Why Britain Needs A Nature Manifesto

This week I publish a 'Nature Manifesto'. Its taken from my new book called What Nature does for Britain and calls on political parties to back action for the better protection and restoration of nature. This is not only to sustain the beauty and wonder of the world around us, but because this agenda is vital for protecting our health, wealth and security.

The last five years have seen disastrous reversals in how the natural systems we depend upon have been regarded in politics. From climate change skepticism at the highest levels of government to attacks on nature protection laws and from massive budget cuts for conservation agencies to speeches claiming environmental goals are a drag on growth and competitiveness, a new narrative has taken hold. It says we can't afford to look after our environment and by implication assumes we can do without healthy nature.

This is, unfortunately, more than ideological spin cloaked beneath the claimed imperatives of austerity and growth. It is a strategic mistake of epic proportions. That is the conclusion I reach in What Nature does for Britain, with the research, stories and interviews from many experts presented therein laying the foundations for the Nature Manifesto.

In finding out what nature does for Britain I was struck by the strength of the evidence and examples already available, showing why the pursuit of ecological goals is not only an environmental issue but is also closely linked with other questions generally more prominent on the political agenda, including economic development, jobs, security, health and the cost of living.

Take West Country cider business Thatchers. This company is a British business success story, growing rapidly during recent years to turn over about £60million per year. Thatchers' success relies on a trusted brand, business acumen, good supplier relations, effective marketing and technology. All that, however, counts for little without the soils and bumblebees that are essential in enabling tens of thousands of apple trees to produce the fruit needed to make cider. Fortunately the company knows this and is taking steps to conserve the nature that sustains the business, employees and profits. They have good reason for doing this.

Pollinators like bumblebees are estimated to provide the UK with services supporting food production worth about £430million per year, while damage to soils is costing us up to £1.8billion, including through increased flooding as soils leave fields and clog up riverbeds.

Healthy soils also help to deliver clean water, so do wetlands, woodlands and grasslands. Conserving and restoring natural systems so that they store and purify water makes especially compelling sense when compared with the often higher costs of engineering and technological alternatives. This is why several water companies are looking at ways of finding solutions to issues upstream on the land, before they require more costly remedies downstream.

Northern Ireland Water is one of them, working to recover the health of the blanket bogs that catch the rainwater supplying its Dungonnell treatment works. Healthy bogs release less colour into the water and that saves costs through requiring fewer of the chemicals that would otherwise be needed to clean it up. Other benefits come with this, including the conservation of rare birds and plants, recreational opportunities and capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as on the recovering bog peat formation replaces peat degradation.

Looking after the land to supply cleaner water often also brings valuable benefits on another headline-generating issue: flooding. For example, steps to restore blanket bogs on Exmoor have not only led to more steadily flowing cleaner rivers, but also a huge increase in water storage capacity to the point where 2000 hectares of recovering moorland is causing about 6,630 Olympic-size swimming pools equivalent less storm water entering downstream rivers, thereby providing a significant buffer against flooding, including on the Exe, which in recent winters has contributed to chaos, misery and huge economic costs due to damaged infrastructure and flooding of homes of businesses.

Then there is the biggest political issue of all - health. While we've become increasingly accustomed to relying on drugs and ever more advanced medical treatments to maintain public health, research reveals huge untapped value that could be derived from greater and more frequent access to natural areas. Enabling people to enjoy time outside can make a dramatic positive difference, not only in treating illnesses ranging from obesity to depression but by preventing it in the first place. It's the health equivalent of energy efficiency - a no brainer money saver.

One indication of just how big a positive impact it might be possible to make can be seen in a study from official conservation advisor Natural England. That organisation presented evidence in a 2009 report to show how that for every pound spent on establishing healthy walking schemes the NHS could save £7.18 in avoided costs in treating conditions such as heart disease, stroke and type two diabetes. If every household in England had good access to green space, the report estimated that £2.1billion could be saved in avoided health care costs. At a time of intense debate about the future affordability of our NHS (and as green space disappears under a tide of 'growth'-driven development), these findings are of huge public interest.

No wonder many experts now also make an economic case for restoring nature in our islands, including through new legislation to achieve the nature's recovery in a generation. It is not as if we are short of money for doing this. During the next 15 years or so the money we will spend via taxes and bills on farm subsidies, water company investments, flood defences and cleaning up after flooding will total about £100billion. There is no doubt that if we tried we could get much more value from this huge financial resource, if only we took a more integrated and less fragmented approach.

For example much of the annual multi-billion pound farming budget (that comes from our taxes) is presently spent in ways that permit patterns of soil damage and chemical use that make our water more expensive (seen in bills). At the same time soil loss and compaction makes flooding worse, causing distress and pushing up insurance premiums. If flooding, farming and water investments were spent in complementary, rather than contradictory ways, including through rebuilding nature and what might be called 'green infrastructure', we'd not only get better value from these budgets, but achieve health and conservation gains at the same time.

My Nature Manifesto sets out some of the policies that could help achieve that, but politicians will first need to see the massive error that lies at the heart of political debate. Nature is not a drag in meeting social and economic goals. The reverse is the case. Perhaps more of them would be able to see this if only they spent a little time reading the evidence confirming this alternative reality, much of which was officially collected at considerable public expense.

First published by The Huffington Post 8th February 2015