CPRE's Head of Campaigns, Ben Stafford, outlines the action the Government needs to take to ensure their Natural Environment White Paper helps protect and enhance the countryside
We are grateful to Richard Benyon for providing his thoughts on progress in the year since the Government published its White Paper, The Natural Choice. We particularly welcome his support for the excellent work CPRE volunteers have been doing across the country. He mentions the Fell Care Days in the Lake District and the work of people picking up litter to make their areas cleaner and more pleasant, both great initiatives. There are many other good examples too, including work to map and support local food networks, planting and stewardship of hedgerows and engagement in planning issues across the country to ensure that the quality and character of our countryside is maintained and enhanced.
Recognising the natural environment in planning
Mr Benyon’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is right to see the White Paper, the first of its kind for 20 years, as a notable achievement. It contains many commitments – 92 of them in fact – and there has already been action to get many of them underway. The Government has provided funding for 12 Nature Improvement Areas, which are a step on the path towards landscape-scale conservation and enhancement of the countryside, as advocated by Sir John Lawton in his excellent Making Space for Nature report. 41 Local Nature Partnerships have now been recognised, bringing together environmental groups, farmers, businesses, local councils and their communities to work to improve their local natural environment.
And we are sure that the White Paper was a powerful tool within government during the debates last year and earlier this on the National Planning Policy Framework, which sets out the new framework for planning policy across England. The final NPPF was much stronger than the initial draft on issues such as the recognition of the value of the more than 50% of England’s countryside that does not enjoy special protection and the need to develop as far as possible on previously used, brownfield sites. Without strong messages of this kind in the White Paper, would the NPPF have changed as much for the better?
A clear plan of action for delivery
So there is much for the Government, and Mr Benyon’s Department in particular, to take credit for. But there are also major challenges ahead if the White Paper is to be fully implemented and integrated into the heart of government policy. The House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee recently held an Inquiry into the White Paper, and it has now published its report. While it too applauds much of what is in the document, it challenges the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister to put nature at the heart of the country’s decision-making, calls for other Government Departments to play their part and asks for a clear action plan showing how all 92 commitments in the White Paper are to be delivered.
CPRE agrees with the Committee. Making The Natural Choice a reality is a job for the whole Government, not just Mr Benyon and his colleagues in Defra. Since the General Election in 2010, the Prime Minister has had very little to say about the environment, but leadership from him is essential if we are to restore our landscapes, wider countryside and natural systems, which in many places are under siege. This leadership is even more important given the view articulated by some in government – notably the Treasury – that protecting the environment and economic growth are opposing aims, and that the former must be sacrificed to achieve the latter. This is fundamentally wrong – protecting and enhancing the environment is critical to sustainable long-term growth, and that message needs to be communicated from the top of government.
Serious investment in the environment is essential
It is also critical that all Departments take seriously their responsibilities to the natural environment. The White Paper is a Government document, not just a Defra one, and there are responsibilities on virtually every Department to deliver the commitments within it. Just as the Government says that economic growth and deficit reduction are priorities across Departments, so should be the protection and restoration of nature. So far, the record of other Departments is mixed, to say the least, although the evidence of the influence of the White Paper on the final national planning policy is an encouraging sign.
The final challenge relates, as so often, to money. The Natural Choice did not come with a lot of cash attached – the main funding commitments were £7.5 million for the new Nature Improvement Areas and £1 million for capacity-building for Local Nature Partnerships (since supplemented by an additional £750,000 for NIAs). While any new money is welcome this is, in government terms, small beer. Ministers rightly point out that government funding is not the only way to pay for environmental improvement, but it is an important element. In his Making Space for Nature report, Sir John Lawton suggested that the vision of landscape-scale protection and restoration of the natural environment would require between £0.6 and 1.1 billion per year. In the current economic climate, it’s very unlikely that the Government would commit to spending that sort of money. But they should have an aspiration to increase public spending on environmental protection if they are truly serious about it – in the end, that upper figure of £1.1 billion would still constitute just 0.15% of total government spending.
So we welcome the Natural Environment White Paper, and the clear commitment to it shown by Richard Benyon and his colleagues. There is much more to do to make its commitments a reality, but hopefully we are heading in the right direction, and CPRE groups across the country will continue to play their part in not just protecting, but restoring and improving our countryside for future generations.
Head of Campaigns, Campaign to Protect Rural England
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Richard Benyon MP on Government progress on the natural environment: Securing the value of nature