Natural Environment White Paper - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

6  Reconnecting people and nature

90. The NEWP recognises the key role of the natural environment in promoting health and learning. Chapter 4 sets out proposals for removing barriers to outdoor learning, creation of a local 'Green Areas Designation', launching a 'Muckin4Life' campaign to offer volunteering opportunities, and health promotion schemes focussing on the natural environment.[138] After the NEWP's publication, the National Trust published work which concluded that experience of the natural environment before the age of 12 was essential in order for lifetime habits of engagement to be formed.[139] In addition, the Cabinet Office has been co-ordinating work on measuring national well-being which the National Trust told us had the potential to "take nature from a fringe interest" to a "mainstream" issue.[140] To establish the current state of engagement, the RSPB suggested that a baseline should be established for children's involvement in nature activities.[141]

91. None of the evidence we received disputed the basic contention that there were benefits to be had from reconnecting people with nature. Witnesses' main concern was how to achieve this reconnection. The Woodland Trust, for example, wanted to include outdoor learning in the national curriculum;[142] the Field Studies Council suggested the 'pupil premium' could be used to fund outdoor learning;[143] and the National Trust and the Ramblers wanted to link positive health outcomes to increased public engagement with nature.[144] The Soil Association emphasised the educational opportunities from children growing their own food.[145]

92. There is evidence that prior to the NEWP being published some success in generating a greater public involvement with the natural environment had been achieved through existing approaches. For example, the National Trust has experienced a surge in visits to its premises in recent months and is anticipating some 18 million people will visit its properties in 2012.[146] Furthermore, over 180,000 visitors participated in the LEAF Farm Open Sunday in 2011.[147] However the picture is not uniform and there are sectors of society that are not being reached.[148] A survey by Natural England showed a 13% decrease in visits by the English adult population to the natural environment in 2010-11 compared to the previous year.[149] Financial constraints may also reduce the ability of individuals and organisations to undertake these activities.

93. Against this backdrop, the Countryside Alliance told us that there was a need for a clear plan for delivery and more resources.[150] The Wildlife Trust was concerned about the capacity of NGOs and the third sector to engage volunteers.[151] Furthermore Plantlife considered that untrained volunteers would not be as good as trained staff in leading outdoor activities.[152] The RSPB concurred with this, noting that capacity is needed to manage volunteers.[153] Other witnesses also had concerns about funding levels, with the Association of Local Government Ecologists (ALGE) noting that there was a diminishing availability of resources, including local authority ecologists.[154]

94. A specific concern about the lack of appropriate skills was expressed by the Field Studies Council who told us that a "significant proportion" of schools provide no, or very little, training in fieldwork and the Government had made no assessment of teachers' level of fieldwork training.[155] The Countryside Alliance further told us that Defra's "clear commitment" to learning outside the classroom needed to be endorsed by the Department for Education.[156]

95. During our visit to East Sussex we visited an educational scheme operated by farmer Richard Benge of Millbank Farm near Pevensey. Mr Benge explained that Natural England provided him with £100 for each school visit to his farm to learn about all aspects of the farmed and natural environment. Poul Christensen, Chairman of Natural England, told us that organisations had had to resist pressure from Defra to remove funding for such schemes. The economics of the project were less important, according to Mr Benge, than the reward he found from contributing to educating children about farming and nature.

96. There is evidence that an increased focus in recent years on involving people with the natural environment is paying dividends but this work needs to be accelerated. We welcome the White Paper's focus on local initiatives but many bodies, including NGOs, charities and local authorities, are facing budget constraints and need to be able to demonstrate measurable outcomes if they are to secure funding. We therefore recommend that Defra set a firm target for increasing public engagement with nature, such as the percentage of children of primary school age regularly engaging in nature activities.

97. We further recommend that the Department for Health and the Department for Education set out in their Business Plans appropriate outcome measures for health and education improvements through increased public engagement with the natural environment. The departments should jointly publish progress against these measures after 12 months.

