There has been a lot going on and I am late to post this blog the from my colleagues Jamie Audsley, Dylan Underhill and Matt Rayment about last month’s decision from the Chancellor about future of public spending.  It’s a good read and includes our top three priorities for the forthcoming Spending Review

The context of course is that there is growing acceptance that investment in nature is vital as it underpins our prosperity – including for clean water, for food security, for a stable climate, for inspiration, for our health and wellbeing.  This message was at the heart of a new report published this week by the Inter-governmental Panel of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services which estimated “the cost of reducing risks to prevent pandemics to be 100x LESS than the cost of responding to such pandemics”. 

77 national leaders (including Prime Minister Boris Johnson) have now signed a pledge for nature including a commitment “to putting biodiversity, climate and the environment as a whole at the heart both of our COVID-19 recovery strategies and investments and of our pursuit of national and international development and cooperation”.  We should judge all future budget and spending announcements against the commitments in this Pledge.

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The Chancellor recently confirmed that the multi-year Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) which sets out the overall envelope of spending for Government departments would be scrapped in favour of a single year settlement.  The CSR became an SR.  

Why has this happened? The UK Government, the Chancellor has told us, wants to prioritise the response to Covid-19 and focus on supporting jobs.  In the context of so much uncertainty it is understandable they would want to be flexible, and now England is in a national lockdown it is understandable that the focus is on short term support for people and the economy at this difficult time.

That said, we will make the situation worse if we don’t commit to funding the things that underpin our future well-being.  The actions we take now need to be assessed in light of what we know about the origins of this pandemic and the risks associated with our destructive relationship with nature.  We need to consider the wider context of the climate and ecological emergency too, which will have devastating consequences for our health and economies if left unchecked.  The Spending Review must therefore provide funding to address the living and environmental standards of both today and tomorrow.  Crucially, nature can be part of the solution to the economic crisis, helping us to recover better as well as addressing the longer-term ecological need, while supporting our health during lockdown.

How can the Chancellor plot that journey? A clear medium-term funding settlement that both “saves people” and “saves nature” a genuine green recovery is the answer.

The reduced scope of the Spending Review limits our ability to plan for the long term, which is crucial to deliver at the scale needed to reverse the trend of nature’s decline.  However, even a single-year settlement can build towards medium term successes that set us on the right path.

Our three priorities for the Spending Review would therefore be:

1. Supporting local communities through nature-based solutions…

A focus on investment in nature-based solutions could kick-start the recovery of biodiversity, while delivering crucial co-benefits that support communities up and down the country, such as climate mitigation, flood risk management, as well as boosts to health and tourism.  We have also estimated that investing in restoring and creating wildlife habitats on the scale needed to meet our nature priorities would support 9,000 jobs annually across the UK for the next 10 years.

2. Supporting jobs and skills through an environmental employment scheme…

An environmental employment and training scheme to boost jobs and skills for young people and the disadvantaged could help to tackle the impact of long-term unemployment, while providing the skills needed to address the nature crisis.  A year of funding in England could provide 10,000 entry level jobs in 2021, supported by 5,000 supervisory roles.  This could kick-start a longer-term programme that supports the future delivery of ecosystem services such as improved air quality and flood defences. 

3. Supporting global ambition…

As COP26 president we should be setting the tone on the international stage. This can be the moment we deliver our commitment to double international climate finance and transition overseas development assistance and export finance towards nature and climate positive interventions.

Getting our priorities right

The Chancellor has identified some exceptions to the one-year rule in areas of national priority such as schools, hospitals and HS2 – the kinds of projects where certainty is needed to ensure that no time is lost in delivery.  We can all agree that health, education and infrastructure are high on the list of national priorities, but it is now clear that investing in our natural infrastructure is an equally pressing priority.

Our countryside is a source of national pride, but we have allowed it to become one of the most nature depleted landscapes in the world.  As we lose nature from our countryside we lose beauty and variety from our lives and the natural functions of our ecosystems collapse, leaving us ever more vulnerable to environmental hazards.  Nature can also help deliver thousands of jobs and improved access for millions to better health and wellbeing – if these aren’t priorities right now then we don’t know what is.

Time is of the essence

In collaboration with our partners at Wildlife and Countryside Link we have identified hundreds of shovel ready projects and developed an environmental employment scheme that could be off the ground in months.  With the correct funding these projects could be saving nature and delivering benefits for communities up and down the country in a fraction of the time that it takes to plan big infrastructure investments.

So yes, these are uncertain times, and yes, there is a lot we can do in just a year but if we are making exceptions for national priorities, let’s also prioritise the natural world which we know can deliver so much.  The government has committed that this generation will leave the natural environment in a better state than we found it. To succeed, substantial investment is needed urgently, and this investment will create jobs, address the challenges of climate change and enhance the well-being of us all. 

There is no better time to start than now!

* Image of avocet pair feeding in a creek at RSPB Medmerry which is one of Europe's largest managed realignment and flood protection schemes on the Sussex coast.  Image courtesy of the late and much missed Colin Wilkinson (rspb-images.com) 

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