Understanding our growing environmental vocabulary in England Connecting Green Infrastructure, Natural Capital, Ecosystem Services and Net Gains within the English Planning System

The terms natural capital, ecosystem services, green infrastructure and net gain now form an integral part of a complex and ever-growing environmental vocabulary in England. They all feature in key national guidance and strategies (e.g. HM Government 25 Year Environment Plan; MHCLG (2018) National Planning Policy Framework), but lack definitional clarity and integrated guidance[1]. Consequently, we see ad hoc and uncritical use in policy and practice. Furthermore, the environmental vocabulary differs significantly in Wales,  Scotland and Northern Ireland, hindering more integrated approaches to environmental planning across the UK. This becomes significant as we develop our national environmental governance frameworks post-Brexit.

Understanding this vocabulary and  optimising its potential application in policy and practice  poses significant challenges for stakeholders including the public. First, there is the need to understand each term individually. Second, we then need to apply them in policy and practice, set within the constraints and opportunities of existing governance frameworks. Third, we need to understand how these individual terms relate to each other to aid mainstreaming the environment in policy and decision-making processes in economic and social policy and practice arenas. This is not straightforward as the terms were introduced at different times for different purposes and thus were never explicitly designed to work together.

So, the purpose of this briefing note is to understand how green infrastructure, natural capital, ecosystem services and net gain can contribute collectively to what a good environment looks like; specifically, how this technocratic, expert-led language can be better mainstreamed into a common framework for both policy and practice so that (urban) land management and development delivers more and better environmental and social benefits.

The note is structured in the following way. First, we provide a non-technical introduction to each term set within its historical roots, rationale and intended purpose. Second, we identify a set of common principles linking them together. Third, we develop a conceptual diagram with a supporting narrative showing the linkages and interrelationships and finally augment this with respect to the influence of the planning system.

The final draft  (amended March 2020) building from a workshop in London on January 28th 2020. The workshop report is being finalised  and will appear here in summary form soon.

[1] In July 2019 updated national Planning Practice Guidance was issued for the environment but did not provide integrated guidance https://www.gov.uk/guidance/natural-environment [accessed 13 August 2019]