17 Jan 2018
The publication of the 25 year environment plan is very much welcome albeit long overdue. It does represent a significant positive step forward with a myriad of opportunity spaces for those wanting better environmental outcomes to exploit. However, as many commentators have already highlighted it is strong on rhetoric and good intentions but rather lacks the regulatory teeth and delivery mechanisms to achieve many of the proposed actions. Whilst this lack of regulation may please some it does mean that the plan relies on other strategies and frameworks across government to operationalise them. This brings with it a risk that other economic and housing priorities which currently have a statutory footing may continue to trump such good intentions. Under austerity and limited staff resources such as those facing our local authorities and planning departments this does become a significant factor when prioritising actions.
Nevertheless, this plan is not a Defra publication. Crucially, it is a HM Government publication which means that all government departments have signed up to the provisions within it and thus hopefully we will see other Secretaries of State also endorsing that value of our natural environment rather than it being seen as a Defra or Michael Gove strategy. Whilst the document explicitly names the clean growth strategy and the industrial strategy, it is quite light on other key strategies such as the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and Public health.
Wearing my knowledge exchange hat, the plan is significant in highlighting key areas of extant NERC science on green infrastructure that can be used to help translate the ambitions and aspirations into easy and quick wins. The following projects below represent those that I have become aware of in my recent knowledge exchange fellowship and they are confined to my area of work in mainstreaming green infrastructure. They are not meant to be exhaustive but perhaps allow readers to see the potential of NERC science to help maximise the impact of the 25 year environmental plan.
Endorsing a natural capital approach to assess and value the environment rather than allow it to be exploited in policy and decision-making processes. Significantly the intrinsic value of nature was recognised too. Here the NERC Sweep project is leading theoretical advances on valuation through a range of projects http://sweep.ac.uk/ within a wider framing of environmental growth in the South West. There also several smaller GI innovation projects which are looking at natural capital 
The consideration of a formal requirement for an environmental net gain from development including housing and infrastructure. This builds upon pioneering work within the Natural Capital Planning Toolkit project led by Jon Sadler at the University of Birmingham https://ecosystemsknowledge.net/natural-capital-planning-tool-ncpt. Here a tool, that assess the natural capital impact through changes in ecosystem service impacts pre and post development, has been developed and tested across 7 local authorities at a range of different planning scales and developments. This has been further advanced through the same team in conjunction with Pam Berry at the University of Oxford on a live Natural England project looking at how the current Defra biodiversity metric can be strengthened to consider wider ecosystem services benefits to measure natural capital value from developments thus helping to ensure positive environmental gain.
The recognition of the value of green infrastructure is made explicit in the plan. The added value that green infrastructure brings to society has been addressed in a NERC innovation project “Greening the grey” by Larissa Naylor http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/150672/.
The health and quality of life aspects is supported by emerging evidence from both the IWUN (Improving wellbeing through urban nature) project in Sheffield http://iwun.uk/ and GHIA (Green Infrastructure and the Health and Wellbeing Influences on an Ageing Population) https://www.micra.manchester.ac.uk/research/projects-and-groups/ghia/ By using city wide project boundaries the value of green spaces to different populations can be assessed and managed. In particular issues to do with social exclusion and marginalisation can be addressed. The development of an innovative app shmapped http://iwun.uk/shmapped/ has enabled a wider understanding of what people value in everyday life about Sheffield’s green spaces for example. There is also a set of green infrastructure innovation projects here covering different parts of the green and blue infrastructure jigsaw; many of these have been completed and thus will have new tools and outputs to address this opportunity. https://mainstreaminggreeninfrastructure.com/reports/NERC%20GI%20Innovation%20Review%20-%20Project%20Thumbnails.pdf
The proposal to define a set of standards to understand what good green infrastructure looks like has been recently completed through the building with nature project https://www.buildingwithnature.org.uk/ This project with Gloucester Wildlife trust (Gemma Gerome) and UWE Bristol (Danni Sinnett) has worked with several planning developments, housing providers and planning authorities to co-produce and test 23 standards and work towards a new accreditation scheme that can demonstrate the quality of a development at various stages of the development pipeline. The co-development and testing in academia and practice makes this a quick win thus saving Natural England time and money from the stated 2019 deadline.
The proposal to work “with stakeholders to develop and implement a manual for local authorities and other urban tree-planting organisations to shape their procurement and maintenance practices for urban trees” is currently being developed by Andy Hirons at Myerscough College University of Lancaster where an exploration of approaches to tree species selection for urban green infrastructure is being translated into a guide for planners/developers.
Proposals to improve the way SuDS are built into the planning system and the use of natural based solutions for flooding forms a key strand of NERC research. The new https://icasp.org.uk/ Yorkshire Integrated Catchment Solutions Programme takes a catchment management approach to the problem within an interdisciplinary perspective. Work at Portsmouth also looks at providing real world opportunities for evaluating SuDs in housing developments thus improving the evidence base for wider use of SuDs https://researchportal.port.ac.uk/portal/en/projects/prosuds-providing-realworld-opportunities-for-sustainable-drainage-systems(5e26947b-7ced-45d1-b146-fc5bff36d6e7).html. Within the SWEEP project itself (referred to earlier) there is a specific project looking at SUDS http://sweep.ac.uk/portfolios/sustainable-drainage/
Given that the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is currently being revised for the end of February 2018 in the renamed Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, it is important that the above aims and aspirations are also translated into planning policy given the crucial role planning plays in defining the quality of our environment. Here net environment gain and the focus on using the environment to achieve social justice bring into play an exciting range of new policy interventions
At present many of the positive aspects that have been outlined in the 25 year environment plan are trumped by the definition of sustainable development based on all existing 209 paragraphs of the NPPF rather than the Brundtland definition and the way viability of development is framed in wholly economic terms (see https://www.gov.uk/guidance/viability).
Any revised NPPF must have a broader and more nuanced definition of sustainability and viability which takes into account the environmental viability in terms of environmental limits and tipping points. Again there are a major NERC science set of projects here under the valuing nature programme http://valuing-nature.net/tipping-points-research-projects with key projects at Exeter (Land ecosystems), Newcastle (peatlands) and Bournemouth (lowland agriculture).
NERC research provides both evidence and tools to improve policy and decisions but for many in the public domain the research remains hidden in a series of peer review publications. My role as a knowledge exchange fellow is to act as a bridge in this process and alert policy and practice to the huge research effort and the potential impact pathways. I hope this briefing blog provides a first step in helping realise some of the new opportunity spaces provided by the 25 year environment plan as well as exposing readers to some research you may not be familiar with.
Please feel free to comment or alert me to other research work.