Recovering the natural world

The Wildlife Trusts' Head of Living Landscape describes why a healthy environment is the foundation for everything of value - and what we need to do to preserve it

Paul Wilkinson

The natural world is the cornerstone to the health of our nation, and its health should be at the very top of every agenda. It is under more pressure than ever before from development, a changing climate and the demands of a growing population. Sixty per cent of UK species we know about are in decline, according to the 'State of Nature' report.

Many of the natural environment's 'free' valuable services it provides are also under threat, such as clean water supply, crop pollination, resilience to flooding and food production. And, despite existing legislation and policy, society continues to unsustainably use many natural assets, putting our long-term economic prosperity at risk.

The lack of recognition that a healthy natural environment is the foundation for everything of value to us has serious implications. We're experiencing increasing levels of obesity and physical inactivity, and one in four of us will experience mental health problems at some point in our lives. Any causal links between nature's decline and society's decline will be hard to prove. But let's be honest: we're not separate from nature; we're part of it.

Although we have important UK and European laws to protect nature, we now need to create modern legislation - a nature and wellbeing act - for nature's recovery and society's wellbeing, which can operate in much longer timeframes than governments do.

All of the evidence demonstrates that where the natural environment is put at the heart of planning decisions, people's quality of life and the value of their properties is far higher. Well- sited and designed developments can be good for people, wildlife, business and the economy - they must go together.

Planning consent was granted at Port Marine in Portishead near Bristol for 2,550 homes on condition that developers designate?a nature reserve at Portbury Wharf on adjoining land (pictured, right). Enjoyed by local communities, it's quietly working hard for them too; the habitats and wetlands act as a sponge, absorbing run-off from the development, filtering pollutants and providing flood protection in the event of a breach of the sea wall. Places such as this, where people live, relax, explore and exercise, perform acts from which we benefit on a daily basis.

It's not 'environment versus economy'. It's not 'people versus wildlife'. As Port Marine illustrates, it is possible to secure successful solutions that integrate development and wildlife for the benefit of everyone.

Yet, despite positive approaches by some local practitioners, astonishing decisions continue to be made with houses being built on flood plains, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) set to be divided by HS2 and so on.

The recent approval to build 5,000 houses on Lodge Hill in Medway, Kent, an area officially recognised for its wildlife value, and designated as an SSSI, will see environmental destruction on a scale not seen for more than 20 years, since that which resulted from the Cardiff Bay Barrage Act of Parliament in 1993.

The need to develop major infrastructure is recognised, but not at the expense of internationally important wildlife sites, a principle enshrined in planning policy and legislation. Respect for this framework was recently demonstrated as plans for 'Boris Island' were refused due to significant environmental concerns and huge costs.

However, in Wales, the M4 proposal, which will cause irreparable damage through the heart of the Gwent Levels - at a cost of ?1.25 billion - continues to be fought.

Bad decisions lead to wholly avoidable and unacceptable impacts on people, business and the natural environment. We must stop seeing nature and green infrastructure as optional - it is essential.

We need a large-scale recovery in our natural environment now, more than ever before. That's why The Wildlife Trusts and RSPB are calling for a nature and wellbeing act to go beyond current policy and legislation. We must seek to meet the needs of the future.?

You can find out more about The Wildlife Trusts at www.wildlifetrusts.org
For more information about RSPB's manifesto proposals, please email richard.benwell@rspb.org.uk