RSPB England Senior Policy Officer Jess Chappell explains why the absence of nature from UK Government’s “levelling up” missions is cause for concern

This week UK Government finally set out their proposals for “levelling up” - a term that we first heard from the Conservative Party ahead of the 2019 general election. But what exactly does, and should, this mean for the natural world?

We had hoped that the Levelling Up White Paper – a policy document produced by the Government to set out their proposals for future legislation – would answer that question. We know that the Government wants to address inequalities between communities. If they are truly serious about doing so, then the definition of “levelling up” must recognise the importance of access to a healthy environment for people’s physical and mental health and wellbeing.  But while reference to the natural environment does make an appearance, its absence from the 12 missions at the heart of the White Paper – into which Government’s “resources, energy, and focus throughout the 2020s will be re-oriented around achieving” - is a glaring omission from a Government who only last year committed to protect and enhance our environment through a new Environment Act.

Health and wellbeing

Protecting and restoring nature will make a strong contribution to achieving the aims of the White Paper. We are living in one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth, with 11 million people in England living in areas with limited access to greenspace. Our Recovering Together report points to inequalities in access to nature and its benefits for people from different economic groups and ethnic backgrounds.  Delivering equal access to nature-rich greenspace across England will be of benefit to a Government who have committed to improve wellbeing, and narrow the gap in Healthy Life Expectancy, across England. The Levelling Up White Paper points to a number of tools already at our disposal, many of which were brought into force by the Environment Act last year. For example, Local Nature Recovery Strategies to drive nature’s recovery across England. It is now time to focus on translating what we already have into action on the ground. And while environmental policy is devolved to the Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh governments, a co-operative approach will ensure that these benefits are delivered across all four countries of the UK.

Local decision making for nature

As identified in the White Paper, levelling up – including the natural environment - is not solely the responsibility of Westminster. Local government leaders in England - including the directly elected mayors of the cities and combined authorities that are home to over a third of the population - have an important role to play in protecting and enhancing their local natural environment. And we are already seeing local leaders step up. For example, the West Midlands Combined Authority who have committed to protect, restore & enhance nature in their new Natural Environment Plan, and who last month launched a Community Green Grants fund to support projects widening access to nature and green space. The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority board recently approved budget to double the size of the area dedicated to wildlife habitats and natural green space across the region. These local decision makers and others are already delivering benefits for people, the economy, and for wildlife, resulting in attractive places to live and work where nature is allowed to thrive. We welcome National Government’s commitment in the White Paper to provide decision-makers in local areas with the tools they need to level-up their regions. This must include the funding, skills and - as recognised in the White Paper - good quality data, that empower our local leaders to recover nature and people’s access to it.

Planning with wildlife in mind

The White Paper commits to “improvements to the planning system to level up left-behind places”.  Where and how we build has a huge impact upon our wildlife and natural spaces. Any changes to the English planning system must be fit for purpose given the nature and climate emergency that we are in. However there is little to give real confidence that forthcoming changes to the planning system will either ensure access for all communities to nature-rich greenspace, or to recover nature. Much more detail on this, with firm proposals, needs to follow. We hope that the infrastructure proposals in the White Paper must work with, and not against, nature, using nature-based solutions wherever possible and allowing wildlife to thrive in both urban and rural areas.

While there are plans in this White Paper that will, if delivered properly, benefit nature, very little - if any - of this is new. We already know what we have to do to save nature and ensure equal access to it, and the tools are already in place. All that we are currently lacking is delivery. By failing to enshrine nature and the climate in their missions for levelling up, UK Government risk holding back the investment and resources required to deliver a healthy natural world for all. We are therefore calling on Government to clarify how their plans for levelling up will make nature’s recovery a priority.