Building with Nature – Panel Debate at DEFRA September 2016

Following the announcement by DEFRA that there would be investment of 2.3bn to improve the UK’s natural environment and that the life of the Natural Capital Committee would be extended to develop a comprehensive 25-year plan.   Key stakeholders were invited to a debate on the future of green and blue infrastructure and the built environment at DEFRA’s HQ

DEFRA has outlined six key objectives of their 25-year strategic investment plan:-

  1. A cleaner, healthier environment, benefiting people and the economy
  2. A word-leading food and farming industry
  3. A thriving rural economy, contributing to national prosperity and well-being
  4. A nation better-protected against floods, animal and plant diseases and other hazards with strong response and recovery capabilities
  5. Excellent delivery time and to budget and with outstanding value for money
  6. Delivering efficiency: an organisation continually striving to be the best, focused on outcomes and constantly challenging itself.

It is with these goals in mind that the tone of the debate was set. One of the most interesting aspects of the debate were the variety of different ways the panel members defined and contextualized green infrastructure and its role within the urban environment. It was heartening to hear that urban trees were ranked high in terms of the ecosystems services delivered by green infrastructure in our cities.

Peter Massini of the Greater London Authority explained that we have to see green infrastructure as a valuable service being delivered and so much more than a mere ‘nice to have’.

With representatives from Business Improvement Districts also in attendance and part of the panel, it was clear that one of the top priorities of any future planning for investment in green infrastructure in the future has to be centred around the economic argument for increased investment in the green and blue arteries which makes Britain truly great.

It is still concerning that the responsibility for urban trees remains a little nebulous, despite the positive role of urban trees being eloquently expressed by all members of the panel and the wider audience. Having a 25-year plan is a good start but it is clear that central government still hasn’t taken that critical step back and asked these basic questions:

  1. What kind of growth do we want – is it purely a monetary form of development our administration wants to leave as a legacy?
  2. Is the current planning system fit for purpose when it comes to green and blue infrastructure?
  3. Should and could government interfere more to ensure that developers fulfill and honor their obligations to communities to not just build houses but to deliver communities that will be livable and enable human flourishing for years to come?
  4. Who should be responsible for the long term protection and enhancement of our green and blue infrastructure?
  5. How can we really ingrain a natural capital accounting method across government and amongst the major developers to make a convincing business case for green infrastructure?

Looking around the room at this debate there were a lot of hopeful faces. However, this 25-year plan cannot be squandered, the time is right during this period of political and economic change to rethink and restructure the way we think about and fund our green and blue infrastructure and every citizen has a stake in this. This is not the purview of a small, select group of civil servants, far too much is at stake.

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