Development: Don't forget the environment

Weymouth Relief Road © Tony Harris

In his latest blog, DWT Chief Executive, Simon Cripps, writes about the importance of using our environment and 'natural capital' when considering development in Dorset.

Changing politics

As a result of some focussed and relentless lobbying of MPs, the Wildlife Trusts and most of the other main environmental groups in the country including RSPB, National Trust, Woodland Trust etc, we are starting to hear some positive messages from government about protecting the natural environment, in particular Environment Minister Michael Gove.  Signs of national consciousness in our fabulous and vital natural environment are good.  We must only hope that Mr Gove, the sort of high flier that DEFRA (Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) does not usually keep for long, will not move up the ministerial pecking order before he has followed through on his commitments.

At a local level things are not looking nearly so good.  Indeed, there would appear to be a considerable mismatch between national and local policy and vision.  Within some sectors in counties including Dorset we are seeing a downgrading, or complete absence of, environmental considerations.  Now true, the environment departments of local authorities, Natural England, Environment Agency, the fisheries authority (IFCA) and others are doing their usual great jobs.  It is those responsible for economic development that do not seem to have got the message.  This, despite considerable lobbying and hand-holding from ourselves at DWT, other environment groups and the local environment bodies set up by government to champion nature – the Local Nature Partnerships (LNPs).

At the moment, as local authorities and business scramble to position themselves in a fast-changing political world, we are seeing a plethora of development projects being proposed and growth plans being published.  The development projects in Dorset focus almost entirely around infrastructure and housing, with a bit of sectoral development.  Nothing wrong with that in principle as some of these are much needed in Dorset.  The problem comes when environment and social or community needs are almost entirely forgotten.  As an example, the West of Dorset Development Strategy published recently gives no mention of environment or even farming even though Dorset is in their words: ‘The natural place to do business’. 

Where has the environment gone?

What is happening here?  Where has the environment gone? Why is there such a disjoint between national aspirations and local actions?  Earlier this week I had the opportunity to attend The World Forum on Natural Capital, held over a couple of days in Edinburgh.  During the more practically oriented sessions a light came on for me as to why we are struggling so hard to get an understanding of the value of nature and environment by some of the economic development and business specialists.

I have mentioned in previous blogs that natural capital is a relatively new concept that has been developed to explain, especially to economists and financiers, how environment fits within and is vital for sustained, successful development.  It is a straightforward parallel with financial capital.  In summary it is the world’s stock of natural assets.  As with money, you can build it up and live off the substantial interest or services the assets give you, such as clean water, food production, flood protection and pollinators, or you can erode it so you have less to sustain us in the future. 

Talking development

The Dorset LNP for instance produced a Natural Capital Investment Strategy to sit alongside the Local Enterprise Partnership’s (LEP - the economic development organisation for Dorset) Growth Strategy.  Dorset County Council (DCC) also produced a valuation of Dorset’s natural assets, worth over £1.2 billion per annum.  Our aim is not to stop appropriate development nor even to make it all about the environment.  We are merely trying to ensure that when a project is developed, such as a new road or housing scheme, environment and communities are considered in the choice of scheme, and are included in the plans to maximise the benefits of the scheme. You need look no further than the Weymouth Relief Road to see how incorporating environment and community benefits into a scheme you get so much more than just a new road.  Our aim is to ensure that every single development projects results in more natural capital after than before.  Great for Dorset, great for you and me, and great for the success of the project.

The trouble is that this just isn’t happening in Dorset at the level it should.  It would appear that many economic development people still see environment as a restriction on growth and development.  It isn’t!  At least not for well thought-through schemes in the right place.  The light that came on for me in Edinburgh was as follows and comprises 3 parts.  In summary it is a cultural rather than environmental issue.

Firstly, development organisations are often comprised of business entrepreneurs, as encouraged by central government.  They are great for understanding the needs of business and for innovation, but do not commonly have experience of policy, evidence-based reasoning such as science (except of course in technological companies), community needs and environment.  When formulating the needs of the county all of these elements are required, not just the needs of business.  There are though some great examples of innovation, environmental understanding and community benefit: Lush’s support for wildlife, particularly birds; Siemen’s Corporate Citizenship aims; Nestle’s global leadership in natural capital; the estate agent Domvs working with us on planning issues; John Lewis’s work on Brownsea; and long-term community and environment supporter Battens, a legal firm.  These all show environmental leadership that will benefit both wildlife and hopefully their company’s bottom lines.  They also show that no matter what your company does, it can play a part in securing Dorset’s or our world’s future.

Secondly, whilst central government, as I mentioned above, has been saying the right things, they are equally at fault because their departments don’t seem to talk to each other: BEIS (Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy) don’t talk to DEFRA who don’t talk to Treasury who don’t talk to DCLG (Department for Communities & Local Government).  Even within departments it appears that sectoral experts don’t talk to each other.  What then happens is a tendency for strategies without joined-up thinking and the local development agencies are required to just implement projects handed to them, without the opportunity or requirement to consider potential beneficial, or mitigate detrimental, impacts.  Natural capital thinking isn’t purely an extra, possibly expensive or restricting, element to bolt-on to a project.  It cuts across all elements of the development.  It therefore requires a culture of integrated and cross-cutting thinking that seems to be missing in our development agencies.  If they had it, the projects they chose would be more suitable for Dorset, better supported by communities, less damaging to the very environment that will sustain future benefits and would have far higher returns on investment.  The agencies would also be better protected against accusations of self-interest because the return on investment would have been transparently calculated using natural capital as one measure.

Thirdly, the Natural Capital Conference showed that what we need in Dorset and indeed across the UK are four, what I call ‘enabling criteria’, for successful economic development projects and strategies: 1. sound, reliable data (we have that in the form of ecosystem services mapping and examples of natural capital benefits); 2. an understanding of, and interest in, the value of the natural environment and communities (we are working on that); 3. regulations to ensure this happens (I don’t believe in self-regulation); and 4. possibly most importantly, leadership to drive forward something that isn’t business as usual, but will be vastly more successful.

Cultural blocks

Dorset Wildlife Trust and the many organisations and individuals that comprise the Dorset LNP will continue to work with the development agencies at various levels to ensure that natural capital is incorporated into their thinking, for the sake of nature, economic development and the people of Dorset.  This week I realised though that this isn’t just a problem of understanding that environment facilitates development, not hinders it.  It is a cultural block in society to thinking more laterally and to communicating between different cultural groups.