The Christmas lights are already on in my local high street and it’s clearly the time of year when the Government and others (including ourselves at the RSPB) deliver Christmas presents in the form of announcements and publications of various kinds. Looking at my diary over the past couple of weeks it seems like there’s been something significant virtually every other day. Here’s a brief personal reflection on what it all means for the RSPB’s work on saving special places.

First up was the Chancellor’s Autumn Budget, which Martin Harper has blogged about here. Housing got a particularly strong billing, with an eye-catching headline of building 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s. There was also endorsement for the National Infrastructure Commission’s vision for the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford corridor, committing up to a million homes by 2050 and road and rail improvements such as the East-West Rail Link.

That sounds like a lot of homes, and it is. However, looking across the wider South East of England, the corridor is relatively free of environmental constraints and might give an unprecedented opportunity for significant environmental enhancements, both in the corridor as well as in some of the surrounding landscape areas, such as the Upper Thames River Valleys, Greensand Ridge, Upper Nene Valley and the Fens; an environmental as well as an economic transformation. If this reduces the pressure of development on other special places for wildlife in the South East, such as the Thames Basin Heaths, so much the better, but what we really need is an environmental capacity and opportunity study for the whole of the South East to inform decisions about where new houses go, as I have argued here.

On budget day, I was in Berlin at the annual meeting of the Renewables Grid Initiative, a Europe-wide partnership of grid operators and NGOs such as the RSPB and BirdLife International. Its mission is to ensure that the grid development needed to integrate renewable energy sources into the energy system is delivered in a way that’s in harmony with nature. This might seem like a world removed from housing pressures in the South East of England, but it struck me that good spatial planning and working with partnership with business – as we are doing with Barratt at Kingsbrook – are key to delivering development in harmony with nature, whether it’s grid lines or housing.

Wildflower verge at Kingsbrook, Aylesbury. Photo: Adrian Thomas

The following week has also been significant. The World Forum on Natural Capital has been taking place in Edinburgh, which gave us the opportunity to launch Accounting for Nature: A Natural Capital Account of the RSPB’s estate in England. It demonstrates how natural capital accounting can support better management of natural resources, with biodiversity at its heart. It’s the first time we’ve attempted to measure the public benefit of our network of nature reserves, and even though we weren’t able to measure everything, it’s clear that the value of the benefits provided to society outweigh the costs of managing the reserves by 2:1.

Hot on the heels of our Natural Capital Account came the Government’s Industrial Strategy. When we commented on the draft in April we felt that it missed significant opportunities to place natural capital at its heart and to integrate the needs of a low carbon economy across all industrial sectors. We are delighted, then, that following October’s Clean Growth Strategy, clean growth (aka the low carbon economy) is now front and centre of the Industrial Strategy, one of four ‘Grand Challenges’. It’s also encouraging to see a focus on natural capital, as in this statement: “We will work not just to preserve, but enhance our natural capital – the air, water, soil and ecosystems that support all forms of life – since this is an essential basis for economic growth and productivity over the long term.”

Finally, our publication UK trade in a decarbonising world, produced in partnership with CAFOD, Christian Aid, Green Alliance, Greenpeace and WWF, was launched at an event last Wednesday with climate minister Claire Perry. See the highlights in the Storify here. The minister spoke enthusiastically about the economic opportunities for clean growth. I was also struck by the panel discussion (an eclectic mix of a business leader, a distinguished academic and a bishop), all of whom agreed that we need to do more on low carbon homes, returning to my first theme above.

I’ve highlighted some of the positive aspects of these announcements, but are there any unwanted Christmas presents we might be returning for a refund? Maybe it’s too soon to say, but here are three things that need further work.

One: with so many new homes, it’s critical to make sure that they are built to high environmental standards that will make them fit for the future;

Two: it’s difficult to take account of wildlife in natural capital accounting, so our report demonstrates how it should be done;

Three: good intentions are welcome, but there’s still a way to go on meeting carbon budgets and making sure that good spatial planning is properly embraced by all sectors so that development, of whatever kind, is in the right place.