Tackling the Nature Emergency: Response to Scottish Government Consultation

This consultation, which closed on December 14th, set out proposals “designed to halt and reverse biodiversity loss“. The Scottish Government has recognised that we face a combined climate and nature crisis. But does the response come close to the scale of this challenge? The consultation paper1 ran to over 100 pages, asking around 80 separate questions. Such a broad sweep demands a lot from us as consultees, covering a wide sweep of complicated and interacting questions, arguably too many for a single coherent response. However I submitted answers to many, if not all, of the questions. This post sets my answers in context of some broader, underlying issues. Consultations, like this one, which ask many specific detailed questions can mask significant underlying themes. In this case, the failures of the two previous Biodiversity Strategies (2004 and 2013)2 seem glossed over in an anxiety to align with the latest UN-inspired ‘Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework’3. Where are the lessons learnt from this prior experience?

Flowing from the new Biodiversity Strategy4 , earlier drafts of which had previously invited comments, the first of the two main sections here presents a draft ‘Biodiversity Delivery Plan’, along with proposals for ‘Nature Networks’ and a ’30 by 30 Framework’.

Answers were sought to three questions repeated over the six main sections of the draft delivery plan, and my answers in each case were along similar lines:

Have we captured the key actions needed to deliver the objective (xxx)…?” – No – The scope of these actions may seem a good starting point, but the failures of the last two decades show that the wording of such actions is empty of meaning unless the means and resources are in place such that these numerous measures can appropriately be delivered. There are missing actions to ensure the availability of these essential provisos.

Are the key actions ……. sufficient to put Scotland on track to ending the loss of biodiversity by 2030?” – No – These actions are necessary, but not sufficient, to put Scotland on track. The means/ powers and resources to deliver each action must also be firmly committed. The failures of the last two decades underline this requirement.

Which actions do you think will have most impact?” – There’s more variety in my answers to these questions, for example highlighting reduced deer and sheep grazing to levels allowing measurable nature recovery. But my common theme here is to question the proliferation of proposed frameworks, partnerships, plans and guidance with rather little in terms of practical delivery. I fear that many people will be very busy, but without much concrete progress to show for it at the end of the decade. This unease is reinforced by the evident shortage of resources and limited powers over a variety of competing pressures. For example, a key impact should come from an appropriate refresh of the suite of farm subsidies (because these are easily the largest source of public funds affecting land management). But will this happen? The present proposals5 look remarkably similar to the discredited EU CAP schemes, with too much of the (considerable) funding handed out for too limited benefits in terms of public goods. Failure to adopt more ambitious measures will not bring about the transformation required.

Chapter 6 of the Delivery Plan concedes “that more investment is required” to bring about this transformation. The text trumpets some small (relative eg to farm subsidies exceeding £500m per annum) initiatives from public funds, before promoting private sector green finance solutions. I share a general scepticism about this approach; my answers to the consultations questions are:

Have we captured the key actions needed to deliver the objective: invest in nature? – No – These proposals are concerning because the lines of accountability to the wider public interest are unclear. Although investment of private resources is clearly significant, the argument that these resources can substitute for shortfalls in the budgets of public bodies has not been made.

Are the key actions, to support the objective: invest in nature, sufficient to put Scotland on track to ending the loss of biodiversity by 2030? – No – The introduction to this section claims that ‘Scottish Government has increased public investment in nature restoration in recent years’. Where is the evidence for this? The documentation concedes that such public funds have not been enough to bring about the transformation required. Instead, there are rather vague proposals to harness private investment. What assurance can be provided that any such investment can, in practice, put Scotland on track to end biodiversity loss by 2030?

Which actions do you think will have most impact? – Prior experience indicates that the most impact (in terms of ending biodiversity loss) will come from appropriate deployment of public funds, especially through the adoption of a joined-up approach across public bodies to ensure that different funding streams are pulling together, and not competing with each other. There’s already a general expectation that the way such funds are used should be transparent with clear lines of accountability (although there’s always scope for further improvement). In contrast, experience to date of private investment has been that this is secretive (claiming ‘confidentiality’), that lines of accountability are veiled (eg through use of complex ownership structures) and that any public benefit (in terms of nature restoration) is hard to identify.

Part A ends with an invitation to comment on the proposals for ‘Nature Networks’ and a ’30 by 30 Framework’. My brief comments were:

Do you have any comments on the Nature Networks Framework? – Landscape scale connectivity across Scotland is essential to ensure that the protected areas highlighted in the complementary 30 by 30 Framework are not isolated from each other. Only when such connections are maintained can nature recovery be sustained. This requires collaboration across a range of public bodies to harness a collective effort involving public and private, local and national perspectives.. The proposed Nature Networks Framework provides one useful structure within which this can be tackled.

