Environment, Food and Rural Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Miss Maria Crastus

Will the institutional framework outlined for delivering the proposals (in particular Nature Improvement Areas and Local Nature Partnerships) be effective?

1. The focus on delivering biodiversity on a landscape scale, particularly through NIAs, is widely welcomed because there has to be an overview of how all local authorities are working towards the same goals. However, in urban contexts such as London, and particularly in inner cities, landscape scale conservation is often impracticable because there are only small and isolated patches of green space. There is therefore a fear that if the new legislation is to signal a major move away from targeted, site-specific action on habitats and species, then biodiversity delivery could become meaningless in several inner city boroughs, because they would not be able to achieve the habitat connectivity that is possible in places with large areas of green space.

2. The risk of biodiversity falling off the agenda would be even greater in areas of high social deprivation, where biodiversity is already lower on the political agenda than in other places, and understandably so because people have greater concerns about crime, housing and jobs. For these reasons, if the message coming through from central government is that the only biodiversity delivery which matters is that on a landscape scale, then there could appear to be little point in delivering it in inner cities. Just one of the reasons why this would be a great shame is that many people live in inner cities, and they are often the only places where people can encounter biodiversity locally and become interested in it.

3. The case of inner cities therefore shows that, whilst advancing the landscape scale conservation agenda is absolutely required and will be key to the future of biodiversity, it is equally important to recognise the place that targeted actions will have in that agenda.

4. Further problems could arise with reconciling the move towards landscape scale conservation with the new national focus on a Big Society. The Big Society does definitely have a key role to play in landscape scale conservation, but for it to do this assumes either a significant amount of information and knowledge on the part of the Big Society, or the provision of it to them. And because the Big Society could not be expected to come up with the wider strategy itself, a significant degree of government intervention would be needed in order to provide the information and tools for local groups to be able to see how what they are doing in a particular area fits into a bigger project.

5. Though if the state’s role did shift from that of controller to that of facilitator in order to encourage local communities to work towards landscape plans, it would bring its own equally heavy resource pressures to bear. Local groups would not have all the requisite skills and would not know exactly what needed to be done, so the public sector’s role as provider of information to them would end up being a very resource intensive and time consuming strategy.

6. There is also a lack of confidence about the chances this strategy would have of success, because many people believe that community groups are often parochial, generally concerned about their immediate local surroundings, and not about much beyond that. They might therefore not necessarily be worried about what is going on in neighbouring areas, so there is some doubt that sufficient numbers of them would have enough interest in contributing to a landscape plan.

7. The formation of LNPs could be very valuable from a funding perspective. If statutory and third sector conservation organisations could make their activities relevant to a more diverse range of other environmental agendas, such as climate change, ecosystem services, and green infrastructure, this could give them access to a wider portfolio of funding opportunities from these other policy areas.

What resources will be needed to fully deliver the White Paper’s ambitions and how can these best be provided?

8. Any notion that the Big Society will come cheaper than Big Government was quickly dispelled by the people interviewed, because people believe it is a myth that a reliance on voluntary groups is any less resource intensive than having paid staff. For either a council or a charity to encourage more volunteer involvement is a time consuming and costly exercise, and they need skilled, paid people to lead the volunteers, not only in order to provide them with tools, but with a fun experience as well. This is because it cannot just be a case of giving a group of volunteers a mundane task to do seven days a week, because they will not find it fun anymore, and they will be disinclined to continue volunteering. This is particularly the case with those conservation tasks that are less glamorous or attractive, such as digging and pulling out brambles or bindweed, after a few days of which volunteers are unlikely to want to come back.

9. A council or a charity therefore needs to have a diverse programme that covers all the skills and physical abilities of the individual volunteers in order to make sure they keep coming back. All of these elements cost time and money, and without the funds to cover this, a volunteer programme is unsustainable. Many council officers say that a cost saving could be made if they could have a paid, in-house volunteer leader who could work across several council departments, but also that such posts are not seen as a priority in the present climate.

