Richard Benwell, Chief Executive, Wildlife and Countryside Link

Richard Benwell is Chief Executive of nature umbrella Wildlife and Countryside Link. He was previously at RSPB, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and advisor to Michael Gove MP whilst he was Environment Secretary. Benwell and Link are pushing strongly for the next government to make finance, development, water and agri-food to start paying properly for nature-recovery.

Nature on the rocks

Last Autumn, members of Link published the latest State of Nature report, with accompanying demonstrations outside Defra’s offices in London and championed by the likes of Chris Packham. I start by asking Benwell to precis its headlines and give me his take on the health of the environment, including the water environment.

“Well if you’re a lichen you’re shouting for joy at the moment, there’s good news for them!” he says. “And there are some positive trends for freshwater invertebrates – caddisflies, mayflies, dragon flies and so-on. They’re doing alright. But overall, the story is one of long-term decline for nature across the UK.”

Breaking that down, he describes a 19 per cent fall in species abundance since 1970. Or to put it another way, one in five of organisms you might have seen around these shores then are now gone. One in six are at risk of extinction. This is going to be a jolly chat.

True enough, in England Benwell says it’s worse still. Thirty per cent decline in abundance and thirteen per cent at risk of extinction. Nature is on the rocks, he warns.

“The numbers which help us judge whether we’re doing things well aren’t encouraging. The promise to protect 30 per cent of land and sea is the flagship of the Global Biodiversity Framework. We think we’re about three per cent on land and eight per cent at sea when it comes to places that are legally protected for the long-term and are in good condition.”

He says some things are holding ground, just about, for example the condition of SSSIs. The number in favourable condition is static at about 37 per cent and has been so for a very long time so there’s no evidence of improvement in those protected sites. “I did start off trying to be happy” concedes Benwell, “but just to finish off, the priority species index is always the one which gives me greatest pause for reflection. These are the species we’ve chosen to focus on and the ones most in need of our help. There are over 2000 species on that list and that index started in 1970. It’s now at 37 per cent of what it was then. Two thirds of those species have gone over the past 50 years, which is pretty scary.”

“The priority species index is always the one which gives me greatest pause for reflection. Two thirds of those species have gone over the past 50 years, which is pretty scary.”
Root causes

What’s at the root of all this decline I ask? “Intensive, unsustainable agriculture and fisheries” says Benwell, “and not enough support and investment for nature-friendly food production. With fisheries we take too many fish out of the sea and fishing is too damaging and intrusive.”

He explains that yet again this year, allowable catch levels have been set above sustainable levels and that needs to change if we’re going to stand any chance of turning things round and we have to stop using the massively intensive fishing gear which scarifies the ocean floor taking everything with it.

On land, increasingly intensive methods, more and more synthetic chemicals over the past few decades to bolster dying soils and fend off pests and diseases have led to a thinning-out of farmland biodiversity. Pollinators have fallen victim to pollution, soils have become compacted and habitats taken out.

On top of these climate change is emerging as a serious driver. There are mismatches between emergence of prey species and predators, the range of species shifting.

Then finally there is development pressure, both on land and at sea. There are others we know less about like chemical pollution which have a big impact but the evidence isn’t there on those yet.

In the freshwater environment, nutrient pollution is a major factor with eutrophication having a serious impact on nature. Water companies are understood to be responsible for about a third of that and their wider activities such as abstraction during times of low flow exacerbate the impacts.  

Is the problem widespread neglect of our natural environment and is modern politics at the heart of that neglect I ask? Benwell hesitates and says there are thousands and thousands of people out there who still care passionately about nature and politicians are included in some of that number.

He warns the chipping away at nature is a slow and chronic thing much of which is unseen; the problem is there is typically no moment of immediate and visible jeopardy.

“Every time there’s an impact assessment judgment on removing a piece of ancient woodland for development, granting planning consent for an intensive livestock unit, going above maximum sustainable yield for fishing again, they’re taken in isolation in the local context only. This allows politicians to say ‘just here, just once more’ without taking the long-term systems and big-picture perspective.”

