The Nature Improvement Area (NIA) Annual Forum took place in London yesterday and the Nene Valley NIA was well represented, with five of us from the University of Northampton attending, plus representatives from our partners in the Wildlife Trust, the River Nene Regional Park, the RSPB, and the River Restoration Centre. It was an opportunity to see and hear what the twelve NIAs have achieved in the two and a half years since their inception, to compare notes, and (importantly) to think about the future of the NIAs.
The NIAs, as I’ve mentioned before, were meant to be pilot, flagship schemes to show how the future of conservation in England could become bigger, better and more connected across large swathes of landscape. Their origin lies in the Lawton Report and Professor Sir John Lawton kicked off the day with a general introduction that, from the very beginning, brought up the one thing on everybody’s mind that day: the financial sustainability of the NIAs. The money runs out in March 2015, so where do we go from there? All of the NIAs (ourselves included) have been applying for funding to continue the good work being done, but, as John Lawton, pointed out, if the Government is serous about the NIAs and wishes them to continue, there needs to be an investment of public money. I deliberately use the term “investment” because we know that the natural environment of our islands plays a significant role in public health and the national economy more broadly.
John Lawton’s introduction was followed by a short speech by Lord de Mauley, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for natural environment and science (who, incidentally, gave a nod in his speech to the National Pollinator Strategy). The Minister said a lot of the right things, how impressed he was with the NIA programme, that the government was committed to it in practice (but not necessarily financially), etc., etc. There followed another speech by Andrew Sells, Chair of Natural England, who listed some of the achievements of the NIAs (see below), including the fact that for every £1 of Government funding, £3.50 was leveraged from other sources to support the activities of NIAs across the country.
There was an opportunity to ask questions of the first two speakers, plus representatives from the Environment Agency and Forestry Commission, the first of which came from our own Oliver Burke who asked about the government’s vision of the future of the NIAs. All of the panel agree that there was a future, they just were not sure what it was, though there was commitment from Natural England (NE) and the Environment Agency (EA) that their staff would continue to advise and support NIA activities as part of their core activities. That’s promising though perhaps not surprising given the nature of most of the partnerships, involving organisations that the NE and the EA would normally work with anyway.
The question I wanted to ask, had I found the right form of words, would have been about the current Government’s poor record on the environment. But by the time I worked out a way of saying it that didn’t make it sound like a simple attack on the coalition, the opportunity was over. A whistle-stop tour by the Minister and his coterie of the displays set out by the NIAs followed, which John Lawton later said had visibly impressed Lord de Mauley. Amongst the achievements of the twelve NIAs, after only two years of activity, are:
- Tens of thousand of hectares of priority and other habitats created, restored and/or improved in condition
- Hundreds of kilometres of boundary and linear habitat (e.g. hedgerows) restored/created/improved
- Tens of thousands of days of volunteer time devoted to the NIAs
- Thousands of people participating in educational visits.
- Thousands of hectares of habitat managed specifically for ecosystem services such as improving water quality.
After lunch there were further talks including one from Simon Smith about the Cotswolds Ecological Networks project which had been one of the 70 applicants for NIA funding, was unsuccessful, and (impressively) went ahead with the project anyway as an “unofficial” NIA. The Nene Valley NIA’s interactive website and photography competition was also highlighted in a talk by Helen Ashley from Dialogue by Design, and Dr Andy Stott from Defra discussed the monitoring and evaluation report for year 2 of the NIA programme.
Later in the afternoon we had a workshop at which, in small groups, we brainstormed some pressing questions, including (not surprisingly) innovative funding streams, and using the evidence base to demonstrate the effectiveness of the NIAs. With regard to the latter it would seem sensible to use independent, long-term monitoring data such as the repeated species counts done by Butterfly Conservation (e.g. Big Butterfly Count) and the British Trust for Ornithology (e.g. Breeding Bird Survey) to verify whether or not the NIAs are being effective, though this of course requires that surveys have historically taken place within the NIAs (something that is certainly true for the Nene Valley NIA). This would require quite a bit of coordination with the NGOs concerned, but should be doable. I’d happily develop such a project if there’s someone out there with funding!
And then, with some final, supportive words from John Lawton, the day was over and we started to disperse out into an unseasonably warm mid-September London. Several of us from the Nene Valley and the RSPB decamped to a great local pub (The Lord John Russell) to discuss the day. One of the topics that everyone was talking about was, of course, the Scottish Referendum. As I write this the country is absorbing the news that Scotland is to remain part of the UK. As far as I’m concerned that’s a very good thing because (amongst other reasons) I think that a vote for independence would have negatively affected conservation in the British Isles. Political focus of all government departments would move from environmental issues and on to trying to manage the split, which would take up a huge amount of time and resources that could be better spent elsewhere. And NGOs such as the RSPB would have to devote time and resources to considering how they manage and fund their organisations, given their cross-border roles. That could have been to the detriment of Scottish conservation given that most of the funding is flowing south to north (which is purely a function of population size – there are many times more members in England and Wales than in Scotland).
Thank you Scotland, you’ve done the right thing. And thank you to all 12 NIAs, you’ve shown the Government how successful large-scale nature conservation can be: let us hope they take notice.