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A National Nature Service

Richard Benwell, Wildlife and Countryside Link's CEO, explains why a National Nature Service makes economic and environmental sense

August 2020

With unemployment expected to double as a result of covid-19, Wildlife & Countryside Link and its partners are proposing a “National Nature Service”: a Government-sponsored employment and training programme, providing paid work in environmental improvement.

The inspiration is drawn from the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps in the United States. The CCC was set up by President Roosevelt and, in its nine years, employed three million people in conservation jobs. Together, they planted 3.5 billion trees and reshaped U.S. state and national parks in their modern image.

A new context

Of course, in some ways, things were a lot simpler then.

Yes, there were logistical challenges in matching people with projects. Hundreds of thousands of people were ferried from the East coast to the West to join work teams. Overall, though, there was no shortage of low-skilled labour to be done. Many of the U.S.’s vast parks were made accessible for the first time where basic conservation work was needed over hundreds of thousands of hectares. Training was available on the job and many people even learnt to read on duty with the Conservation Corps.

By contrast, in England today, the availability of land to work on is relatively limited and the skills required are comparatively complex. Habitat creation and restoration projects often take a very long time to plan and consent, involving sophisticated ecological assessments and, often, collaborative agreements between a variety of land-owners. Long-standing management plans are in place for National Parks, three quarters of land is actively farmed, and public land where projects can take place is increasingly scarce.

Reshaping our countryside

Yet although we are starting from a much more managed and regulated landscape, the scale of change needed in our landscape is arguably even greater today than it was in 1930s America. A green recovery from the coronavirus pandemic means a recovery that will make our economy more resilient to future environmental risks and that will need serious change.

  • In the UK, 97% of wildflower meadows have been lost since the 1930s. The economic risk of pollinator decline and poor soil quality are growing.
  • Over the same time period we have lost 90% of our wetlands.
  • The ongoing degradation of wetlands like boggy peatlands continues to release greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change, while the loss of our natural wetland buffers like coastal saltmarshes and mudflats makes homes and businesses more vulnerable to rising flood risk.
  • Only 10% of England is currently woodland. To meet our net zero climate change goals, the Committee on Climate Change has recommended that 1.5billion trees may need to be planted by 2050 in the UK, or we may fail to meet our climate change mitigation goals.
  • UK seas met only 4 of 15 indicators of good ecological health. Four times more fish were being landed in UK ports 100 years ago than today, and catches peaked in 1938. Today, coastal economies are still at risk from over-exploitation of our seas.
  • In normal times, non-communicable diseases like obesity and poor mental health are now the biggest and most costly on-going challenge for the NHS. Coronavirus has demonstrated the huge inequalities in access to nature, with 2.6 million households without a garden.

Large-scale environmental investments are needed up and down the country to revive and restore these habitats and more, within protected areas and in the wider urban and rural environment. Our landscapes, cityscapes and coastlines will need to be refashioned in a greener image: boggier uplands, more wooded fields, tree-lined streets, and naturalised waters.

A modern National Nature Service

To be part of that grand endeavour, a modern National Nature Service will need three key characteristics.

At its heart will be a paid employment programme, offering high quality training. Rather than foot the bill of Universal Credit, Government should pay a living wage to anyone who can contribute to a National Nature Service. We think a £500 million investment would support 12,000 jobs.

To succeed, however, the programme must be delivered in partnership with expert environmental organisations. Much more than in the 1930s, conservation efforts today need to be carefully targeted: “the right tree in the right place”. Unfortunately, the environment sector itself has been dealt a hammer blow by coronavirus, with National Trust alone facing 1,200 redundancies and hundred of millions of pounds of losses across the sector. So, to manage a National Nature Service workforce, Government must invest in the partner organisations like eNGOs and National Park Authorities that can direct the day-to-day work and training.

The programme will also need a project pipeline to operate at scale. Some roles can be undertaken anywhere, like rooting out invasive plants, or improving access to greenspaces. But these jobs must complement large-scale investment in habitats. Wildlife and Countryside Link has a compendium of £315million of projects that could begin almost immediately, supporting a further 10,000 jobs, but the scale of ambition in the longer term could be orders of magnitude higher. RSPB has estimated that £2.9billion of annual investment is needed to meet existing environmental commitments. National Trust has shown that £5.5billion of investment in greener cities could support 40,000 jobs in construction and 6,000 permanent jobs. The returns on investment are high: National Trust has estimated that every £1 spent on greener urban parks could yield £200 in savings for the NHS.

With these three components in place, many tens of thousands of people could be lifted out from unemployment in ways that contribute to the resilience of our economy, reduce environmental risks, and retrain our workforce for a greener economy to come.

The Prime Minister has already invoked F.D. Roosevelt in his recovery rhetoric. We hope the Chancellor will use the Budget and Spending Review to match the oratory with action.

You can support the call for a National Nature Service here:

Richard Benwell, CEO, Wildlife and Countryside Link @RSBenwell

This blog first featured on the Countryside Jobs Service website

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.