The 2015 Conservative manifesto contained the very welcome statement that ‘we will build new infrastructure in an environmentally sensitive way’ and committed to produce a 25 year plan for nature. Although the context may have changed significantly with the outcome of the EU referendum on June 23rd, both commitments will be coming into sharp focus over the coming months. Indeed, the two commitments are interrelated - far more so than the impression has been given.
Respecting the irreplaceable
The Autumn Statement traditionally sees a strong emphasis on improving infrastructure but there is the added context this year of the recent Natural England report into how HS2 was seeking to achieve its aim of no net loss of biodiversity. It argued that ancient woodland is irreplaceable and should be not be included in this calculation by HS2 lest it give the impression that ancient woodland is somehow tradeable. The report also went on to argue that a compensation ratio of 30 hectares of new woodland created for every one lost was an appropriate recognition of its importance – sending out a strong signal that loss needs to be avoided. The response from the Department of Transport that the report was ‘a stimulus for debate’ rather than immediately accepting the conclusionsuggests that there is work to do in terms of securing cross-government buy-in to those manifesto commitments.
Ancient woodland (our richest land habitat, covering just 2% of the country) is a key building block for environmental enhancement but we are losing it at an alarming rate. We need an approach to the delivery of needed infrastructure and housebuilding that both recognises the importance of protecting our most valued habitats and seeks to improve people’s opportunities to access nature with all the many benefits such access brings.
Exiting the EU and the natural environment
Whilst we must ensure that the EU’s protective and regulatory frameworks that currently apply to UK wildlife and habitats are at least secured, we must also ensure that domestic protections which are clearly failing – such as those around ancient woodland where the National Planning Policy Framework is failing to halt loss to development are properly addressed and not simply parked. They are part of the same question about being the first generation to leave the environment in better shape than we found it.
Leaving the EU provides the opportunity to shape a new land use policy that addresses environmental security and forges far better interplay between environmental enhancement and productive farming than the CAP allowed – but it will require imagination.
A broader understanding of ‘infrastructure’
The Government’s 25 year plan for the environment needs to make clear that enhancement of the environment is a cross-government responsibility. It also needs a modern understanding of ‘infrastructure’ that will really equip us for future challenges, not just getting from A to B more swiftly. This means acting on the increasingly compelling evidence about our need for green infrastructure. Research carried out for the Woodland Trust by Europe Economics found that trees deliver £270 billion worth of benefits to society. It is becoming ever clearer that they are far more than an aesthetic prop or somewhere for wildlife to live. They are essential to combating air pollution, to flood management and to locking up carbon.
Turning around the present lamentably low planting rates - just 700 hectares in England last planting season, when the target is 5,000 hectares per year - will require reduced complexity around grant agreements for landowners, incentivising payment for ecosystem services and capturing the imagination of the wider public. In terms of the latter, a new national forest in the north of England is an idea which the Woodland Trust believes would offer a great deal in showcasing the importance of green infrastructure and bring a very visible environmental dimension to the Northern Powerhouse project.
In the present uncertain times, Burke’s declaration that we must leave to future generations ‘an habitation not a ruin’ was never more relevant. But there are grounds for optimism given how much there is to play for in terms of shaping a land use policy that meets our needs and using new development to enhance opportunities to access natural green space whilst protecting the best of what we have. In short, an environment that works for everyone.
Dr James Cooper is Head of Government Affairs at the Woodland Trust
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue