This is an Inside Track long read.
One of the unexpected outcomes of the past few years’ Brexit upheaval is the environment’s rise up the government agenda. Reasons range from the cultural to the nakedly political: the public gripped by Blue Planet’s devastating images of plastic pollution and a summer of alarming wildfires from Saddleworth to Sweden; Conservative election losses attributed in part to eco-conscious millennials; and a secretary of state whose ambition and shrewdness have married happily with a long latent green sympathy. The EU referendum result prompted environmental NGOs to unite and campaign more effectively under the umbrella of Greener UK; and Brexit has demanded more parliamentary time on environmental concerns, occasions to which MPs and peers are rising with admirable aplomb.
As a result, there is a real chance of new and transformative environmental policy. This momentum will be hard for the government to ignore, no matter what happens with Brexit. Already, it has published a 25 year environment plan with the goal of improving the environment within a generation. And the Agriculture Bill currently making its way through parliament heralds a shift to a land management system with payments for environmental public goods at its heart. The government has also now published a draft Environment Bill and is considering including targets for environmental improvement in the legislation, noting that “well-designed targets could offer greater certainty on the strength of the government’s ambition and drive action by businesses and wider society”.
Not just defending but restoring
If the plans measure up to the rhetoric, they will prompt significant changes to landscapes and neighbourhoods across England (devolution means that most of the UK government’s environmental policies only reach as far as the Welsh and Scottish borders).
Success would mean transformation: making space for nature, as the Lawton Review advised, with more, bigger, better and joined up wildlife sites; massive afforestation to absorb greenhouse gas emissions; remodelling coastlines to adapt to sea level rise; and building the clean, modern infrastructure necessary for replacing the fossil fuel economy and improving air quality.
This is part of a broader reorientation of environmentalism. The movement’s historical roots were in the fight for access to wild places, and shielding ‘pristine’ nature from pollution and unconstrained development; many crucial present day campaigns still do so. Significant victories have been won, but not enough. The twenty first century dawned on a dirty, denuded planet: a world of plummeting insect populations, accumulating marine plastics, rising temperatures and nature deficit disorder. As evocatively captured in The Wildlife Trusts’ animated video imagining The Wind in the Willows today, environmentalists know we must be proactive as well as reactive, to restore and not just defend.
Take back control in the right way
Such transformation, though, requires legitimacy. Turning around environmental decline is a global necessity, as well as a national one. If this country is to be at the forefront of those efforts, we have a responsibility to do it well, so that success here inspires further success beyond these shores. Restoring nature and responding to climate change will need not just the consent but the endorsement of the public, as it will also require their knowledge, judgement and participation.
Legitimacy comes, in part, from our established institutions of representative democracy: we elect national representatives to enact laws on our behalf, and local governments that are responsible for much of the planning system. But one of the lessons we should learn from the UK government and parliament’s shambolic handling of the entire Brexit process is that those institutions are not enough.
The way the ‘take back control’ message resonated so widely should make all democrats pause. People need and deserve to have a say in the future of their localities, and this is best done through deliberation rather than confrontation. It requires new tools and processes, the revitalisation of our democratic institutions, particularly at the local level. And, as MPs Lisa Nandy and Stella Creasy have advocated, we need to cultivate more openness and conversation.
Lessons from infrastructure development
Proactive, restorative environmentalism must also learn from the mistakes of its archetypal opponents, particularly developers who have sought to impose new infrastructure on an unsuspecting or unengaged public. The impacts of environmental policy will of course be qualitatively different, but the scale could be comparable to major infrastructure projects.
Making space for nature can have lots of co-benefits, such as for physical and mental health, but it can also mean less space for other things, and trade-offs will have to be made. Decision makers also need to be sure that what is being proposed makes sense on the ground and in relation to people’s daily lives.
The Lawton Review recognised this, acknowledging, “we are defining a direction of travel that will only be achieved by consensus and collaboration, rather than a highly prescriptive blueprint”. The report pointed out:
“Delivering our vision is not a job for government alone, or even primarily for government. We will not achieve a step-change in nature conservation in England without society accepting that it is necessary, desirable, and achievable. This will require strong leadership from government and a much better collaboration between local authorities, local communities, statutory agencies, the voluntary and private sectors, farmers, landowners, other land managers and individual citizens. It will require education, explanation, and empowerment. It will also require resources, both money and people. It cannot be ‘top down’ and imposed. Nor can it be entirely laissez faire. It won’t be easy. But it can be done.”
There are, then, multiple rationales for investing in more open and collaborative processes, as Green Alliance set out in its 2015 report, Opening up infrastructure planning:
- New ideas enrich the debate, as more people are involved.
- Greater comprehension of risks and perspectives enables decision makers, experts and the public to understand and challenge each other’s assumptions.
