Memorandum by The Wildlife Trust (RG 88)
The Wildlife Trusts are well placed, with our
extensive local knowledge of wildlife and our place in the local
community, to engage with land use decision-making structures
at both local and regional levels. With regard to the planning
system, we scrutinise around 80,000 planning applications a year.
As more and more decisions are taken at a regional level in England,
The Wildlife Trust movement increasingly engages regionally to
ensure that strategies, developments and projects initiated at
that level are environmentally sustainableconserving, enhancing
and recreating biodiversity. We work closely with the Regional
Assemblies, Regional Development Agencies and Government Offices.
We therefore have experience and observations which are relevant
to this effectiveness of regional government as it currently operates.
2. THE PRINCIPLE
Overall we support the principle of regional
governmentmany environmental issues and problems need to
be considered in a more strategic way beyond the local authority
level. For example, there is a growing realisation that for wildlife
to be able to adapt to meet the challenges of climate change,
the protection, enhancement and recreation of wildlife habitats
in larger areas is the way forward. Often such projects need to
be considered on a landscape scale and they do not necessarily
follow or fit into local authority boundaries. It also enables
the planning of developments to be considered at a more strategic
level. In this context, we would support closer inter-regional
co-operation as some of these areas cross regional boundaries
as well. Beyond landscape scale conservation, other environmental
issues and programmes need to be dealt with at a regional level
such as the management of water supply.
In addition, the scale of regional governance
should allow for the development of skills and expertise in areas
such as biodiversity that it may be difficult for local authorities
to secure on an individual level.
We believe a regional approach has the potential
to add significant value in the management of our natural resources.
This evidence sets out some of the problems with the current arrangements
and our recommendations for solving them.
The protection and enhancement of our natural
resourcesincluding biodiversityare central to our
economic, social and environmental well-being. Environmental wealth
is as significant as our social and economic wealth, and contributes
significantly to it. The scale of the contribution that the environment
makes to the economy has been illustrated by the Environmental
Economy Reports published at a regional level in most English
There are some projects, initiated by RDAs,
which integrate social, economic and environmental objectives.
The Idle Valley in Nottinghamshire is one of those projects where
EMDA supported a partnership of local authorities (Nottinghamshire
County Council and Bassetlaw District Council), the private sector
(Tarmac Ltd), North Notts College and The Nottinghamshire Wildlife
Trust. The project allowed the re-establishment of linked wetland
habitats in river flood plains and old gravel pits not far from
Retford in association with the development of a rural skills
training centre. Not only was this project going to contribute
to the region's natural environment, but also to its skills base
and the regeneration of a market town where inward investment
This is a relatively isolated example of joined
up regional thinking. Whilst there are some positive examples,
our general view is that the environmental leg sustainable development
is not given equal weight and much more needs be done to redress
the balance and make it work better.
4. REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT
The RDAs have a very strong economic focus in
line with their statutory focus "to further the economic
development and the regeneration of its region" (RDAs Act
1998). The only environmental element of its purposes is "to
contribute to the achievement of sustainable development in the
UK where it is relevant to do so." The latter is a weaker
purpose. However, this is now balanced by the RDAs Tasking Framework
which will require them to take account of delivering certain
PSA targets in their work. Those that are particularly relevant
include that for sustainable development (Defra PSA target) which
includes biodiversity commitments, and also that for increasing
voluntary and community sector engagement (Home Office PSA target).
There are signs that the Tasking Framework is
having an impact. In the East of England, EEDA host Envirowise,
the Regional Biodiversity co-ordinator and is about to appoint
a climate change co-ordinator. The Regional Economic Strategy
for the Region also takes account of green infrastructure (the
incorporation of biodiversity into a development at the planning
stage), natural asset protection and enhancement. The assessment
in this region is that the RDA is beginning to make a contribution
to biodiversity and the environment.
But overall, we believe other mechanisms are
needed to counterbalance the economic focus of the RDAs and to
promote the conservation of the natural environment.
