks and mortar but to the health of our population too, including through access to wildlife-rich green areas. Natural England has pioneered much of this social prescribing work in tandem with health providers and I look forward to it being made more widely available.
I was also pleased to hear of the emphasis on how Nature recovery can help meet our ambitions in relation to climate change, via so called Nature based solutions and warmly welcome the high level commitment that the UK will be a global leader in these key areas. I am very excited at what we might achieve during the coming years, working with Government to begin the historic task of restoring our precious natural environment.