The Department of Communities and Local Government have signalled a clear willingness to declassify Greenbelt, the protected land around English cities designated to provide amenity space and to protect the natural environment. The argument is that this will encourage development, which in turn will provide a much needed boost to a flagging economy and provide much-needed homes which are in short supply. The recent review of the complex UK planning laws has been controversial, on paper the new, simplified National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) still provides significant protection for the natural environment but not everyone is convinced that this will be the outcome if the government is focused on short-term economic recovery.
It is easy to accuse detractors of development who are trying to protect their local green spaces of nimbyism with no concern for the wider interest. However, it may well be that it is those in favour of development that fail to see the bigger picture. Central to this issue is perhaps the most significant report to the UK Government in recent decades on both the state of the UK’s environment and the long-term health, wealth and well-being of its citizens. The United Kingdom National Ecosystem Assessment (UKNEA) was commissioned by Defra, the UK Department of Environment, It was based on the peer-reviewed research and assessment efforts of more than 500 experts, led by Sir Robert Watson the then Chief Scientific Advisor to Defra. It was published in 2011 following quickly from the Making Space for Nature report chaired by Sir John Lawton – which had highlighted the deterioration in England’s natural environment and the likely consequences for the economy.
Concerns around re-categorising Greenbelt have arisen because it is one of several Coalition Government initiatives which seem to favour short-term economic development with de-regulated policy approaches that could risk longer-term environmental management needs. The outcry over the proposed sale of the nation’s forests was one of the first major issues to emerge and to be strongly opposed in a public backlash. Then there came the announcement of cutting ‘red-tape’ for home extensions, which by eroding garden spaces could have significant consequences for nature in urban areas. The planning to accelerate the construction of hs2, the new high speed rail development has similarly raised concerns due to its potential impact on the connectivity of several significant ecologically sensitive areas. All of these raise the question of the long-term security of natural capital assets if the economic circumstances are encouraging a more deregulated approach to environmental management for short-term gains.
The UKNEA report explored six future scenarios for policy approaches to managing the environment and set out the implications by 2060 under these different regimes. At the extremes of this spectrum is on the one hand the World Markets scenario, typified by reduced regulation, allowing the development of Greenbelt land and allowing more intense agricultural practices. At the other end of the spectrum is the Nature at Work scenario which consists of policies that aim to maximize overall environmental benefits by trying to optimise the provision of commodities from agro and forestry sectors, such as timber and food, with ensuring the environment delivers other essential services such as clean water uncontaminated by effluents, fertilizers and pesticide residues. The UKNEA took into account issues such as anticipated environmental change from global warming and the amenity value of the environment for recreation. The Nature at Work approach requires more attention to regulation to ensure the effective management of ecosystems at landscape level.
There were huge differences between the outcomes of these two policy extremes. If the World Market scenario was looked at solely in terms of agricultural production alone, then primarily through intensification and switching land use practices it could lead to perhaps a little under £500 million in extra profits per annum of direct market value from farm production over current policies. In contrast the Nature at Work scenario, with its increased regulation would lead to a similar order of reduction in direct profits from farm production arising from the restrictions this policy approach would imply. However this very limited analysis focusing on marketable commodities alone entirely overlooks all the other services which the English landscape provides us with. Rather than restricting its economic assessment to direct market value from farm production the UKNEA also considered the non-market values such as the accumulated benefits to health, wealth and wellbeing. When all the service benefits were accounted for, including non-market ones such as recreational use of the countryside the true impact of the divergent policy approaches were revealed. When these wider benefits are considered the World Markets scenario looks very different, with major losses to society in the order £19000million per annum compared to the policy baseline. The Nature at Work scenario couldn’t be more different with equally significant net gains to society in the order of £18000 million per annum of improvements in benefits. It highlighted that a suit of dedicated policies appropriate for specific areas of the UK would be more likely to ensure long term protection of the natural world and biodiversity and that this would be on the basis of also creating significant net gains for the health wealth and well being for people across the UK.
Furthermore the greatest losses, the UKNEA predicted, would be around cities where the impact of loss of Greenbelt directly adjacent to communities is much more significant given that access to nature for its recreational value is more significant the closer it is to where people live. In fact, if policies are considered in the context of the more economically disadvantaged tending to live in the denser urbanized areas then the erosion of green space around urban areas would be most prejudicial to these already disadvantaged, whose who already have the lowest environmental quality and are least able to improve their health and well-being.
The purpose of the UKNEA was to examine the state of the services provided by nature in the knowledge that our national wealth and our individual well-being depends critically upon the environment providing us with the food, water and air essential for life along with raw materials for our industry. More subtly of course ecosystems provide the processes that recycles our waste and maintain soil fertility. For many the natural world is central to well-being supporting recreation, health, solace and a sense of place. More significant still, major natural ecosystems such as forests and peat marshes sequester carbon and can help combat climate change and by retaining water they mitigate the risks of drought and flood.
The UKNEA particularly highlighted how decisions made now will have consequences far into the future and highlighted how the World Markets scenario with its unfettered emphasis on economic growth results in the most substantial reduction in net social values of any of the scenarios the experts considered. Any apparent increase in market values has to be set against an order of magnitude greater loss of overall benefits to society. Can government really risk the environment through such short-term measures? There are clear alternatives for driving economic growth by investing in natural capital and environmental resilience which will bring far greater returns over the longer term. The NPPF used well could help lead towards a better, more regulated environment where, with vigilance and determination to ensure that bio-diverse nature is considered at every level and stage of development, the proper integration of landscape-level Green Infrastructure could improve the quality of life for all the UK’s citizens.