Paying for the nature, health and well-being paradigm

No longer having to spend endless hours on endless trains going to endless meetings, I have found the freedom to spend more time in the natural environment – actually doing the things I enjoy – birding and wildlife photography. As for many other people, one of the very few positives of Covid has been the freeing up of time to enjoy nature once again. I’ve been astonished at how my life has changed.

A WhatsApp group set up by some fellow wildlifers to record birds and all manner of other wildlife groups at our ‘local patch’ has brought passion, technology and great field craft together and unless I switch off my notifications on my phone, the exuberance of some of the group members will have me woken at 6am every morning as they patrol the reserve which has become their second home!

Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 and the Mental Health Foundation prioritised the importance of ‘nature’s unique ability to not only bring consolation in times of stress, but also increase our creativity, empathy and a sense of wonder’. One of the aims of their initiative is to convince decision makers at all levels that access to and quality of nature is a mental health and social justice issue as well as an environmental one.

This is a great and worthy ambition and one that we would wholeheartedly support at the Environment Bank. And we are deploying our business model to increase the area of land that could be made available for people to enjoy wildlife.

It has become clear to me over the past year, however, that we have a dearth of places where people can enjoy wildlife. Much of Britain has become a green desert as our current food system has destroyed biodiversity and landscape quality. Development pressure has also taken its toll on biodiversity. Whilst moves are afoot to address that as farming transitions away from the grasp of the chemical and machinery manufacturers, towards regenerative and agroecological approaches to food production, the development sector will, as a result of enactment of the Environment Bill, be required to deliver a minimum 10% net gain in biodiversity as a result of their developments. We have a unique opportunity to restore nature at scale as a result of these impending changes to how we use land.

Having lobbied for biodiversity offsetting and net gain from development for the past 14 years, often as a lone voice, it is hugely welcome to see the mechanism mandated into planning law. It will provide significant funding and investment into the natural environment – we can create more sites for nature conservation, mainstreaming it as an economically viable activity.

Whilst clearly a proportion of the total biodiversity net gain (BNG) requirement when mandated later this year, will rightly be placed within the development site boundary, modelling is showing that anything more than say 10-20% of the total BNG requirement located on-site places significant financial constraints on a development. Developers will undertake good landscaping and planting on, for example, residential developments, in order to sell houses, but the biodiversity value of these areas is limited – such areas are subject to high levels of disturbance and are usually degraded through mowing or strimming as residents dislike the untidiness that is the mark of biodiverse habitats.

Furthermore, work by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and Natural Capital Committee has shown that placing BNG within the development usually leads directly to disadvantages to those local people who are required to accept the new developments. Often those people lose fields where they would once have been able to walk and exercise before the development came. Replacing that with a few areas of mown amenity grassland and planting within a housing scheme is no compensation. It provides more attractive places for the residents to live but it is highly unlikely that the locals enjoy anything like the same experience as they did previously simply by walking though the new housing estate. Nor do those places constitute real biodiversity.

So, I believe we must be much more ambitious. Environment Bank is therefore promoting that 80-90% of the BNG should be delivered off-site in strategic places that provide benefits for people, local rural economies and climate resilience as well as restoring nature.

Wouldn’t it be fabulous if landowners could be encouraged and paid to put forward large, 40ha-100ha, areas of land where new habitats are created, with management funding provided for 30 years, by which time these places will be providing a generation of new nature reserves across the country. Some might even be next to existing reserves.

On many, permissive access would be welcomed with the potential for spin-off businesses satisfying the demand for nature-based tourism, glamping and educational events.  The many landowners and farmers we have talked to think this would be a fantastic opportunity and provide a diversification of income into the local rural economy.

We will only ever be able to deliver the ambitions of the Environment Bill and the Government’s 25-year Environment Plan if we involve private landowners and leverage substantial private investment. And that will only happen where people are paid a return on that investment. So, I would hope that Government backs the idea of creating lots of new nature reserves using BNG finance on private land, in the process stimulating economic growth at a range of levels, and unlocking the planning system rather than locking it down.

A large number of new nature reserves on private land where the public can gain managed access is the way to get more people close to nature. It is also very affordable if we ensure biodiversity net gain finance is directed to that objective.

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