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The Research Brief: how local authorities can lead on nature-based climate solutions

Your weekly dose of policy thinking.

By Spotlight

Welcome to the Research Brief, where Spotlight, the New Statesman’s policy section, brings you the pick of recent publications from the government, think tank, charity and NGO world. To see more editions of the Research Brief click here.

What are we talking about this week? Powers in Place: Nature, a new report by UK100 looking at the powers local authorities need to deal with the ecological crisis.  

UK100 who? UK100 is a network of council leaders and metro mayors who have pledged to lead the transition to net zero and clean air. The network is cross-party but was founded by the former Ed Miliband Spad and BBC journalist, Polly Billington. Up until recently, Billington also served as chief executive of UK100 but has stepped down to run for parliament in the auspicious seat of South Thanet (one Nigel Farage previously ran unsuccessfully for in 2015). 

What’s the gist? The climate crisis feeds the ecological crisis, and vice versa. Transformative change from national and local government is needed to tackle both crises, but councils currently do not have the “capacity, capability or resources” to take a stand for nature or plan its recovery into their services. In fact, UK100 says we need no less than a complete “mindset shift” in local and national government to tackle this.  

Just tell me – how bad is it? Sure you want to know? The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, UK100 says. This is because of our history of industrialisation and land-use changes over time. We have lost large areas of natural habitat: 99.7 per cent of fens; 97 per cent of species-rich grasslands; 80 per cent of lowland heathlands; up to 70 per cent of ancient woodlands; and up to 85 per cent of salt marshes have been destroyed or downgraded. In England, a quarter of mammals and almost a fifth of UK plants are at risk of extinction. Forty-one per cent of all UK species that have been studied have declined since the 1970s. 

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Quick, councils must act! Well, the good news is that local authorities can play a significant role in nature conservation and recovery – but there’s a big but. 

Which is? Local authorities don’t have sufficient powers to protect nature and important species and habitats. They do have various duties and powers on nature conservation and enhancement, but the small matter of land ownership means there is a lot of territory where they don’t have much of a say. English councils only own about 4 per cent of England’s land, where they have “complete control over how nature is treated”. But local authorities have little say over what happens on the 69 per cent of land that is used for agriculture, aside from via planning regulations.  

[See also: The tree-planting misconception]

There are lessons to be learned from the UK’s tricky experience in climate mitigation, too, where “stop-start” and fragmented policy have hampered efforts. UK100 warns that we can learn from this and not repeat it for nature recovery. But there are other problems. 

Such as? Nature protection is not prioritised when decisions are made about planning and development, and the UK lacks “clear, coherent and connected national policies”. This only made worse by “a complexity of responsibilities at local level [and] across different organisations”. There is also the small matter of “insufficient funding”, and short-term, competitive bids. The report also criticised a “lack of a whole-systems approach” – meaning there are myriad initiatives happening around the country without coordination, losing out on any potential cumulative impact on our natural environment.  

Sounds familiar. Well, quite. But all is not lost. UK100 recommends three main policies: “clear, coherent and connected policies”; and nature protection being prioritised in the planning system, locally and nationally. That may be easier said than done when both parties are committed to significant planning reforms and an easing off on the so-called red tape, apparently aimed at boosting house-building and other developments.

What else? And, of course, councils need adequate funding. The report recommends long-term investment in training on nature recovery for local authorities. “Everyone needs to be able to speak ‘Nature Recovery’,” it says.

In a sentence? If we want to face the climate crisis and transition to net zero, then we must face the nature crisis – and local government is key to making that happen.

Read the full report from UK100 here.

If you have a report, briefing paper or a piece of research that you’d like featured in the Research Brief, get in touch at spotlight@newstatesman.co.uk.

[See also: Dead birds falling from the sky is a bad omen for humanity]

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