A new, green infrastructure act?
Sheila Wren, John Muir Trust
‘There is also a gap in infrastructure thinking which leaves out the green and the blue to focus on the grey. A colossal scale of investment is needed in our open spaces, water management and other soft infrastructure in the face of a changing climate, public health challenges and the need for nature in our lives. It deserves the same attention’ writes Tony Burton, who chaired a great discussion at Sir John Armitt’s recent workshop on ‘Making Infrastructure Decisions Together’.
If we are to reverse the decline in biodiversity in the UK, and ensure there is a vibrant natural environment in years to come we need to be planning for it now. Our natural world should not, and need not, be a diminishing resource – that which is left after the latest infrastructure scheme has been completed. It needs to be proactively safeguarded.
A new Infrastructure Act could safeguard the natural environment provided that, alongside measures to achieve climate change targets, it encompassed a strategic plan for protecting and investing in green infrastructure.
What is green infrastructure? The core components of green infrastructure are existing protected sites at (e.g. Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Protection Areas (SPA), Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and Ramsar sites) and areas identified primarily for landscape reasons (e.g. National Parks, National Scenic Areas and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty). However, green infrastructure extends into our towns and cities and is as relevant in urban areas as it is in the countryside. It has a critical role in restoring nature but it also provides other essential benefits such as flood resilience, pollinator health, provision of clean water, creation of attractive and sustainable places to live, and provision of spaces for outdoor recreation. There is currently insufficient coherence across the components of green infrastructure. Many areas that provide vital ecosystem services or that could provide better connectivity for nature and enjoyment for people are unprotected and vulnerable to inappropriate use.
Lawton Review Recommendations. In order to reverse the decline in biodiversity Sir John Lawton concluded that important wildlife sites “are generally insufficiently protected and undermanaged”. He identified that the UK needed a more ‘joined up’ ecological network on a greater scale, with more space for wildlife. In particular he noted that the UK’s current collection of wildlife sites does not represent “a coherent and resilient ecological network …capable of responding to climate change and other pressures”.
Need for National Level Ecological Network. The Natural Environment White Paper (2011) advocated the delivery of ecological networks via the planning process and this was reflected in the National Policy Planning Framework (NPPF). Unfortunately local ecological networks are not being consistently developed or integrated with other objectives. The problem is that there is no national commitment to, or framework for, ecological networks. A key way to ensure that plans for ecological networks will attract the investment needed for their delivery is to place them at the core of processes that determine how land is used, public funds are allocated and economic, social and environmental policy targets are delivered. Therefore, at the local level, plans for the creation of ecological networks must be fully embedded in local plans so that they are given weight in development control decisions. Their influence must then go beyond the sphere of local planning and become the concern of all relevant government bodies whose objectives can be delivered locally by a healthy, natural environment.
Recommendation. The John Muir Trust supports the recommendation in the Nature and Wellbeing Act Green Paper that DCLG and DEFRA should create a national ecological network built at the local level, and knitted together across administrative boundaries. This spatial plan for green infrastructure could be part of the remit of the National Infrastructure Commission and would be a blueprint for investment in nature. It could be used to identify irreplaceable landscapes and to target public and private sector funds to restore degraded habitat. With the right vision, some of this could be done alongside or within built infrastructure schemes. The outcome would be links in the landscape between woodlands, meadows, rivers, allotments, orchards, etc for the benefit of nature, to which the wellbeing of people is inextricably bound.
 State of Nature http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/stateofnature_tcm9-345839.pdf
 Making Space for Nature http://archive.defra.gov.uk/environment/biodiversity/documents/201009space-for-nature.pdf
 Natural Environment White Paper 2011 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/228842/8082.pdf
Examples could include the targeting of agri-environment payments, allocation of Water Framework Directive funding for catchment management, flood resilience investment, preventative health care initiatives, etc.
 The Nature and Wellbeing Act – a Green Paper from the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/nature_and_wellbeing_act_green_full_tcm9-384572.pdf