Guest blog by Annabelle Fuller
The government must act now if it is to save British landscapes, wildlife, and natural habitats, warns a country-wide coalition of environmental policy groups. The coalition sent an open letter to Chancellor Rishi Sunak last month, suggesting over 300 potential projects which would help to 'restore our land, coastlines, oceans and economy for a greener, more prosperous future'.
Among the fifty organisations involved are The Wildlife Trust, National Parks England, and Greenpeace, which all champion natural British habitats and encourage the public to spend time in and care for them. The projects encouraged include creating wildflower meadows, cleaning up coastlines, making more space for allotments, and restoring over 500,000 acres of wild land. The letter to the Chancellor suggested that the extensive new programme be called the 'National Nature Service (NNS)', the name carrying with it the hint that Britain's environment is a public cause for good which deserves to be available to all, much like our NHS.
The public good is a key element of the coalition's plans, as it cites the current unemployment rate, which has soared due to the Covid-19 pandemic, as a reason to invest in the NNS. Carmel Edwards, the Senior Policy Advisor for the RSPB, notes that the scheme would create thousands of new jobs for the unemployed; it is inspired by the UK Manpower Services Commission introduced by Ted Heath, with the purpose of quelling the rise in unemployment during the 1970s and 1980s. It is estimated that 12,000 jobs would be created if the NNS were to be backed by the government, at a cost of £500 million, leaving a legacy of 'a healthier, more employable workforce' as well as the huge benefit to the country's ecosystems and declining natural landscapes.
These suggestions have come at a time when Britain's population has turned to nature to help them through the pandemic, and we are recognising just how important access to green spaces is for us. The last months have laid bare the inequality in access to parks, fields, and woodland walks across the country, with disadvantaged families and those who live in cities struggling to spend as much time in non-urban outdoor settings than their wealthier or countryside-dwelling counterparts. A paper published this week by the British Ecological Society, in their journal People and Nature, has revealed how necessary connecting with nature is for the development of children and teenagers. Dr Louise Chawla found that 'connecting with nature supports multiple areas of young people's healthy functioning and well-being', and that this increases when they spend time actively enjoying or taking care of natural environments. She also notes that:
'Finding ways to bring nature to children, even in densely populated and low resourced parts of the world, appears essential to foster connection. Doing this can simultaneously create networks of green spaces for biodiversity and offer many opportunities for children to become involved in nature protection and restoration.'
The arguments are similar to those in favour of the NNS, which would recruit a new crop of unemployed young people to support the preservation and restoration of British natural habitats and the wildlife they contain. At the same time, the government has revealed unexpected and exciting plans to invest in city centre parks. Mayfield Park will take up 6.5 acres of Manchester city centre and be the city's first park to be built in over a century. Rishi Sunak has offered £23 million to fund the project, and similar (if slightly smaller) schemes are underway in other Northern cities like Leeds and Sheffield, which have on average a smaller amount of city-centre land dedicated to public parks than Southern cities. These plans have all been put into motion after the usage of public spaces increased rapidly during this year's lockdown. They also tie in neatly with the government's current messaging on public health; Aimee Stimpson of Public Health England reminds us that 'spending time in green spaces such as public parks can help us maintain a healthier weight, reduce our risk of conditions such as cardiovascular disease and boost our mental health'.
It is reassuring to see the government indicate awareness of nature's importance, and to put money behind new environmentalist projects. If they are to 'tackle climate change, restore nature, and give everyone a healthier environment', just as the NNS aims to, then taking a stand against climate change, habitat loss, and grave unemployment is crucial. The NNS hopes to plant over 4.5 million new trees in order to bring about an 'environmental economic renaissance' - it seems like a good place to start.
About the author: Annabelle Fuller reads Classics and English at Magdalen College, Oxford. She has been published by the Isis and the Oxford Review of Books.