We covered a lot of ground at a well attended fringe event with the Liberal Democrats yesterday - from fracking on SSSIs, to housing policy, spending cuts and Europe.  As a party they are clearly finding their road to recovery, but they have a stake in many of the issues that are relevant today not least because they were live when they were part of the coalition government.

For example, the Natural Capital Committee was born on their watch and today we had the first clues as to what the new government thinks about its future.

At the end of January, I welcomed the NCC's third report (here).  It deserved applause because it contained a series of ambitious recommendations for environmental protection and restoration. Today the Government responded to those recommendations. 

The most welcome feature of the announcement was confirmation that the NCC , which formally ends in September, will be re-established and continue for the duration of this Parliament.   It is also encouraging to know that it will continue to report to the Government’s Economic Affairs Committee.  The first tasks of the newly constituted NCC will be to help develop the Government’s 25 year plan for biodiversity and begin the process of recalibrating the way environmental values are included in decision making.   

Our recommendations for the new NCC were for it to be given:

  • New independence: to assess environmental impact of policy and progress restoring nature
  • New authority: to make recommendations binding on business and government
  • New resources: to properly assess how nature and economy can be enhanced together

The Government’s response does not match the ambition of the Committee nor accept our recommendations.  There are no additional resources, no intention to integrate natural capital considerations into the National Infrastructure Plan and no support for pursuing the innovatory financing proposals suggested by the Committee.  It will also remain an advisory Committee without a broader remit to assess environmental impacts of government policy.   

Nonetheless, there are welcome signs that the government is beginning to accept a main premise of the work of the NCC – that nature underpins our wellbeing and future economic prospects.  While protecting and restoring nature is a responsibility we all share, the government has a critical role in providing the necessary resources to secure the vast array of public benefits which nature generates but which markets cannot provide.  There are a number of ways Government’s can correct for the failings of markets and some form of action will be necessary if the government is to achieve its ambition to leave the environment in a better condition than it inherited.   

So I wish the new Committee well in continuing this work and hope they can make further inroads into amending an economic system which over exploits nature because it chronically undervalues it.  One thing that impressed me about the first NCC, was the determined independence of the Committee members and their commitment to providing clear objective advice.  For the new NCC to attract the same quality of membership and produce the same quality of outputs, retaining its’ independence and integrity will be key. 

I look forward to hearing what the Liberal Democrats and other parties think about today's announcement.

  • It's probably quite hard for most people, including nature conservation organisations, to grasp the potential importance of what the Natural Capital Committee is proposing. Nature's Home is full of the (great) achievements of places like Ham Wall, Wallasea and Medmerry - not one over 1,000 hectares. The NCC proposed 100,000 has of new wetland. Although flood defence is the main motivation, that ort of area of new wetland could take many species back to the era before the fens were drained. Their proposal for new woodland (and by that I'd read a wide ranging mix of more natural habitats, not just trees) around our towns and cities could, I believe, allow us to build all the houses we need AND actually improve the environment. Even where their proposals need new money, they've meticulously demonstrated how the investment will grow the economy - but many of their ideas only need a change in the way we do things, many (such as peatlands in the uplands) already heavily funded with public money. It is a relief that this Government has allowed this vital initiative to continue, perhaps no surprise that it is without the leadership needed to make the big things happen - and for the other parties here is the open goal to the sort of inspirational vision of the future currently absent from our dire and depressing political scene.