Public access to nature

98. A number of witnesses highlighted a lack of focus in the White Paper on improving public access to the countryside. The Open Spaces Society noted that Defra had removed funding for annual permissive access payments from Higher Level Stewardship schemes under the CAP agri-environment scheme.[157]

99. Much of the evidence we received about public access commented on the need to fully designate the coastal path around England established under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009.[158] Our predecessor Committee undertook pre-legislative scrutiny of the English coastal access provisions of the draft Bill in 2008.[159] Their report noted that some landowners were concerned that they would incur costs from the coastal path crossing their land and local authorities also expressed concerns about the additional costs of designating and maintaining the path and its associated infrastructure.[160] The former Environment Minister, Jonathan Shaw, told our predecessor Committee that he envisaged the path being completed within about 10 to 11 years.[161] The Welsh Coastal Path has now been completed around the whole coastline of Wales.[162] The Welsh Assembly Government considers the path to be a considerable tourism and recreation asset bringing benefits to rural communities.[163]

100. Most of the evidence presented to this inquiry urged Defra to move faster to ensure full establishment of the English coastal path.[164] Rodney Whittaker, Chairman of the Ramblers told us that his organisation was disappointed that "only six parts of the coastal path are scheduled and timetabled" at the moment.[165]

101. It should be noted that in addition to delivering a route around the coast, the public needs to be able to get easily to that route in the first place. Many of those living even quite close to the coast rarely visit it due to lack of public transport and lack of information. GreenLINK, representing organisations in the parks and green spaces sector, noted that access to natural spaces could be as "acutely problematic" in rural as much as in urban areas.[166]

102. The lack of progress in designating the coastal path around England is disappointing. We recommend that Defra review, together with Natural England and local authorities, the timetable for designation and reschedule efforts so that the coastal path around England is fully complete within ten years. Defra should also provide us with an update on progress in one year's time.

138   NEWP Chapter 4, pp 46 - 49. The National Planning Policy Framework specifies that local communities through local and neighbourhood plans should be able to identify for special protection green areas of particular importance to them. By designating land as Local Green Space, local communities will be able to rule out new development other than in very special circumstances. Muckin4Life provides information via a tailored website to enable people to identify volunteering options in the natural environment. Back

139   "50 things to do before you're 11 ¾", National Trust press release, 21 May 2012  Back

140   Q10 Back

141   Ev 87 Back

142   Ev w19  Back

143   Ev w24  Back

144   Ev 111 Back

145   Ev w2  Back

146   "National Trust predicts record visitor numbers for 2012", The Guardian, February 2012 Back

147   Linking the Environment and Farming (LEAF) operate an annual open farm Sunday with a large number of farms open to the public Back

148   Ev 96, Ev w14  Back

149   The English adult population participated in an estimated 2.49 billion visits to the natural environment in 2010-11. This represents a 13% decrease on the estimated 2.86 billion visits taken during 2009-10 Back

150   Ev w2  Back

151   Ev 121 Back

152   Ev w14  Back

153   Ev 87 Back

154   Ev w17 According to an ALGE survey, 65% of local planning authorities have no reported expertise for biodiversity work since only 35% have access to an in-house ecologist Back

155   Ev w24  Back

156   Ev w2  Back

157   Permissive access revenue payments cannot be included in new Higher Level Stewardship agreements. Where the provision of permissive linear routes or open access under an agri-environment scheme has proved to be of public benefit then Natural England and Defra are keen that permissive access should continue on a voluntary basis. Back

158   For example Campaign to Protect Rural England Back

159   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2007-08, Draft Marine Bill: Coastal Access Provisions, HC 656 Back

160   As above Back

161   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee,Ninth Report of Session 2007-08, Draft Marine Bill: Coastal Access Provisions, HC 656, Q 372 Back

162   "In praise of... the Welsh Coast Path", The Guardian, 6 May 2012  Back

163   Welsh Government website, Back

164   For example, Wildlife and Countryside Link Back

165   Q 93 Back

166   Ev w76 Back

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Prepared 17 July 2012