Our big green ally

A short twitter conversation this morning got me thinking: we can assess the natural environment and how we manage it in so many ways, and in nearly every metric we are causing a paradigm shift in the world around us. Sure, part of the problem is the language we use: ‘biodiversity’ and ‘ecosystem services’ don’t go anywhere near suggesting the wonder or might of these systems and so perhaps it’s no wonder that voters across the spectrum seem to rate the green agenda so low on their list of priorities. But for all the hullabaloo about how language shapes our understanding of the world, there must be more that we can do to put nature nearer to the top of the agenda. But what?

Ideas have to start somewhere, so here are two to play with.

Firstly, we know that in spite of DEFRA’s massive cuts last year, the Environment Agency and Natural England are in line for even more this year. At the same time, we have a Department for Energy and Climate Change that spends most of its £10n annual budget on decommissioning nuclear reactors, an NHS that is being privatised and seeing year-on year cuts to investment in mental health and a Department for Communities and Local Government that looks like it’s being run by the Tax Payers Alliance.

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We know that the tools to solve many of the problems these Departments face can be found in ‘ecosystem services’ and the proposal for a Nature and Wellbeing Act is a good start to addressing this. An even more powerful measure might be to formally break up DEFRA (given that it’s already being done so informally) and give some of the Executive Agencies to the Department for Business, Skills and Innovation and split the work of the Key Delivery Partners between three Departments: Health, Communities & Local Government and Energy & Climate Change.

It might seem counter-intuitive for an environmentalist to be suggesting the end of the Department for the Environment, but if it’s so under-funded that it’s barely fit for purpose, we need to think of alternatives. By exploring such a radical move we would directly place cheap, long-term solutions to problems such as obesity, flood risk, carbon release, coastal erosion and fish stock decline into the  hands of Ministers who can actually use them.

The second idea is a more straightforward cash demand. We know that after the floods in 2007, insurance companies paid out over a £1bn to homes and businesses in north Doncaster. They didn’t have to in south Doncaster, however, because Potteric Carr nature reserve absorbed huge quantities of flood water. If we say that the floods of 2007 are likely to happen again every once every 100 years, insurance companies can expect to set aside around £10m every year, just to pay for north Doncaster’s floods.

A much cheaper option for them would be to identify around 100 hectares on the banks of the River Don that can act as a flood attenuation area for north Doncaster and give around £2m to Yorkshire Wildlife Trust to buy the land, plus a small annual maintenance payment (e.g. £70,000) to create another Potteric Carr. The total cost over a 100 year period would be around £9m, presenting a saving of around £991m for Lloyds, Aviva et al. Once the costs and benefits have been discounted and the other social and environmental benefits have been included in the usual ways, there’s an almost irrefutable easy and cheap way to protect towns in the floodplains. It doesn’t take much to wonder what would happen if we were able to persuade some of the key players to work with local governments and conservation groups to roll this out across the country.


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