The partnership approach?

11th February 2016

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Rachel Navin

Local nature partnerships should be at the forefront of delivering environmental objectives in England, otherwise what's the point in having them, asks Peter Young

Collaboration is essential to set England on course to stop eroding its natural capital and deliver genuinely sustainable growth. Local nature partnerships (LNPs), created by the coalition government, are one model for delivering that cohesive aim throughout the country.

LNPs reflect an undoubted aspiration by the previous government to integrate the natural environment into local planning and strategies, and have been cited in guidance as contributors to good health, positive wellbeing, infrastructure and economic development activities. They sound essential to the current administration’s agenda to develop a 25 year plan to restore the natural environment and place natural capital investment at the heart of economic planning. Their potential role is enormous yet few are ready to deliver, and many are far from meeting their objectives.

Confusing landscape

LNPs were defined in the 2011 Natural Environment White Paper and by 2013, after a bidding process for modest seedcorn funding, 48 had been created. Collectively they formed one element of the government’s institutional framework to support the recovery of nature and were key to its goal of leaving the natural environment of England in a better state than when it was inherited. Their overall purpose was to:

  • drive strategic, positive change in the local natural environment for the benefit of nature, people and the economy;
  • help the local delivery of national environmental objectives; and
  • champion the natural environment and its value to society and the economy, working with local authorities, local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) and health and wellbeing boards (HWBs).

LNPs form part of a confusing landscape, however. The lack of structural guidance, reflecting the ‘local knows best’ attitude of the localism agenda, has led to a complicated array of structures and jurisdictions. The 48 LNPs cover nearly all of England, although parts of Essex and Rutland have none. More confusingly, some areas, such as the south Pennines, have two that overlap while Thames Gateway has three. This partnership, straddling the Thames estuary, overlaps with those of London, Kent and the otherwise LNP-bereft Essex.

Across many LEPs and HWBs across the country are in line with local planning authority boundaries, they cannot be assumed to have the same footprint as LNPs or as each other. All this geographic complexity frustrates engagement by businesses and investors; and particularly frustrates other stakeholders who requested local strategic oversight and coordination of natural environment activity when setting up LNPs.

Strong leadership and LNP governance are essential for success. These must bind in the planning, health and economic development functions, preferably at board level. In Dorset and Surrey this has been achieved, and coherent plans are emerging for measuring, assessing and investing in natural capital. In other locations the links are weak or absent, and important factors deny the LNP relevance to the dominant development and health budgets.

While such discrepancies exist, LNPs cannot be regarded as fit for purpose to deliver national policies at a local level.

Cinderella funding

Defra’s now-expired support for establishing LNPs amounted to less than £20,000 each on average. Even taking account of subsequent funding over three years from national delivery bodies, such as the Environment Agency and Natural England, the total national body funding is less than double this.

There is reason to expect local organisations like LNPs to be supported by local public bodies, including councils and HWBs. However, it is clear that success will be the exception among these new, ill-defined bodies that are faced with sweeping expectations and rely on funding from shrinking local government budgets. It certainly will not create a coherent network for the whole country.

In addition, the scientific knowledge that underpins good decision-making is in decline as planning authorities reduce their in-house teams of ecologists and environmental specialists, and national bodies, such as Natural England, step back from filling the vacuum. Voluntary organisations and charities have performed a sterling job in upholding the quality of decision-making both nationally through organisations such as the National Trust and RSPB, and at the LNP level, notably through the local English Wildlife Trusts. All 37 trusts are involved in LNPs, chairing 17 them.

Taking over statutory responsibilities for free is neither desirable nor sustainable. There needs to be secure core funding. Ironically, in many areas environmental groups accuse the partnerships of taking a share of the limited budgets but failing to deliver improvements.

There is a clear credibility test for government. The 39 LEPs have been allocated £12 billion of local growth funding to spend over the next five years. By contrast, LNP funding so far amounts to less than 0.02% of this.

This fundamentally impedes healthy and strong relationships between LEPs and LNPs. Without charismatic local leaders, an LNP cannot gain traction. This is especially the case when so many LEPs cherish their simple government mandate to focus on gross value added and employment, often using it to justify ignoring their non-statutory duty to cooperate with LNPs, despite Defra’s pleas to forge strong links.

Natural capital

Defra confirmed in September 2015 that the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) would continue and the body chaired by Dieter Helm has more than earned its extension. Its latest report, published in January 2015, set out the value of natural capital as a tool to make the correct future investment decisions to improve the economy and the environment. Helm spoke at the second World Forum on Natural Capital in Edinburgh in November, stating: ‘It is a matter of economic efficiency to compensate for any further natural capital loss.’

Future economic development need not erode the natural capital base and can contribute to its restoration, all for net gains, even in the narrow definition of the LEPs’ jobs and growth mandate. There is also business and investor interest in finding natural solutions for climate change resilience and to avoid natural resource risks and ever more expensive end-of-pipe solutions for water and air quality.

The UK enjoys an enviable international record in its analysis of the state of nature, not least through the work of the NCC. We now require delivery of this thinking in a local context, which is exactly the territory of the LNPs. However, they need to be transformed into an adequately funded, fully supported, inclusive body with the capacity to shape policy and to create and oversee projects to restore natural capital in a way that improves health, wellbeing and productivity.

Reasons to be hopeful

Defra is committed this year to reviewing the LNPs’ effectiveness and, while much can be improved by sharing the success stories, a higher minimum bar is needed to deliver economic and natural benefits effectively. This will require some central core funding plus an obligation on LEPs to fund LNPs, with match funding leveraged from local government, HWBs and the private sector. And there needs to be a system introduced to enable other LNPs to learn from the pioneers – those which are succeeding despite, not because of, the government support to date.

In November, the Surrey LNP launched its natural capital investment strategy, Naturally Richer. This is underpinned by a sound baseline assessment of the immense wealth creation engine that a high-quality natural environment gives the county. Dorset LNP has used its broadly drawn board to support an excellent analysis of the threats and assets of its natural environment and seas. And at Cornwall and Isles of Scilly LNP, which is aided by European structural investment funds, the board is being strengthened in anticipation of initiatives that will produce health, wellbeing, tourism and other business benefits.

Collaboration is essential to set England on course to stop eroding its natural capital year on year and deliver genuinely sustainable growth, as measured by better lives for citizens. The LNPs are an efficient model for delivering that cohesive aim, yet they cannot do it without proper financial backing. My challenge would be to give LNPs just 1% of the LEP funding. LNPs would then not only deliver more value for the economy and create jobs, but they would do so in a way that starts to restore nature and the ecosystems that underpin future wealth. If such support is not forthcoming, we should dismantle all the dysfunctional LNPs to highlight our failure to live up to the rhetoric of Defra’s 25 year plan.


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