10. Community groups have historically been very dependent on local authorities not only for funding, but also for assistance with writing grant applications for funding from alternative sources such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, SITA, BIFA, and the Landfill Communities Fund. This is because many community groups do not hold the necessary expertise within their ranks to be able to do these applications on their own. This leads many people to believe that the Big Society idea of local groups surviving on their own would not work, because they depend on the local authorities for advice and encouragement on so many aspects of their work. Many people thus feel that if the local authorities were to pull away from the local groups and withdraw their funding and support for them, a large number of them could go into terminal decline. There remains the possibility that community groups will still be capable of applying for smaller amounts of money without the support of local authorities. Even with these, though, many more groups will be bidding for an ever diminishing resource, and inevitably they cannot all be successful.

11. Many community groups also depend on the larger voluntary organisations such as the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV), whom they are often affiliated with, to provide them with start-up funding and with their know-how on how to lead teams of volunteers. Community groups could therefore be equally badly impacted by the loss of the large organisations’ core funding from councils as they would be by the loss of their own core funding.

12. There is evidence to suggest that those local authorities whose LBAPs have been successfully integrated in other council functions such as housing, social services, health, and education, have a better chance of retaining their biodiversity officers in the midst of the spending cuts than those boroughs that have more stand-alone LBAPs. This is because it gives LBAP coordinators a greater cross-cutting role, and makes them less expendable. It is also very important from a funding perspective, because if nature conservationists can demonstrate, for example, that they are working to create new habitats around housing estates, helping to build cohesive communities, encouraging more active lifestyles, or engaging young people, then their LBAPs have a greater chance of receiving funding from the council departments whose remits include these things. This in turn will increase their chances of being able to continue funding at least some of the voluntary groups in their boroughs. It also helps LBAP coordinators to justify why they are working with certain voluntary groups to other people within the local authority.

13. It also came to light that in some circumstances, it might actually be possible for local authorities to undertake biodiversity actions which could also save them money. For example, by not cutting grass, a council could save on the mowing costs and also theoretically improve the biodiversity value of some areas. But the problem with this strategy would lie in convincing the decision makers within the local authorities of its value, because there is a feeling that it would be hard to get them to change their ideas and approaches.

14. Among the groups conspicuous by their absence in the BAP process are allotment associations. Some people explained that city allotments represent a vast untapped resource for biodiversity enhancement, and that inviting members of allotment associations to BAP meetings would offer great potential for “spreading the word”, because they could then go away and educate their other members about best gardening practice. Allotment associations have the added advantage that they could easily secure funding for biodiversity work, because for several years now there has been a growing interest on the part of funding providers in local food production, and in reducing food miles.

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?

15. The ecosystem services approach could have some significant benefits for public engagement with the natural environment. Some London boroughs are looking at completely throwing out their standard Habitat and Species Action Plans and writing new theme-based BAPs that more strongly incorporate the ecosystem services approach. Examples of these themes are the built environment, enhancing the ecological network, climate change and sustainability, and connecting with nature. It is hoped that the new-style BAPs will better engage with the people who local authorities really want to reach—the public, and particularly developers, because one of the best ways of improving biodiversity in the boroughs is through new developments.

16. The old-style BAPs often did not succeed in engaging with developers, because if the BAPs’ specific actions for habitats and species, such as those for meadows or stag beetles, were not affected by a proposed development, then the BAPs were of no relevance to the developer, and there was no incentive for them to consider the impact a development could have on the local biodiversity. If the new-style BAPs, however, say that 30% of all new developments need to have green roofs by a certain date, then developers would need to consider this. Indeed, getting biodiversity gains through the planning process will be increasingly significant, given that the benefits to developers of including biodiversity in their bottom lines are now well recognised. In this respect, many people see ecosystem services as a great opportunity for wider engagement, and one that would be missed if the BAPs kept to the narrow confines of Habitat and Species Action Plans.

25 October 2011

Prepared 16th July 2012