Environment, Food and Rural Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by GreenLINK

GreenLINK brings together, at a national level, organisations that are active in the parks and green space sector. Participating organisations include charities and trusts, social enterprises and other non-governmental bodies. GreenLINK provides an open forum where knowledge can be shared, duplication can be avoided and robust and effective responses to challenges that impact on the sector can be jointly developed. Government Agencies and non-departmental public bodies are welcome and regular observers, expanding access to information and resources and making useful connections across different government departments, agendas and initiatives.

GreenLINK is hosted by GreenSpace the national charity working to improve parks and green spaces by raising awareness, involving communities and creating skilled professionals.

1. What actions are required across Government Departments, from local government and by civil society to deliver the White Paper’s proposals to grow a green economy and reconnect people with nature?

1.1 The Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP) was the most significant piece of environmental legislation for two decades. In producing this document the Government has clearly laid out the importance of ecosystems, landscapes, natural sites, parks and green infrastructure in having numerous benefits for the UK; socially, environmentally and economically. The transition to a prosperous, green economy needs to fully encompass both the environmental stewardship required in the face of a changing climate and the ambitions to create a stronger, civil society able and engaged to improve their communities. By overlapping these three potentially conflicting ideals the Government is challenging itself, local authorities, business, GreenLINK and all other organisations and citizens of the UK to reach an equitable outcome. The task is immense.

1.2 Aspects of Government need to be aligned, policies, political ambitions and long-term planning, in order to achieve the goals of the NEWP. Currently, there are conflicting messages around economic growth and infrastructure planning and the balance with environmental and social gains. The proposed High-Speed 2 rail line or the expansion of regional airports do not yet fully take into account the impact on ecosystem services, a theme so important in the NEWP. The draft Planning Policy Framework provides an inadequate and vague definition of “sustainable” development with insufficient regard for environmental stewardship and green infrastructure. The apparent disconnection between two Government department’s strategic policies and priorities must be addressed in order for Government to lead by example, bringing businesses and citizens with them.

1.3 How the Natural Capital Committee will integrate with economic policy, within the treasury and beyond to business, is unclear; the inclusion of natural capital in UK environmental accounts is a positive demonstrative step, but the NEWP does not detail how this activity will translate into decision-making by business and government. Reporting to the Natural Capital Committee may require new data collection and reporting systems; again it is not clear who will lead and fund the development of new systems to ensure consistency in data collection.

1.4 Local authorities will continue to need financial support, ideally protected budgets, for them to manage and enhance landscapes and ecosystem services. Parks and countryside services already maintain a rich variety of partnerships with third-sector and community organisations, delivering projects which enhance urban and rural environments. The sector is already a vanguard of engaging with communities, motivating volunteers and partnership working to deliver wider benefits. In the past this commitment to involving communities in the management of green spaces has had the added benefit of compensating for declining budgets and resources. At a time when there is increased impetus to further expand this area of activity, the relentless and disproportionate cuts to local authority green space budgets are endangering the sector’s ability to sustain current levels of community engagement. Jobs, skills and experience are leaching from the sector. Increasing volunteering opportunities and engagement with the wider community remains a goal, but to fully deliver the enhancement and protection the landscape requires, they will also need professional and skilled management, knowledge and support to shape their efforts.

2. Will the institutional framework outlined for delivering the proposals (in particular Nature Improvement Areas and Local Nature Partnerships) be effective? Does the proposed Natural Capital Committee have sufficient powers?

2.1 Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs) and Local Nature Partnerships (LNPs) are the Government’s proposed delivery model for the NEWP. The wording around this section is passive and does not reflect the clear ambition of the rest of the NEWP to ensure that natural capital, or the value of ecosystem services, is properly accounted. NIAs and LNPs need to be properly enabled across the UK and their functions monitored and evaluated. The Government proposes to “encourage” LNPs and Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs) and Health and Well-Being Boards to work together, but this must be effectively enabled as these organisations may well have conflicting aims and alignment on all sides may be potentially difficult. At present LNPs are not even guaranteed a seat at the table; their representation is left to the discretion of LEPs and Health and Well Being Boards. In the current Local Government Planning Regulations consultation LEPs appear as statutory consultees but LNPs do not; this needs to be aligned. Furthermore, LEPs also have a far stronger sustainability model with businesses ready to work together, whilst bringing easy access to crucial private sector funding, to deliver projects. As yet the seed-funding can only initiate the development of NIAs and LNPs with further funding to be sought by each group, potentially from grants but, ideally in the eyes of Government, from private sector business. The case must be delivered by Government that the funding is as vital as all other growth strategies; functioning and enhanced ecosystem services must be of equal priority to ensure the future security of the UK.

