Putting natural beauty at the heart of our future environment?

Fiona Howie argues that beauty needs to be at the forefront of the Government’s environmental agenda.

In his first keynote speech as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove spoke of how he draws inspiration from nature and that he believes that everyone needs beauty in their lives. Sentiments he reiterated in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference on 2 October. In his keynote speech he went on to note his belief, however, that policy needs to be underpinned by science rather than sentiment. While I recognise the importance of evidence-led policy, if we truly want to deliver the Government’s commitment to be ‘the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it inherited…’ natural beauty must not be side-lined just because it cannot easily be measured.

In the same speech the Secretary of State also outlined a little more about the long-awaited 25 Year Environment Plan. Specifically, he referred to seeking advice from the Natural Capital Committee about what the aims of the Plan should be and how they might monitor progress against those aims. That advice was submitted to Government at the end of September.

Unsurprisingly, the advice recommends that the Plan should be based upon the principles of a natural capital approach, which brings “established economic accounting methods for public and private assets together with the best natural science understanding.” It proposes goals about improving the air we breathe, flood protections, wild species and habitats and soil health. And who could disagree with all of that? But in my view, a crucial element is missing. And that is natural beauty, and within that, the importance of landscape.

Too often we hear that children are becoming disconnected from the environment. The advice raises this and says we need a Plan that will “allow citizens to reconnect with the health, wellbeing, spiritual and educational benefits of interacting with nature.” National Parks have a substantial role to play in helping to achieve that aim. But if we only focus the Plan on capital that can be accounted for, we will be missing much of what people do connect with. We need to acknowledge that what is important to many people is how they feel when they hear birdsong or see a beautiful view. Or when they are able to experience a truly dark sky or when they are able to get away from the built environment.

The sum of parts? Danbydale, North York Moors National Park. Photo credit: Mike Kipling

Natural beauty is the sum of a large number of parts. National Parks are beautiful because of the high quality landscapes they contain, the wildlife, the cultural heritage, their relative wildness and tranquillity. As the NCC advice recognises, they also contain a vast amount of natural capital. And while those elements might be easier to measure and quantify, we must also acknowledge the importance and value of the sum of those parts. It was fantastic to hear the Secretary of State talking about his emotional connection to our beautiful environment. If we really want to reconnect people with the environment, we must not solely focus on what we can quantify. We need to accept that elements of our beautiful and inspiring countryside, including our National Parks, are priceless and that is what makes it so important that they are protected and enhanced as part of the 25 Year Environment Plan.