As things stand, of course, the framework must be backed up with the resources to give it effect. As headlined in the Biodiversity Strategy, “the action needed is both urgent and transformative”.

Do you have any comments on the 30 by 30 Framework? – 30 by 30 is a handy slogan for the essential work of identifying and ensuring appropriate management of protected areas for nature recovery. While this work is necessary, it is not sufficient. What happens to the other 70% matters too. So it is important to treat the 30 by 30 Framework and Nature Networks Policy Framework as complementary. Either one without the other will fall well short of what we must do.

As things stand, of course, we are falling short on both of these. As headlined in the Biodiversity Strategy, “the action needed is both urgent and transformative”.

Part B of the consultation turns to two parts of the proposed Natural Environment Bill, namely proposed statutory targets and amendments to National Parks legislation. It isn’t clear how much difference any “binding” statutory targets might make. Certainly two decades of non-statutory targets failed to bring about the change required. The consultation proposes yet more working groups to answer this question and complex process to track and report on their delivery. My response to the questions is:

Do you agree with this approach to placing Targets on a Statutory Footing? – Yes – It is important that all levels of government are held to account for agreed targets, so the formality of a statutory basis is essential. I agree that the framework should be set in primary legislation to allow some subsequent flexibility in setting specific targets and learning from experience.

Do you agree with the criteria set out for the selection of targets? – Yes – These criteria are necessary but not sufficient. It makes no sense to establish a framework of statutory targets which are not embedded within the National Performance Framework (or whatever replacement emerges from the proposed Wellbeing and Sustainable Development Bill). Alignment with the NPF must be an additional key criterion.

Do you agree statutory targets should include a combination of outcome targets and output targets? – Yes – Input targets should not be discounted because, although they risk a focus on ‘busyness’ at the expense of practical progress towards outputs and outcomes, they complement these with evidence of sustained commitment to target delivery.

Is the list of potential target topics sufficiently comprehensive in terms of the focus of proposed target areas and overall scope? – Yes – The list makes a fair attempt to set out the potential scope for targets, but highlights the impracticality of setting targets covering every detail. How can all these be measured and reported in practice, when resources are so tight? The topics on this list could provide candidates for contribution to a small number of headline targets, for example along the lines of the existing Natural Capital Asset Index (https://nationalperformance.gov.scot/natural-capital  ).

Do you have any other comments on the list of potential target topics? – No

Do you agree with the proposal to have the smallest feasible number of targets which reflects the complexity of nature restoration? – Yes – It would be best to establish small number of headline targets along the lines of the NCAI (https://nationalperformance.gov.scot/natural-capital  ), provided always that the process of establishing and managing index measures of this kind is transparent, allowing open debate around their significance, effectiveness and currency.

Do you agree statutory targets should align with the 2030 and 2045 timescales set out in the Strategy? – No – Although it may be advantageous to obtain updates on target performance on the 2030 and 2045 timescales, there’s greater benefit in tracking progress in line with periodic delivery plans – so at least there must be interim checkpoints with specified dates.

Do you agree the Bill should allow for the review of statutory targets? – Yes – A due process for taking account of changing circumstances, while maintaining the integrity of targets over time, is essential.

Do you agree that reporting on targets should align with existing Biodiversity reporting requirements? – Yes – These reporting requirements add weight to the need to make provision for interim checkpoints, and not have to wait to 2030 or 2045 as suggested above,

Do you agree that an Independent Review Body is needed to report on Government’s progress in meeting the statutory targets? – Yes – Whatever arrangements are put in place for statutory targets, their basis must be open and transparent to facilitate constructive debate about the scope for further improvements. A designated independent review body will help to make this clear. Environmental Standards Scotland is the most obvious candidate.

Finally, the consultation considers proposals to amend National Parks legislation. Scottish Government has committed to the designation of at least one new National Park in Scotland by 2026. What new designation(s) might achieve is not clear, nor are the lessons from two decades of National Park experience clearly stated. Several aspects of the history and context might be contested; this consultation seeks comment on some specific proposals to amend the underlying legislation – my responses to the questions asked are:

Do you agree that the purpose of National Park authorities should be amended in order to emphasise the important leadership role that National Park authorities need to play in restoring nature and in mitigating and adapting to climate change? – Partially disagree – The wording of the statutory purpose and aims of Scotland’s National Parks is not the primary constraint on their success. Especially since 2010, our two National Parks have been starved of the resources they need and, from the outset, have had insufficient powers over the work of other public bodies operating in the area, notably those with responsibilities for farming and forestry. Until these points are addressed, the present wording of purpose and aims arguably remains fit for purpose.

