Putting people where they belong: at the heart of looking after nature

(c) https://peoplesplanfornature.org

This blog is written by Rory Crawford, RSPB’s Lead on the People’s Assembly for Nature. 

What happens when three of the UK’s nature conservation NGO behemoths ask the public what we need to do to protect and restore nature? 

The way the RSPB advocates for nature is a well-trodden approach used by many nature conservation charities: we commission, conduct or examine the underlying science, we develop policy based on that evidence and then we advocate for the adoption and implementation of policies that ought to deliver for nature. And while it’s clear that this has brought a number of successes, undeniably the overall picture is that we are not succeeding: the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries on the face of the planet. We need to start doing things differently. If we want to build a popular movement for nature that gives governments the confidence to take bold action, then we need to bring many more voices into the discussion.

(c) https://peoplesplanfornature.org

It should be obvious, really – the nature crisis affects us all. We all, therefore, need to be part of the conversation about how to solve it. With this in mind, the RSPB, WWF and the National Trust launched the People’s Plan for Nature: the UK’s biggest ever conversation about the future of nature. We ran this in two phases – the first was an open call for ideas and stories from the public – we asked what they loved about nature, what they’d miss if it was gone, to share exciting examples of nature protection and restoration work and to imagine what is different about a UK in 2050 where nature is thriving. We received over 20,000 submissions online and almost 10,000 from 74 interactive installations spread across the UK. This fed into the second phase, a citizen’s assembly in which a demographically representative sample of 103 assembly members – selected through a sortition process – took a deep dive in the nature crisis (and how we might solve it) over the course of four weekends from November 2022 to February 2023.  

Ensuring a representative sample of the public is a fundamental part of any citizen’s assembly; we viewed this as particularly important in the People’s Assembly for Nature – gender, ethnicity, geography, urban/rural, level of education and level of agreement with the statement ‘I feel a part of nature’ were the categories that we sought to match with the UK census data in terms of percentages. A deliberate choice was made to over-recruit members from Asian, Asian British, Black African, Black Caribbean, Black British, Mixed and Other ethnic groups, given the historical and ongoing exclusion and under-representation of minoritized groups in discussions about nature protection in the UK. In addition, a deliberate choice was made to over-recruit members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (to ensure perspectives from each of the four nations were heard across the assembly) and an over-recruitment from rural areas compared to the overall population for the same reason.

(c) https://peoplesplanfornature.org

In short – we didn’t want this to be yet another process where the usual voices were heard and the usual outcomes achieved. The purpose was to centre the voice of the people. And in case it’s not clear, this isn’t how we normally do things. The science, the policy expertise, the actions for nature on the ground all matter – but if we want to transform our relationship with nature for the better, we need to magnify the voices of everyday people.

As you can imagine putting substantial collective effort behind something without knowing the outcome, to be decided by a group of non-experts required a shift in mindset. And it involved relinquishing a lot of control – the assembly had to be run independently (in our case by Involve), overseen by an independent Advisory Group and had to give space to an array of perspectives – including some we might not agree with or tend to centre in discussions! 

(c) https://peoplesplanfornature.org

And so, the deliberations of 103 of our fellow citizens led to the creation of the People’s Plan for Nature, published on 23 March, containing 26 direct and clear calls to action for national and local governments, businesses, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and local communities to protect and renew nature. Although most of the actions are aimed primarily at governments, there are actions for NGOs too – a number of which are about better supporting local communities to access nature or participate in protecting it. It has given us cause to reflect – to think about our own approach, how we put our voice behind the people’s priorities and change how we do things. It also sets us the challenge of grounding our advocacy for nature in the concept of fairness and justice for those most affected. We are in the process of writing our own response, which we will publish later this month. We hope others will do the same. 

Those of us involved in the project from the RSPB, WWF and National Trust had a slightly odd, disembodied role at the assemblies. We were in the room, having been very involved in the organisation, but not privy to the facilitated discussions happening at the table and not able to chat to participants about the content. There’s an awful lot, therefore, we didn’t hear. But in spite of that, there were so many moments of power, emotion and humanity. Hearing the room explode into discussion on the first day when over 100 strangers were asked to talk to each other about their favourite illustration from the national conversation; seeing the weight of the shocking state of nature in the UK sink in; hearing people saying that hearing different perspectives had changed their minds – and perhaps most powerfully of all, hearing the assembly members come to the front of the room and read out their visions for a future where nature is protected and renewed: 

“Nature is valued and respected by all. There is a collaborative, long-term approach to prioritising nature in all decision-making. This has created an empowered, happier, healthier world, with nature connected to everyday life. This has laid a foundation for the well-being of all future life.” 

- One of the People’s Plan for Nature Visions of the Future 

What this shows is that people don’t view centring nature in our decision-making as controversial or radical – but sensible. So – to our elected officials – have confidence in taking bold action for nature. Goodness knows we all need it.


(c) https://peoplesplanfornature.org

You can add your name in support of the People’s Plan for Nature here.