Conservation21 - what is new and significant?

Alan Law, Natural England’s chief officer on strategy and reform has blogged about their new strategy, Conservation21.

Last autumn, Natural England published our new conservation strategy, entitled Conservation21 (C21). I led this work, and here are some of my reflections on what’s new and significant about our thinking.

Every organisation and agenda needs a strategy; a statement of purpose and intent that people use to understand what that organisation is trying to achieve - and by what means. C21 sets out how Natural England wants to progress the conservation agenda, working with a wide range of partners at national and local levels. The strategy represents an evolution in our thinking, building on past achievements, but recognising that the challenge of the future requires change, not simply more of the same.

The first critical change in C21 is one of scale – we need to work at a landscape scale – both in terms of planning and delivering our services. This isn’t a new concept. It is central to the Lawton work and will be very familiar to National Park thinking. But what is new for us is that we want it to be the primary scale at which we work, whereas to date we have focused primarily on smaller sites, such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) or agri-environment agreements. A larger scale gives much greater flexibility over how outcomes are delivered. It also enables us to think more clearly about the mix of delivery levers that we use – whether they are incentives, regulation, advice or direct management – and what we are trying to achieve in terms of outcomes (biodiversity, access, landscape, water, health) in a location. Critically, it enables us to take a step back from the huge clutter of processes which can over-complicate situations when we work at a micro-level.

Of course, working across a larger scale and a broader suite of outcomes brings together more people with a shared interest in what to achieve and how, much as it does in a National Park setting. Ensuring that outcomes are really owned by people is fundamental to guaranteeing their delivery and long-term sustainability. That is why a second key theme of C21is about putting people at the heart of the environment. This is a change firstly in terms of how we work with people – moving away from centrally designed prescription - and towards greater engagement and joint creation of bespoke local solutions.  We know that a healthy environment provides benefits to people, through recreation and amenity, as well as services such as clean air and water. This theme reflects significant cultural and procedural changes and ultimately it might shape the way we look at the balance between rural and urban conservation – which environments matter most to people after all!?

A new view for walkers of the Cleveland Way National Trail now part of the England Coast Path (c) Bruce Cutts

We bring people and scale together in our third theme of shared plans for places. We need to build alliances in places, and formalise ambition through clear strategic plans. To be clear, that does not mean that Natural England needs to lead these. But we want to increase our input at this level to help, working with established partnerships and helping build new ones.

Change is going to be inevitable in the coming years. By working creatively at a landscape scale and collaboratively with partners, Natural England wants to step up and focus on realising the opportunities that come from change, rather than hunker down and focus solely on the risks. The environmental challenge is a big one; our strategy is a bold one that aims explicitly to rise to this.

Please note, the opinions expressed in all our blogs are of the author, and not endorsed by Campaign for National Parks. We are hosting blogs on a variety of subjects to provoke thought and discussion about National Parks.