5. REGIONAL ASSEMBLIES
Despite the Government Guidance in 1998 for
Assemblies identifying a clear sustainable development agenda
for Regional Assemblies, their consideration of environmental
issues since that time has been patchy. A good example is in the
East Midlands where the Assembly is strengthening its approach
to scrutinising the RDA, particularly beyond the narrow economic
function. They have also developed and driven the concept of green
infrastructure in the region. It is hoped that, whilst resources
for the concept are uncertain, the idea is being picked up in
different strategies. Another good example is in the West Midlands
where the Regional Spatial Strategy includes strong biodiversity
However, our overall concern is that this is
not typical, and regional assemblies rarely take sufficient account
of the environment or biodiversity in their work. They have small
budgets and the representatives volunteer much of their time.
This can challenge an assembly's credibility. The economic and
social elements of the agenda usually have greater representation,
money and attention focussed on their issues.
Representation: Often environmental
interests are under represented by comparison with the other two
"legs" of sustainability. In the South East, for example,
of the 112 members, 34 are from different stakeholder groups.
Of these, 17 are from the economic sector, 14 from the social
and merely three from the environmental. The environmental interests
should be broader than this to represent the range of interests
within it: biodiversity, water, waste, energy, transport etc.
This seems imbalanced when the RDA already has a strong economic
remit. In the South East, the result has been difficult for the
proposals for green infrastructure to be considered in the Region's
Budget and focus: There is also
an issue of the imbalance in the weighting of spending. In the
West Midlands, for example, the Assembly has just agreed to spend
£2.4 million of which £1.3 is to be spent on staff and
administration; £896,000 on planning housing and transport;
£80,000 on policy integration and development and £100,000
on energy. Environment features in planning, housing and transporta
sum of £43,500 to cover the cost of one officer. The result
in the Region is that the majority of reports and initiatives
address non-environmental issues.
The Wildlife Trusts believe that the role of
Regional Assemblies is vital in having any scrutiny into the work
of the RDAs and in many cases are represented on them.
6. NATURAL ENGLAND
The Wildlife Trusts in England work closely
with the statutory partner for nature conservation, English Nature.
It has had a relatively low profile role in influencing the regional
agenda. This new statutory body is due to commence operating in
October this year, incorporating English Nature, parts of the
Countryside Agency and the Rural Development Service. We are aware
that this new body will have a stronger regional presence and
we look forward to working with Natural England at this level.
It is vital that it has a well-resourced regional structure so
it can take an active and dynamic approach to engaging with regional
stakeholders to frame Regional Environmental Strategies and influence
other regional decision making processes.
Overall we believe that a regional tier of government
could play an environmentally important role by taking a more
strategic approach to developments, plans and programmes. However,
the way regional government currently works runs counter to the
environment due to the disproportionate emphasis on economic development.
We believe that this should be addressed urgently and our recommendations
to redress the balance include:
Boosting the environmental focus
of regional assemblies, particularly by ensuring they spend more
money on environmental priorities and improve their representation
from people with environmental expertise or interests.
Greater resources for regional
RDAs to employ staff with biodiversity
expertise to advise them on their plans and programmes.
Central guidance to emphasise
the importance of taking advice from the environmental sectorboth
voluntary and statutory.
The Regional Assemblies should
be delivering against regional environmental PSA targets and success
with achieving these should be scrutinised by central Government.
Regional Environmental Strategies
should be put on a statutory footing in line with the Regional
Economic Strategies. They could be prepared by regional stakeholders
and revised within an appropriate cycle. They should then both
inform the Regional Spatial Strategies.
A significant effort should
be made to ensure that the regional bodies comply fully with the
new duty in the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill
(Clause 40), currently passing through Parliament. Whilst we would
prefer to the duty to be stronger, the Bill will give all public
bodies a duty to have regard to the conservation of biodiversity.
This should give some incentive for biodiversity to be incorporated
into various plans and programmes.
Natural England should have
adequate resources to enable it to have a strong influence at
the regional level.