- There is a greater chance of identifying more acceptable outcomes and potential compromises.
- More transparency and accountability increases the public’s trust in government and means decisions are more likely to be accepted as fair.
- Implementation is improved, as relevant actors are brought on board early on.
- More durable decisions increase investor confidence, which reduces costs.
Bring geography into the Environment Bill
The government should invest in the tools and create the opportunities for the public to be more involved in environmental decision making. This doesn’t mean holding local referenda every time someone wants to build a conservatory; rather, there needs to be more strategic, proactive environmental planning, with deliberative processes built in from the start.
The upcoming Environment Bill provides an ideal opportunity. This bill, due to be introduced to parliament in the summer, could be a critical piece of legislation for making good on the government’s promise to leave the environment in a better state. To do that, it needs to include, first, an overarching duty along those lines, with a set of broad thematic objectives to spell out what that duty entails.
Second, it should put in place the specific targets and practical measures required to achieve those objectives. A strategic approach to environmental planning will be a very important element, and one that is currently missing. It should build on the idea of Nature Recovery Networks mooted in the 25 year environment plan, but go beyond wildlife conservation to integrate all environmental issues, from flood management to carbon sequestration.
Geography should be integral to the bill, with a duty on relevant authorities to produce Nature Recovery Maps and Plans. They would identify the location and extent of areas for habitat protection and restoration and guide how the land can be managed to support important ecological processes. These maps and plans could then be taken into account in policies relating to, and decisions about, land use, land management, infrastructure and other planning and development. They could be used to target investment, such as agri-environment funding. Their development would be a great opportunity to involve local people in conversations about their environment, in places where they have an emotional connection and at a scale that is easily grasped.
The importance of public engagement in planning
There are already many tools for facilitating deliberative exercises, and digital technologies are making it easier than ever. ‘Gamification’ is a growing field that deploys elements of game-playing to provoke engagement in otherwise dry subjects. There is considerable expertise in organisations such as Involve, a public participation charity, and the Centre for Sustainable Energy, a Bristol-based organisation with a track record of making the low carbon transition meaningful to people.
If they are to work well, these processes must be underpinned by understanding and commitment within national and local government, and funding should be made available. It would be unfair to impose new, unresourced demands on over-stretched authorities, many of which have already lost planners and ecologists due to budgetary pressure. Conversations would need to involve key stakeholders such as community groups, local and combined authorities, statutory bodies, utilities, farming groups and conservation organisations. They should be carefully framed and recognise that local concerns have to be balanced with national and international priorities.
Money for delivering environmental objectives could be public, for example via the new Environmental Land Management Schemes due to be established by the Agriculture Bill; or it could be private, via the proposed requirement for new developments to ensure net biodiversity gain. Local Industrial Strategies are currently being set up, in part “to promote the co-ordination of local economic policy and national funding streams”, and should arguably be in sync with local environmental strategies.
Rather than view environmental policy as yet another cost to be managed, it could be seen as a reason for revitalising local democracy, getting people engaged in the decisions being made about their area, and funnelling resources towards local institutions.
Invest now to avoid backlash
Dramatic environmental change is coming, whether we like it or not, but we have some ability to make it positive rather than catastrophic. We need a new era of environmental policy: politicians must face up to the possibility of ecosystem collapse and resolve to act with commensurate immoderation. But we also need – and this may sound oxymoronic to some, but it isn’t – more democracy, not less.
Techniques such as natural capital accounting are useful, but policy making and plan making can’t be purely technocratic exercises if they are to succeed. Decisions must be judgements that are ultimately values-based and political, not calculated via an algorithm. Facts and values need to be in conversation with one another (and the lines between them are blurry at best). In the same way that the credibility and authority of scientific research rests on respected institutional architecture, so must that of policy and political decisions.
Building more public engagement and deliberation into environmental policy making is not about slowing the process down or adding frivolous expense. It is the best way to ensure that good decisions are made, which are seen to be reasonable and stand the test of time. If the government avoids this today, it will store up problems for the future. Bold environmental objectives, if implemented badly, could spark a damaging backlash, derailing future efforts and sending a message to the rest of the world that environmental leadership is a political risk.
Getting this right, though, would be good for communities across the country, who would enjoy the wellbeing that comes from improved access to nature, the return of much-loved wildlife like the fast disappearing hedgehog, the food security brought by flourishing pollinator populations and carefully stewarded soils, the flood resilience and water quality provided by better catchment management… you get the idea.
And, over time, perhaps we would see a cultural shift in how politics is done, as better environmental decision making contributes to a wider spirit of openness and the renewal of struggling democratic institutions. It’s got to start somewhere.
Thanks go to participants at a roundtable hosted by the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge in November 2018, whose insights helped to inform this piece.