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Q&A: Manchester’s urban natural capital pioneer

Words: Simon Wicks

Anne Selby is the chief executive of Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and Merseyside, chair of the Greater Manchester Natural Capital Group and a qualified planner. She is leading on the Greater Manchester natural capital pioneer project (see panel below).

Q. Are the natural capital pioneers an indication that we’re taking environmental maintenance more seriously?


Anne Selby (AS): “We’re in the middle of a paradigm change and sometimes you don’t see that until we come though the shift. I was very cynical with the last prime minister [David Cameron]. A lot of the right words came out [about protecting and enhancing the environment], but it never seemed to ground itself into any funding.

“But Dieter Helm [head of the Natural Capital Committee] has been persevering. I do think this government seems to be committed to delivering the 25-year environment strategy. We are incrementally moving. It’s a very profound change.”

Q. Is natural capital accounting incompatible with more established systems of environmental maintenance, such as biodiversity net gain?


AS: “I think they are mutually beneficial. I think what we need to do in the planning profession is ask ‘What do they mean to a system set up before these ideas emerged?

"The planning system as it is now isn’t looking at connectivity of ecosystems"

“It was a system that was about drawing lines on map and saying ‘We’ll protect that bit’. The planning system as it is now isn’t looking at connectivity of ecosystems. How do we get that biodiversity net gain and natural capital accounting into a planning system that was not set up for that? I think we should take that out for a spin in the Greater Manchester pioneer."

Q. What sort of issues are you going to be dealing with?


AS: “We’ve just done the Greater Manchester Spatial Plan. One of the questions we have to ask is ‘Are we going to sacrifice urban green space for the sake of protecting green belt, which in some cases has as much biodiversity as Sainsbury’s car park?’

"The price of squeezing cities so that there’s no green infrastructure left is one that we have to balance out. Some sites in the city are hugely biodiversity rich and we don’t want to put housing on those.”

England's natural capital pioneers

Four natural capital ‘pioneer’ projects have been launched by Defra in early 2017 to support the forthcoming 25-year environment plan. Each is intended to assess how investment in natural capital and development of natural capital accounting systems can work in different kinds of physical and social environment.

The four are:

  • Urban: Greater Manchester
  • Catchment: Cumbria
  • Landscape: North Devon Biosphere
  • Marine landscape: Suffolk and North Devon

The pioneers will last for three to four years and each is run by a local steering group with a lead agency from within the Defra Group. Critically, the pioneers are unfunded - the rationale being that Defra wants to see how well natural capital accounting at a regional level can become self-sustaining and replicable.

Each location has been tasked with four specific areas to work on:

  1. Tools, analysis and applying a natural capital approach in practice
  2. Demonstrating a joined-up, integrated approach to delivery
  3. Developing new funding opportunities for the environment
  4. Grow our understanding of what works, sharing lessons and best practice

To get a fuller picture, view the What can Natural Capital do for our urban environments? (PDF) presentation given by Anne Selby at The Lowry hotel, Manchester, on 1st February 2017.

Q. How does planning accommodate these kinds of ecosystems, particularly with the current strong emphasis on planning for growth?


AS: “The only way to do that is to get out and do joined-up thinking and break those traditional boundaries down [between, eg, businesses and planners]. The economic development argument is very, very powerful. But the planners have been brilliant at getting natural capital into the Greater Manchester Spatial Plan.

“Manchester really nailed its colours to the mast on carbon and has been moving into resilient cities [Manchester is one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 resilient cities worldwide].

“If you don’t get it right you will not be the place where people want to come and work and live. If we are going to do this, we are going to do this properly. This is a pivotal time for Manchester  – Rockefeller Resilient City status, the mayoral election, our spatial framework all coalescing. If we don’t do it now…

Q. What sort of things do you intend to do as a pioneer?


AS: “We have to try and see what we can do differently in planning. The valuation [of natural capital] isn’t enough. It’s the systems and policies [that make a difference]. I think you are starting with duty to cooperate, and education and support to struggling planning teams. Our politicians have to be aligned with it as well.

“I think if we can move to biodiversity offsetting I’m quite keen, and we are beginning to explore that. Done properly it could actually be beneficial. It allows some trading [of natural assets] but you don’t touch the really important things you cannot trade. It’s meeting the developers halfway.

“I think it’s going to be a game changer if the government is serious about the 25-year environment  plan"

“There’s a lot of stuff about biodiversity net gain out there, too, which the industry seems to be driving. Consultancies are putting time and effort into it.

“I think it’s going to be a game changer if the government is serious about the 25-year environment  plan. I think that whole biodiversity net gain target is going to shake people up. I think there’s an acknowledgement that you can’t keep trashing it [the environment] and a lot of people don’t know how bad it’s got.

“As soon as you start putting this down into something that’s measurable and achievable, it’s moving from something that’s a bit intangible to ‘Let’s get this on the ground’. That’s what we are exploring.

“The other extreme is the future of land management. We want to see payments for ecosystem services, and that’s where we think money should go. You are going to have to have incentives and that’s where you put the incentives.”

Photo | Shutterstock

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