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EiPL - What could a more comprehensive approach to nature conservation renewal look like?

30 June 2021

The second EiPL session of 2021 asked the question: “Nature conservation is key to hitting carbon zero, but is still low profile and its funding is fragmented. What would a more comprehensive approach to investment in nature conservation renewal look like?” Carolyn McKenzie, Chair of the ADEPT Energy & Clean Growth Working Group talks us through…

It is rapidly becoming a truism to say that the pandemic has changed people’s relationship with the natural environment. There is certainly more interest in the quality of our local places and green spaces, and a growth in understanding of the impacts of climate change. People are becoming more supportive of policies to protect the natural environment, increase biodiversity and plant more trees, but as local authorities, we know that climate adaptation and mitigation are not simple problems to solve. Our policies need to go much further than the current spate of national strategies emerging from government, welcome though they are.

This session challenged us to really think about how we take nature conservation forward as place directors in our local areas, and I think we really started to get to the heart of the difficult questions. What will unlock real change and do we have the skills? Who do we need on side? What do we need to know? And, of course, where will the funding come from? Should our approaches be top down, bottom up, or both?

One thing was clear from the session - how we do things in the future is going to be very different from traditional leadership. To achieve what we need to do to meet climate targets will require data and outcome-based budgeting, sharing resources, making concessions and forging new and experimental collaborations: new co-commissioning, co-design and co-delivery partnerships. We will need to change our relationships with our communities and the private sector, as well as with each other. New technologies will come on stream and have to be incorporated into long-term contracts such as highways and waste, and we don’t yet know how to fully meet climate targets. Flexibility and adaptability will be key - so we have to change. And at the same time, we know being outcome-based is risky. We can’t afford to incur 30% extra costs because we don’t know precisely what solutions we need, so flexibility will be needed on all sides, alongside a willingness to enter into difficult discussions, but with the same goal in mind.

It is imperative that we bring our communities with us, each of the speakers was clear on this point. Our work with them has to be transformative as they will sometimes need to become delivery partners. For example, Surrey has a target of planting 1.2m trees by 2030. If our highways team plants a tree, the costs are very different to when that same tree is planted by a community group. There are insurance issues and future maintenance to be considered – how do you enter into an agreement with the community or parish council to use volunteers for the continuing upkeep? We will need to communicate more widely and more effectively with our communities to enable them to think differently, alongside us, to meet the challenges ahead. Conservation, biodiversity, blue and green infrastructure all offer natural solutions through carbon sequestration, natural flood risk management, water storage, temperature control and pest management. We need our communities to understand the power of the environment to provide effective solutions and to communicate with politicians, both nationally and locally. If they develop a stronger sense of their ownership of place and help us ask more from our planning regulations, local plans and policies, we will be able to embed environmental and social benefits throughout everything we do. 

That transformative approach, willingness to collaborate and to think differently also needs to extend to funding. The government has announced an £800 million Carbon Capture and Storage Infrastructure Fund, a four-year, £1.3 billion electric vehicle charging infrastructure programme, but a £27 billion, five-year road building programme. From that, it is easy to see that funding for nature restoration will be an ongoing critical issue, demanding resourcefulness and creativity to meet. However, the value of a scheme has to be seen in terms of the whole output – health and wellbeing, environment, climate change, skills and jobs – so we need to see that reflected in funding criteria.

But it’s also exciting. Although there is no one silver bullet for environment issues, no one organisation or single pot of gold, a mix of different solutions, approaches and organisations can be linked up. For example, if you are developing a flood defence system in a town centre or urban area, you can create a natural flood risk management scheme that provides biodiversity habitat, decarbonisation, a play area, heat control and shade, as well as it being an attractive place - and this automatically includes economic development. Could there be a community café and a cycleway to enable active travel? We can bring in different budgets and organisations just by thinking differently, and making those links can enable us to access different funding streams to achieve multiple outcomes. We have to explore the art of the possible – government policy is only a starting point; we also need to change organisational thinking.

Local authorities need to signal intent that from the very beginning, when we create a corporate strategy, a local transport plan, or an economic development plan, green procurement is built in. An economic development plan might include supporting businesses, and if you can provide support through grants and training, you can also put in environmental management. Procurement has been seen as a transactional thing, but it needs to become very policy and strategy driven. It’s the power of saying not only do we want to buy or pilot this type of product, but we want you to deliver it in this way, and we also want you to work with your supply chain to make sure they are using energy effectively and reducing business miles. We have that buying power and we can use it to effect positive change, but to succeed, it must be embedded from the outset through our policies. 

We’re facing a huge task and I don’t think any of us knows quite how to address it yet, which is why this session was so important. There is a lot of enthusiasm for a joint approach and a real understanding amongst our partners and politicians that change needs to happen through developing more meaningful relationships. We need to make sure we have the skills and tools, and find the time to really change and develop our ways of thinking. That will ensure we capture every opportunity to embed the value of the environment, natural capital, and nature conservation, and fully realise the consequent health and social benefits, in all we do. 

We will need to be radical and accept risk, knowing that we will ruffle some feathers. But we can take our communities and partners with us if we engage at an early stage, get our narrative right and provide the evidence to support our actions.

The ADEPT Excellence in Place Leadership programme is sponsored by Amey, who pioneered this approach within the highways sector in 2018. ADEPT and Amey continue to collaborate and will be delivering a third programme during 2022. Find out more about the Green Renewal session here.

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