We can’t level up without restoring nature

Investing in our natural spaces can rejuvenate degraded ecosystems and held-back communities

The government’s favourite term, levelling up’, contains little meaning – just enough to be politically useful, but not enough to support any real plan. At NEF, we investigated the role of nature in levelling up, through a case study in the Suffolk village of Kessingland. Like many of the UK’s struggling coastal areas, when it comes to their health, wealth or income, Kessingland residents have above average rates of deprivation. The village is also, like many coastal communities, exposed to the impacts of the climate crisis through things like sea-level rise and coastal flooding. What, if anything, does levelling up mean for a community like Kessingland?

A billion pounds a year is expected to flow into local places through the Levelling Up Fund itself, and a few hundred million a year could be available through a collection of smaller funds, including the Green Recovery Challenge Fund and Community Ownership Fund. Recent announcements also suggest the government will spend around a billion pounds a year over the next five years on flood defences. Precisely how much from these pots communities like Kessingland will ultimately receive seems fairly arbitrary. All that’s certain is that these one-off cash injections won’t reverse the damage a decade of austerity has done to local public services. Nonetheless, after so many promises have been made by this government, a bit of investment might be on the horizon.

We took a deep dive into a nature-based’ flood-defence project under development in Kessingland, partially funded through two of the aforementioned capital pots. The project involves the creation of a coastal wetland, designed to create new habitats for wildlife, a buffer zone to hold back coastal flooding, and a new embankment inland. The project is not a typical example of the type of investment promoted by this government, but as the climate crisis accelerates, it is the type of project we may see more of. The project has come about, in-no-small-part thanks to years of careful coalition building by public servants at the local and regional level.

In broad terms, our report shows that this type of investment in nature on Britain’s coast can boost social outcomes such as health and educational attainment in deprived communities. But our report also provides warnings and insights into the many obstacles which may make it harder for the government to reach its levelling up goals.

More nature means better health, wealth and education

Access to nature and green space can play an important role in improving residents’ health and education prospects, as well as boosting incomes. Nationally, green space provision per person has been eroding over recent decades, leaving many areas with both little nature and few open spaces in which to develop community life. Coastal areas are often assumed to have adequate provision of open space, but sea-fronts, often at least partially shared with tourists, are not a direct substitute for local green and natural spaces and can hide a green deficit’.

When government considers new nature-based projects, the public policy and appraisal process often fails to consider these social benefits. For example, current government decision making guidance on flood protection encourages schemes to focus on flood-defence-related outcomes, missing out potential benefits around health and education.

Benefitting everyone, not just a wealthy few

Projects like our example in Kessingland often find themselves seeking funding from pots which are allocated competitively, rather than allocated simply on the basis of need, as measured against a fixed standard of service provision. In this context, there is a risk that the project could drive inequality, both between places and within a place. In the case of nature-based interventions like the one in Kessingland, there is a particular risk that the benefits of the scheme, like higher land value and richer nature, will go to land-owners and large corporate entities. In this case, the publicly-funded flood-defence scheme could end up channelling more than 20% of its benefits to less than five already-wealthy stakeholders.

We need tougher mechanisms to protect the public interest. This could mean requiring public access to schemes involving private land, and mandating private contributions to schemes which deliver a significant proportion of benefits to a minority of wealthy individuals. Longer-term, levelling up will not be delivered without a wholesale rethink of land policy in the UK and improving statutory rights around access to nature.

Keeping wealth in local areas

While politicians widely recognise the value of prioritising the local area, and keeping wealth in the community, designing schemes which lock wealth into local areas is rarely a priority. It’s a luxury rather than a requirement for new projects to be collectively owned through local trusts and co-operatives. In addition, capital investment often doesn’t include funding to sustain the long-term management of new green investments. With the annual funding available to local authorities gutted by a decade of austerity, one-off green infrastructure investments risk becoming white elephants’ which swiftly degrade for lack of maintenance (a fate which has befallen many local green spaces in recent years). Maintenance contracts, and contracts linked to enabling investments often go to the lowest-cost bidder. These bidders are often mega-corporates like Serco, which typically tend towards a business model which extracts wealth from local communities, rather than providers grounded in the community and invested in its success.

Government appraisal processes not up to the task

The Treasury has a guide for appraising projects like the Kessingland scheme, called the Green Book. But the government has recognised that the way the Green Book works could hamper its levelling up agenda, and published its Green Book Review 2020. This sets out how the decision-making guide will change in order to encourage decisions which favour less well-off areas. The findings of this review however, have yet to permeate down into decision-making on the ground, and the advice in the Green Book itself remains too vague to be enacted.

In our report, we show that innovations in the Green Book, if implemented properly, may elevate nature restoration schemes in deprived communities. However, bureaucratic obstacles also stand in the way of projects which deliver benefits across a wide array of social outcomes, like Kessingland flood management scheme. It can be extremely difficult for projects which straddle multiple areas (like health, education, ecosystem regeneration, and flood protection) to access funding, particularly without proper statutory backing mandating high standards of provision. Project co-ordinators are left pulling together scraps of funding from multiple sources, exhausting the time of project officers, causing delays, increasing costs, and potentially fatally undermining a good scheme.

Our current set of piecemeal, competitive, and one-off funding pots will not be adequate to stop the decline of the UK’s natural environment, nor will they unlock the potential for held-back communities of nature restoration’s many social benefits. If we are serious about levelling up, we should start by enshrining a proper right to nature, dramatically scale-up green space provision, and supply proper funding to local authorities and their partners.

Read the full report here

Image: Tim Parkinson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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