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This is a piece from the Rural Services Network from earlier today:
Monday, 20 October 2014 09:58
What role for local authorities managing the natural environment?Written by Ruralcity Media
The natural environment includes a range of landscapes – from uplands to urban fringe and coastline – with many people appreciating local distinctiveness: from the historic (physical remains from the interaction between people and places through time) to the cultural (expressions of visual and spatial relationships such as public gardens, farmland and industrial sites). Yet these ever changing views and backdrops to our daily lives remain contested: are landscapes something worthy of preservation in their current form (emphasising their aesthetic value and the ugliness of the activities being 'imposed' upon them), are they living working landscapes integral to economic growth and/or something else? Jessica Sellick investigates.
Land is one of our greatest assets yet it is a finite resource under increasing pressure – be it from housing/development pressure, climate change, new technologies or societal preferences. Across Government, departments are seeking to "protect our environment by reducing pollution, decreasing the amount of waste sent to landfill, protecting areas of parkland, wildlife reserves and marine biodiversity, and enforcing regulations that keep our water and air clean.
Government also helps communities avoid or recover from flooding and other weather-related hazards". The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), for example, has some 15 policies around the topic of the environment – from simplifying farming regulations and improving water quality to protecting biodiversity and ecosystems at home and abroad.
Defra is supported by 36 other agencies and public bodies including the Environment Agency,Natural England, Joint Nature Conservation Committee and Forestry Commission.
Some of our landscapes are protected through legislation and regulations (e.g. Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Parks, public rights of way, common land) while other landscapes are managed through voluntary codes and frameworks (e.g. Local Nature Partnerships). Many sites are in private ownership and in some circumstances; Government supports landowners meet the costs of restoring or managing landscapes (e.g. Environmental Stewardship schemes).
Back in June 2011, the Government published 'the natural choice', the first Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP) in 20 years. The blueprint described how: "we must properly value the economic and social benefits of a healthy natural environment while continuing to recognise nature's intrinsic value. The Government wants this to be the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it inherited.
To achieve so much means taking action across sectors rather than treating environmental concerns in isolation. It requires us all to put the value of nature at the heart of our decision-making – in Government, local communities and businesses. In this way we will improve the quality and increase the value of the natural environment across England".
The White Paper was followed by a series of measures and activities –from designating 12Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs) to biodiversity offsetting pilots, Green Infrastructure and Local Nature Partnerships (LNP). All of these initiatives share in common four key words 'more, bigger, better and joined'. Taken as a collective, these initiatives are seen to be highlighting how economic growth and the health of natural resources can sustain each other, markets and businesses.
The White paper described how local authorities need "to work through partnerships, linking national environmental priorities to local circumstances". The Paper also contained a call for the Environment Agency, Natural England and the Forestry Commission to deliver joined up advice and engagement to local areas – acting as a source of advice on duties as well as providing Local Authorities with freedom and flexibility.
At a local level, many service areas and functions undertaken by Local Authorities have a vital role to play in landscape – from fulfilling statutory obligations such as the protection and enhancement of biodiversity within the planning system, through to incorporating landscape into relevant strategies, working in partnership to promote beneficial land management, and the delivery of services (e.g. health, recreation, community development and social care).
In addition, Defra provides guidance for local authorities on a range of 'local environmental quality' matters – from litter and fly tipping to nuisance from noise, light and insects. If the Government's White Paper established the need for a more integrated, landscape approach to management of the natural environment, what role are Local Authorities subsequently playing in these deliberations? I offer three points.
Firstly, Local Authorities manage diverse property and assets spanning historic buildings, farms, country parks and woodland, making the best possible use of them so they are managed for the benefit of residents. A Value-for-Money report published by the Audit Commission in June 2014 looked at how Local Authorities were using and managing assets.
The report found between 2004/2005 and 2012/2013 the value of the local government estate fell by 31% (from £244.5 billion to £169.8 billion); with operational properties accounted for 95% of the value of the estate in 2012/2013. The document called on Local Authorities to manage their property so as to "extract maximum value without having an adverse effect on services or their statutory objectives".
The good practice suggestions included: treating land and buildings as a strategic resource to support wider objectives; selling or transferring property that is no longer required; using space more efficiently by: (a) promoting digital 'self-service' access to services, (b) encouraging staff to work flexibly using smart technology and (c) sharing space with other organisations through co-location. The document also suggested Local Authorities consider renting or disposing of the 5% of their estate not required for operational purposes.
A number of Local Authorities have been participating in shared services partnerships, using space more efficiently (e.g. through co-location), providing community asset transfer support for some time and under some circumstances setting up new delivery vehicles such as the creation of wholly owned council companies. According the Cabinet Office, as of March 2013, £1 billion had been saved since May 2010 through effective asset management and estate rationalisation.
