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The importance of our Natural Infrastructure

February 2017

Prioritising the identification, protection and restoration of Natural Infrastructure provides a significant opportunity to realise the Government's ambition of us being the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than which we found it.

In every parliament, the National Infrastructure Commission sets out their views about our long-term infrastructure needs in a National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA). Looking over a 30-year time horizon, they consider the demand and supply of infrastructure services and assets, such as roads or fibre optic cables, and make recommendations to government on how these needs are best met.

They consider major sectors including transport, energy, water & wastewater, and flood risk management – areas where projects could impact significantly upon the environment. What they don't tend to consider is whether these sectors could in fact benefit from the services that our countryside and green spaces provide.

A recent 'call for evidence' provided a welcome opportunity to help shape the next NIA, due in 2018. The Wildlife Trusts took that opportunity to champion the value of nature; arguably the most valuable but the least valued component of our national infrastructure.

Current research is already demonstrating the 'public goods' that can be cost-effectively provided by the environment, from holding back floodwaters, to storing carbon and creating new habitats:

  • Devon's Culm grasslands provide an extra 20% carbon storage compared to agriculturally improved fields, and have 4.5x the water storage capacity.
  • The Humber estuary's 400ha Alkborough Flats managed realignment scheme cost £10m to build and provided £12m of storm protection benefits to land and property, created new intertidal habitat, and delivered other ecosystem services benefits valued at ~£1m a year.
  • 250ha of peatland restoration in Pumlumon made a total contribution to the UK's carbon balance of 1347 tonnes of CO2 stored each year.
  • Two timber bunds upstream of Pickering provided potential flood storage volumes of up to 4,880m3, and 104 woody debris dams provided a further ~1,020m3 of potential flood storage.
  • "Leaky ponds" in the Belford Burn catchment saw pollutant concentrations downstream during storms reduced by up to 40%, and a single 800m3 pond delayed peak flows 1km downstream by around 15 minutes

These examples and many others highlight the ways in which natural infrastructure – woods, ponds, grasslands, and even beaver-made dams - can be hugely helpful in delivering services like flood protection and pollution management. This value is very difficult to put an accurate figure on though, and agencies like the Environment Agency which fund flood defence schemes follow a strict funding formula which can make it hard for 'softer' measures like these (basically those that don't involve concrete) to get a look in.

But in some cases, a civil infrastructure scheme may not deliver the required economic benefit, or it may do so better when working alongside natural measures. It is in these instances where natural infrastructure can and should be capitalised upon. Often it is cheaper to work with, rather than against nature. If planning is to fulfil its objective of achieving sustainable development[1], green infrastructure should form a key part of all infrastructure projects; and this should be a given in situations where other options are unaffordable or ineffective.

In the NIA, we'd like to see:

  • Infrastructure development strategically and spatially planned, with local Ecological Network Mapping at its heart - to avoid damage to important natural assets and to maximise opportunities for natural solutions, restoration and enhancements.
  • Integration between the National Infrastructure Plan and local plans for housing, to ensure new developments are well connected to essential services, transport and green space.
  • The design of all new housing developments incorporate green infrastructure and natural solutions that collect and capture water.

These are just some suggestions, and many more will have been made through the evidence submitted to the NIC – we believe that 'Blue and Green' really should be seen - our health, wellbeing and prosperity may depend on it – and we call on the NIC to recognise this too.

Ali Morse

Water Policy & Catchment Technical Specialist, The Wildlife Trusts


[1] DCLG (2012) National Planning Policy Framework, Para 6