3. What further research and/or evidence is required to develop practical programmes sufficiently detailed to deliver the White Paper’s ambition to fully embed the value of nature into policy delivery?

3.1 Government should work on a range of pilot projects, as currently being undertaken in part through Defra, to assess the range of ecosystem services in the variety of landscapes and green infrastructure throughout the UK. Standard, international units of ecosystem services are seemingly a way-off delivery, but when such mechanisms are developed for assessment then wider audience participation will be easier to create. Until such time, the Government needs to maintain clear messages about the importance of the natural environment and landscapes, both urban and rural, that business and citizens can understand.

4. What evidence is there from other countries that the approaches proposed in the White Paper can be successfully applied in practice?

4.1 Significant international research is focussed on assessing ecosystem services values and the options for paying as highlighted within the NEWP. The complexities of biodiversity, regional and global climatic variations and the interconnected relationships between biosphere functions demands that research here should retain a UK focus. Methodologies developed in the US and applied in Philadelphia and Denver need to be adapted and applied at a city wide level here in the UK. The learning from international projects is constantly absorbed through research professionals in the UK, and the learning disseminated and applied as we understand more. The Government has the opportunity to lead international learning by encouraging greater research and case study projects in the UK. This should be at all scales and levels; from consortia of NGO’s, major companies and managing authorities looking at wide-scale landscape restoration to local authorities, community groups and local environmental charities working to understand the benefits of local green spaces. By combining learning and delivery, enhancement can be achieved faster and greater numbers of people can be inspired.

5. What resources will be needed to fully deliver the White Paper’s ambitions and how can these best be provided? How might the value of “services” provided by ecosystems to beneficiaries be translated into spending that will enhance the natural environment?

5.1 GreenLINK understands that the Government needs to reduce its spending deficit and accordingly, all sectors must accept their share of budget restrictions. However, the environment is critical in maintaining quality of life and the UK’s future security. As our climate changes, locally and globally, the UK environment will be under increasing pressure and the ecosystem services provided to all of us equally impacted. This is before the need for development to serve a growing population and expanding urban areas, with all their associated resource consumption, further increasing the burden on the natural environment. If the Government wishes to achieve a growing economy in the future it must achieve this within environmental limits. Of the three overlapping ideals of economic growth, social unity and environmental quality, it is the functioning environment that always underpins the other principles.

5.2 Landscape-scale protections and management, through NIAs or other designations, need to be funded primarily through protected unitary or local authority budgets. This will continue to enable existing partnerships and community organisations to maintain and improve their local green spaces and natural areas. There is growing evidence that investment in green and blue infrastructure returns a ratio of benefits between three and twenty times the capital cost when assessed across economic, social and environmental indicators.

5.3 There are also great opportunities to retrofit and technically improve urban areas with economic benefits of; improved population health and well-being, better quality commercial environments, research and development of knowledge and new technologies for UK and international export and business opportunities in an emerging environmentally sustainable sector. As this “green” economy grows steadily the savings delivered through resource efficiency can be diverted to further protect and improve the wider landscape.

6. Does the White Paper set out an accurate assessment of the barriers to public engagement with the natural environment and make the most effective proposals for re-engagement?

5.4 Barriers to engagement with the natural environment are varied and in many cases are the combinations of causes. The quality of the local environment plays an important part in how people use their streets and public spaces, interact with neighbours and feel in themselves, physically and mentally. In areas of social deprivation communities often have a myriad of challenges, cultural distinctions and limited opportunities that affect their lifestyle. Grassroots projects often have great impact with small interventions, measurably enhancing local cultural ecosystem services even within low quality, amenity green infrastructure. Professional support through unitary and local authority, town and parish councils and third-sector environmental organisations will still be needed, to provide those with greatest need with the tools and confidence in which to start changing and improving their environments. Environmental projects, whether community gardening, wildlife and habitat enhancements, park improvements or street awards, act as platforms for wider messages around sustainable lifestyle choices and active citizenship.

5.5 Accessibility to natural spaces can be as acutely problematic in rural as in urban areas. By making more natural spaces accessible to the public greater numbers of visits can be encouraged, with the associated health and well-being benefits. Many people cite poor health, old age or disabilities as barriers to them visiting the natural environment. Here again, small interventions to provide networks of adequate, safe paths with resting places for users of all abilities, can make important differences. Even those with busy lifestyles, who rarely have time to use their local green spaces, will indirectly benefit from a greening of the environment when they travel outside their home, with better air quality and improved stress levels. The Government understands these benefits for individuals and communities and then society and the economy. The publication of NEWP shows clear ambition from the Government to improve the quality and accessibility of the natural environment.

26 September 2011

Prepared 16th July 2012