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Local Nature Recovery Strategies: An opportunity to turn warm words into meaningful action

Matt Browne, Advocacy Lead at Wildlife and Countryside Link, writes on the potential for Local Nature Recovery Strategies to recover nature - if changes to the policy are made through the Environment Bill scrutiny process.

November 2020

This week has seen nature recovery in the headlines again, with the Prime Minister making the protection and restoration of the natural environment one of the pillars on his 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution. This follows from Labour’s own plans for a green recovery, published earlier in November, which also calls for urgent action to conserve nature, and to create jobs in the process through a National Nature Service.

There is now a shared political will to turn the tide for nature. This is hugely welcome - but will alone does not a nature recovery make. Nature needs policy tools, well-designed delivery mechanisms, to turn good intentions into good outcomes.

One such policy tool is currently being discussed as part of the Environment Bill. Members of the Bill Committee are due over the coming days to consider clauses 95 to 99 of the Bill, which propose the creation of Local Nature Recovery Strategies (LNRSs). As currently set out in the Bill, each local authority would be required to prepare a LNRS containing a statement of biodiversity priorities for their area and a habitat map, identifying protected sites and other areas that could make a contribution towards achieving the stated biodiversity priorities.

LNRSs have the potential to become the mechanism that drives forward nature’s recovery on the ground, bringing together different policies and mechanisms and enabling local knowledge, expertise, and community views to deliver habitat protection, restoration and creation and across England. However, as currently drafted, LNRS is a policy tool with blunt edges.

In the current draft of the Environment Bill, LNRSs are isolated documents. There is no requirement on authorities responsible for LNRSs to link each strategy to the England-wide biodiversity targets set by the Bill, or to include within them consideration of biodiversity gains and losses arising from local planning decisions and land management practices. More seriously still, the duty to apply LNRSs in crucial decisions such as planning and spending is extremely weak. There is simply a duty to “have regard” to LNRSs in making environmental action plans, but no duty to apply them in critical day-to-day decisions for nature. This disconnection, combined with the resource constraints all local authorities are currently grappling with, could turn LNRSs into paper dragons – forged from the flimsiest of materials, untethered from national goals for biodiversity and floating ineffectually above the decisions that will destroy or make habitats on the ground.

Amendments proposed this week by members of the Environment Bill Committee are designed to anchor and give substance to LNRSs, to ensure they deliver tangible outcomes for nature. Amendment 143 to 145 would require each LNRS to include a statement of how it will contribute to the delivery of national biodiversity targets, and to describe how local biodiversity net gains (delivered through planning decisions) and land management changes (including those from the new Environmental Land Management system) will be directed by the strategy to further biodiversity, in a way that builds an ecologically coherent network of sites.

These amendments would equip LNRSs to co-ordinate the protection, restoration and creation of bigger, better, and more joined-up habitats across the areas they cover, aligning this work to contribute towards national biodiversity targets. Link and Greener UK will continue to press the Government to accept these amendments throughout the remaining stages of the Bill – we hope that Ministers will decide to accept the changes and render LNRSs fit for the purpose they were created for.

Further measures, beyond the Environment Bill, could do even more to bolster LNRSs and their impact. Link has called for a new £43 million fund to improve local authority access to ecological expertise. This would give every authority access to in-house ecologists and environmental planners, ensuring that LNRSs benefit from high quality professional input and analysis.

The Planning White Paper could also play a pivotal role. The current White Paper needs a range of changes to ensure new development protects and enhances nature– and these changes should include giving LNRSs direct application in the planning system. LNRSs are required to identify sites important for biodiversity, but this identification currently confers no protection on chosen sites. The White Paper is an opportunity to tackle this futility. By giving LNRSs priorities and designations weight in the creation of local development plans and in development decisions, LNRSs can go beyond merely pointing out crucial spots for nature and start intervening to protect and restore them. LNRSs could become the tangible green counterpart to local plans - just as local plans change the areas they cover, LNRSs should help integrate different policies and target action to transform areas with new connected spaces for nature. Just as local plans are drawn up to meet housing needs, so too should local strategies meet the needs of nature.

LNRSs could be paper dragons, theoretical exercises doomed to gather dust on council shelves - or they could become an essential tool in delivering biodiversity targets, guiding the development of a Nature Recovery Network that builds a redoubt for England’s nature to recover in and to expand from. Choices made in Westminster over the coming months will determine how sharp a policy tool LNRSs will be - and indicate whether the political will is there not just to talk a good talk on nature, but to put in place the effective measures needed to actually recover it.

Matt Browne is Advocacy Lead at Wildlife and Countryside Link

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