The next four questions address proposed amendments to the four National Park aims in turn. I don’t see such changes as a priority, so my answer to each was the same:

Do you agree with these suggested changes to the (xxx) National Park aim? – Partially disagree – Until constraints of limited resources and powers of National Park authorities are addressed, it is hard to see how such changes of wording can make a material difference.

Do you agree that the National Park ‘principle’ set out in section 9(6) of the 2000 Act should be retained? This would mean that, if there is a conflict between the National Park aims, greater weight should be given to the first aim which would seek to protect, restore and enhance the natural assets, biodiversity and ecosystems within the National Park. – Agree – Given the emphasis on biodiversity and landscape quality in the establishment of our National Parks it would be perverse to remove or dilute this principle.

Do you agree that public bodies operating within the National Park should have regard to the proposed National Park aims? – Partially disagree – The ‘have regard to’ terminology is too weak, especially when set against the ‘primary responsibilities’ of relevant public bodies. Arguably, it is the very pursuit of these primary responsibilities (eg farm subsidies) which undermines the National Park aims. A different solution is required to resolve such conflicts.

Do you agree that public bodies operating within the National Park should have regard to the National Park principle? – Partially disagree – It isn’t clear what the logic for this proposal might be. The National Park Principle is surely for each National Park authority to address in reaching an appropriate balance across the aims. For other public bodies, ‘have regard to’ is too weak when set against their various primary responsibilities, especially where these are drivers of adverse changes to the qualities underlying National Park designation.

Do you agree that the duty on public bodies operating within National Parks should be strengthened so they have an obligation to support and contribute to the implementation of National Park Plans rather than having regard to these plans? – Agree – The National Park plan may be a suitable means to resolve conflicts of purpose across the various public bodies involved, but only if these public bodies are fully engaged in plan preparation and if the scope of the plan includes relevant primary responsibilities of such public bodies, for example farming subsidies. Such a plan might then provide a framework for a collective effort to address the challenges faced across each park.

Do you agree with the proposal that National Park Authorities should be able to enforce byelaw breaches within National Parks by issuing fixed penalty notices rather than referring them to local Procurators Fiscal? – Disagree – Addition of such enforcement powers changes the nature of the National Park authority raising questions about lines of public accountability and alignment with other enforcement arrangements, notably Police Scotland. It is preferable to work through established and well-understood structures wherever possible. The experience of managing (eg) parking violations on busy weekends suggests that FPN powers alone would not resolve the policing challenges that arise.

Do you think that any other changes should be made to the general powers of National Park authorities? – Agree – The consultation paper is silent on the role of National Park authorities in the planning system. There are inconsistencies here between the two extant parks, and it isn’t clear what lessons have been learned from this experience or how such experience will shape the planning powers of future park authorities.

Do you agree with the proposed changes to the governance (Boards) of National Parks? – Partially agree – I agree that the present National Park boards are too large and unwieldy. Smaller boards would be advantageous, however this undermines the idea that the board is essentially the only forum in which the full range of local and national interests is represented. A smaller board will tend to lead to more debate and decisionmaking taking place among officials, with an accompanying loss of transparency (sadly, this already seems to happen with some planning decisions). Greater clarity is required setting out the relationship between board members and officials and their respective powers and responsibilities.

Do you have any other comments that you would like to make about the aims, powers and governance of National Parks? – This consultation seems to start from the premise that the present governance structures are fit for purpose. The failure to achieve National Park aims suggests that a different approach is required. It makes no sense for each additional National Park to be a self-contained NDPB with its own staff and board. Much greater clarity is required on how the various national and local dimensions are to be reconciled. For example, staffing could be provided by a single National Park Service working to Boards more explicitly charged to secure a collaborative approach harnessing the work and resources of various relevant public bodies. Such joint working arrangements must be the way forward in the face of unavoidable resource constraints.

  1. See: Tackling the Nature Emergency – strategic framework for biodiversity: consultation – gov.scot (www.gov.scot) .
  2. See the first Scottish Biodiversity Strategy; It’s in Our Hands (2004), then the The 2020 Challenge for Scotland’s Biodiversity  (2013). These were aligned with the UN targets for 2010 and 2020 respectively.
  3. See: Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (cbd.int) .
  4. See: Supporting documents – Tackling the Nature Emergency – Scottish biodiversity strategy to 2045 – gov.scot (www.gov.scot) .
  5. See: Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill – gov.scot (www.gov.scot) .

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