Why councils should take a ‘natural capital’ approach to the environment

Phil Jones, member of ADEPT’s Flood and Water Management Group, discusses how local authorities can bring a natural capital approach into their work to prepare for the 25 Year Environment Plan.

The ADEPT group’s primary area of interest is flood risk and water management, including coastal erosion. We work to give support, advice on policy development and promote best practice, working closely with Defra and the Environment Agency on areas including natural flood management and sustainable drainage systems (SuDS). The natural capital perspective is due to become an increasingly important consideration throughout our work.

Natural capital, as a concept, encompasses all our natural resources including air, soil, living things, and the ecosystems on which we depend. It has become predominant in the UK government’s agenda for the environment, beginning with the 2011 Environment White Paper. Following that, the Natural Capital Committee was set up in 2012 as an independent body to advise government and has been influential in developing the strategy that underpins the 25 Year Environment Plan.

As an approach, natural capital views natural resources in terms of assets and the benefits derived from them. Understanding how our natural assets function is core to the approach, which demands regular monitoring and evaluation to assess changes in ecosystems, providing critical evidence to support sustainability and enabling better management, protection and enhancement of the environment.

This approach is embedded in the 25 Year Environment Plan strategy and the key indicators against which actions are measured. The Plan introduces the creation of fourteen Local Natural Capital Plans based on the different regional Defra areas, with delivery working groups to include core stakeholders such as local authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships, Local Nature Partnerships and the Defra family. These groups will be responsible for setting priorities at a regional level.

With fourteen groups operating to different geographies and ecosystems, creating alignment and consistency is vital. Local circumstances will be paramount in each area, but delivering on the strategy cannot be patchwork across the country.

There are three areas due to act as pilots over the coming year to test governance and delivery arrangements. These will ensure local ownership and shared responsibility, and building a natural capital approach into policy-making.

ADEPT members will be consulted on the development of the Local Natural Capital Plans, enabling us to be at the forefront of development and to examine key issues and approaches as they emerge.

One of the ADEPT group’s core questions is on incentivisation. How do you incentivise new approaches to flood and water management, for example? There are many answers – including through management schemes – but for pressed local authorities, inevitably it’s a question of funding.

To use coastal erosion as an example, it’s a difficult issue for local councils in areas where only a very few properties are affected and budget is already stretched to the limit. Bring a natural capital approach into play and the picture can look very different, once an evaluation of the area in terms of all natural assets – biodiversity, air quality, water quality, as well as protection – is undertaken. If funding could support this wider set of criteria, Flood Authorities could design broader schemes with greater benefits, potentially through the Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Grant In Aid, for example.

Central to evaluating any area is mapping. For any given area, all natural assets and issues are mapped resulting in a ‘heatmap’ of assets such as rivers and forests that provide different ecosystems, but also soil, water and air quality.

It is an emerging new field so as yet very little mapping is done in local areas however learning can be brought back to ADEPT based on the trialling that is being undertaken in areas such as the Cambridge, Milton Keynes and Oxford Growth Corridor.

At Northamptonshire County Council, we have undertaken an ecosystem mapping exercise across Northamptonshire and Peterborough, with contributed findings from key partners. We’ve examined flood risk benefits, looking at the costs and returns, but the scope is actually much wider. By including issues such as air quality, access to green space and biodiversity, we are discovering where best to create wetlands and grasslands, while at the same time, reducing surface water run-off.

The resulting ‘heatmap’ is at field level, meaning we can engage with landowners, supplying evidence of where best to create new woodlands or improve the environment. This allows us to offer greater value and viability to schemes, and protect smaller projects by giving them more push.

We are also introducing the advantages of mapping to stakeholders. A recent workshop talked eighty stakeholders through how they could use these maps in their own areas of work – from planning and environmental stewardship, to health.

For ADEPT, this work is very new, but equally that makes it incredibly exciting. Being at the forefront means our members can draw on the latest evidence and best practice, bringing natural capital to life.

Phil Jones

Phil Jones

Member of ADEPT’s Flood and Water Management Group.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share This