On the 11th November, I went to the Institute of Physics (of all places) for a conference on Protecting and Enhancing the Urban and Natural Environment courtesy of Inside Government.
First up, a DEFRA rep. with an impressive account of Government achievements – National Ecosystem Assessment, a world leader. Some impressive figures for the value of ecosystem services such as £0.5 billion for pollination, and access to nature saving the NHS £2.1 billion through de-stressing us etc. Also, the Natural Capital Committee (under Dieter Helm) doing its bit to adjust the GDP to take account of nature’s benefits. An uphill struggle as biodiversity and ecosystems in general are in decline.
Lots of chat here and later about “the power of partnership”. The jargon generator came up with the Ecosystem Knowledge Network, Local Nature Partnerships under the National Planning Policy Framework, Engagement in the Natural environment, Green Infrastructure Partnerships (still with me?), the Ecosystems Marketing Task Force, the Outdoors for All programme etc etc etc.
The response to my question about how far natural capital assets were picked up in conventional national accounts was answered by the comment that it was too early to say but the signs were encouraging – the Natural Capital Committee reports directly to the Chancellor’s Economic Affairs Committee. Make of that what you will.
A brief canter over the work of the Environment Agency and it was off to draw breath over the “refreshment break”. “What did you make of it so far ?” I asked a young participant. “Blah, blah, blah, blah blah ” (a direct quote) was the response from the endangered species that is the Local Authority ecologist. He pointed out that local authorities had the necessary expertise to deliver the government’s aspirations but they were being cut to the core.
A lively talk from a New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership director, noting that he no longer had to blag on about business case for developing the green economy – it was accepted. He made a great pitch for East Anglia (“Wild Anglia” seems to be the strap line) as a place to invest in (despite it being drier than Israel and Morocco ( um, what about that desert to the south?). He was hoping for a “growth deal” (someone else can explain what exactly that is).
The TCPA made a fair pitch for Garden Cities. Ebenezer Howard might have written it himself. The message “the UK is miles behind Germany and Scandinavia in its planning for sustainability” was all too believable. But the NPPF commends Garden Cities so maybe, just maybe, their time is coming – again.
Investing in Research to Secure Biodiversity was a sales pitch for a piece of software which could tell you (Statoil was the chosen example) where to explore with least damage to the environment taking account of biodiversity, vulnerability, fragmentation, connectivity, and resilience. It seemed to do the job in north west Madagascar and there was some cross checking the computer-generated answers with the real world. A for effort.
The GLA representative gave a good account of the Natural Environment of the City and a pointer to the London Sustainable Development Commission (LSDC) to get stuck into the Infrastructure Investment Plan to ensure it gets the green component right.
The afternoon was partly about the role of the environment in promoting public health outcomes and though the NPPF came into play as an ally, I felt that there was some way to go before health professionals, the pharmaceutical industry and government were going to put as much effort into prevention (exercise, experience of the natural world etc) as to cure. The urgent (curing diabetes) always out muscles the less urgent (better diets). That said, there was some good work going on in Tower Hamlets. Thereafter, the event rather lost its way though it was good to hear one of the LSDC’s former London Leaders, Nigel Tyrell, give a great account of his brilliant app “Love Lewisham”.
The closing keynote (the air was thick with keynotes, enough for a couple of symphonies, – 4 during the day) was billed as Healthy Ecosystems and Healthy People by a director of Natural England. That’s an oxymoron for connoisseurs of the genre as there is only one bit of untouched woodland (in the Wye Valley) and one unimproved river (in Cumbria since you ask) in the whole country. Some useful information about the financial benefits of exposure to nature /green spaces and a couple of fresh acronyms for collectors – Micro Economic Evidence for the Benefits of involvement in the Environment (MEEBE) and Monitoring the Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE).
I didn’t really get an answer to my question at the end to the effect that with all this effort, expertise and money, biodiversity and ecosystems in general are actually in decline, so what are we going to do to arrest this? I think the answer may be not to get too hung up in protecting in aspic a countryside and environment that has changed dramatically since the 1950s . We have to find new ways of protecting endemic flora and fauna in a no longer “Natural” England.
John Plowman, Chair of the London Sustainable Development Commission