In June 2013, the Government's Estate Strategy set out a new vision to create efficient, fit-for-purpose public sector estates that deliver value for money and facilitate modern, flexible working, with asset management at the core of this. Yet what these reports and strategies often omit are the challenging and difficult decisions being faced by Local Authorities on-the-ground – leading to a series of debates around whether (and how) Local Authorities should sell off farms, parks, meadows and green spaces - for housing development, to raise money, taking a short term or longer term view?
With the National Planning Policy Framework stating that planning policies should 'identify and map ecological networks and areas identified by local partnerships for habitat restoration and creation', is there scope to use Section 106/Community Infrastructure Levy funding for landscape improvements? And/or is this not all leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy where some people are out priced and excluded from the countryside?
Secondly, Local Authorities shape the management of landscapes beyond their estate portfolio. Local Authorities participate in a plethora of external initiatives and programmes. They provide leadership, often servings as a vital link between local economic interests and conservation interests.
Many Local Authorities help to coordinate data, statistics as well as providing countryside management advice. Some local initiatives being driven by Local Authorities are in receipt of national funding (e.g. NIA, SSSIs) whereas other activities are in direct receipt of local government funding and resources (e.g. with some Local Authorities providing monies and staffing to bodies such as Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty).
Other initiatives such as those around sustainable growth are being delivered alongside other bodies such as Local Enterprise Partnerships (e.g. Local Environment and Economic Development Toolkit).
What is often missing here is the absence of a specific remit or mandate: is the activity part of statutory or non-statutory Local Authority provision? Delivered through legal frameworks or voluntary agreements? How does it align with other Local Authority activities? What are the funding and resource requirements and who is providing these, now and in the longer term? What are the factors of success?
Thirdly, how can we make the case for investment when there are so many competing demands for Local Authority resources? Terms such as 'natural capital' and 'ecosystem services' are often used to describe a 'stock' of resources and 'flow' of return from the stock to be maintained or grown over time (in much the same way as financial capital can appreciate or depreciated in value depending on its use). Here investing in landscape is seen to derive benefits utilised by local communities and businesses.
This also creates opportunities to link initiatives undertaken at a local level to national priorities around economic growth and employment creation. Importantly, establishing the link between a landscape and its benefits/beneficiaries and evaluating the impacts arising from investment can address the links between environment and economy. For example, Microeconomic Evidence for the Benefits of Investment in the Environment (MEBIE) produced by Natural England since 2012 is a guide for Local Authorities and LEPs on the benefits of investment in the natural environment.
Similarly, applying Social Return On Investment (SROI) analysis to a project which recreated three natural bog environments in the Lake District led to a Social Return of £3.97 for every £1.00 invested in the project. Norfolk and Suffolk County Councils, Wild Anglia Local Nature Partnership and New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership tested the Local Environment and Economic Development Toolkit to help them meet economic growth targets by realising the role the environment can play.
While these local initiatives are working well, what is often missing is a focus on supporting landscape level activities rather than specific elements of the environment (e.g. water, forestry). Achieving buy-in and producing concrete local examples is key to communicating landscape benefits to landowners and stakeholders. As well as understanding the economic value of the benefits delivered by a particular landscape, what is also often missing is an understanding of what the public's willingness to pay for any management might be.
If the landscape and rural economies are seen to reinforce each other, will it be growth (at any cost), preservation (based on what a given landscape looks like now, a museum artefact or projecting into the future) or something else?
Many RSN members are concerned that landscapes are under increasing pressure and not being properly looked after for future generations –from changing farmland management through to fly tipping and housing developments – perhaps we need to find ways of claiming landscape back and making it more visible amid these competing demands?
Finally, it is worth noting in September 2014 the Government was awarded a red card for its efforts to reduce air pollution, protect biodiversity and prevent flooding by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee. What happened to "the greenest government ever" and the commitments set out in the White Paper? Indeed many of the measures contained in the Paper such as 'ThinkBIG' –which suggested ways in which local authorities, communities, businesses, landowners, farmers and government could assist ecological restoration at a landscape scale – appear to be archived.
Landscapes will continue to evolve and change, how can we ensure their diversity, coherence and identity are maintained? And what role should Local Authorities be playing?
Jessica is a researcher/project manager at Rose Regeneration; an economic development business working with communities, Government and business to help them achieve their full potential. She has undertaken a variety of projects on the natural environment and countryside management. These include: Preparing the Yorkshire Dales Local Food Map (celebrating the distinctiveness of the Dales landscape); considering how the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) can be reformed to benefit rural communities; and supporting community groups in understanding natural resource management. More recently, Jessica has been working with Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty Partnerships and National Park Authorities on the economic value and contribution of protected landscape. She can be contacted by firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 01522 521211. Website:www.roseregeneration.co.uk; Twitter: @RoseRegen
What role for local authorities managing the natural environment?