Jobs, growth and money are always the louder voices says Benwell and short-term expediency trumps long-term sensible thinking on nature and resilience. But overall, he sees that environmental concern has gone up the polls and remained there. There may be a blip in terms of the culture wars attitude, roll-backs on net zero and perhaps more risk of a public divide right now than recently, but public concern is high across the board. But he feels that hasn’t been translated yet into sufficiently pointy proposals that consistently inspire political action.

“short-term expediency trumps long-term sensible thinking on nature and resilience.”

Link helped fight government plans to kill nutrient neutrality rules on development
Fighting nutrients

The Link community were highly active and energised last year when government attempted to crush ‘nutrient neutrality’ rules limiting development which would contribute to already over-enriched sensitive receiving waters with more phosphate and nitrate pollution.

The Levelling-up and Regeneration Act was something of a battleground for conservationists and environmental managers when it was passing through Parliament. Peers in the House of Lords faced the government down on specific clauses which told local planning authorities to work on the basis that new development would have no negative nutrient impacts on waterways.

“Government decided it couldn’t wait for credits to become available and would deregulate in an outrageous piece of legislation that would ignore the advice of experts and require local authorities to disapply the Habitats Regulations” says Benwell.  

“This was daft on many levels: Because it would scupper a market that was just getting going, with solutions being put in place and millions of pounds being invested in solutions. Because it would have allowed additional pollution in freshwater habitats which government had said it would clean up. It was also daft because it would have set a precedent for weakening the Habitats Regulations which are our most effective conservation laws.”

Link, Labour and the Liberal Democrats argued against these lines. Government claimed nutrient neutrality was stopping 100,000 homes.

“Of course that’s absolutely untrue and it wasn’t. It just required offsetting to be put in place before construction commenced. There were already tens of thousands of credits coming. So we fought the battle.”

Benwell says the key question politically was whether it was true that alternatives were available and things could be done to enable the development through the market. “It was possible to show that with a little help for target catchments, template solutions, and a strategic look across catchments, you could speed up development of the market. Parliament was convinced and government was defeated.”

Red lines on development?

Benwell warns that the Habitats Regulations are by no means out of the woods. And he feels there’s no guarantee a Labour government would be as committed to protecting them as conservationists would like.

“Labour messaging on development indicates a similar oversimplification and reductionist thinking about regulation as the current government has been guilty of” he says, with Sir Kier Starmer talking about environmental regulations as red tape and about bulldozing blockers on building.  

“We obviously can’t have 300,000 homes a year for ever. Politicians talk about this like it’s possible but at some point there will need to be an endgame where development will need to be a service industry rather than a growth industry. I haven’t said that on record before.”

In the short term, Benwell believes the key will be optimising the use of space and that’s where a land use framework can come in, to make sure efficiencies where we’re using land badly for example the least productive land.  

The fabled framework has still to appear. “If it was just a narrative document on what good land use looks like that would be a massive let-down” Benwell says any framework should set clear goals for the amount of habitat that needs to be restored, dock into planning decisions, and influence consenting and incentive decisions in areas like agriculture. It should also be accessible and transparent with an annual review of whether progress against targets is being made.

A really good framework could be transformative, Benwell believes: “Whilst many people already believe and recognise we should be achieve food production, carbon sequestration and nature restoration in a single patch of land, the challenge is how to stack up the incentives to make that happen within private land ownership. We don’t have any meaningful way yet of taking those strategic priorities and delivering them on the ground.”

“People love the idea of the right to a healthy environment – it’s just so obvious”

Credit: Jules Howard
Nature friendly farming

Link are clear: Nature friendly farming is vastly undersold in terms of the amount of good farmers and land managers do for nature and we’re under-investing in a vast, critical natural infrastructure asset by not paying farmers enough to deliver vital outcomes to society. Food production should protect against flooding, help manage drought, and provide habitats for nature.

“For what other national asset of comparable size and value would we not have a serious plan to maintain and invest in?” he argues.

“And what do we pay farmers at the moment? We pay them cost plus income foregone. We need to think of it as farmers at the vanguard of national nutrition and the guardians of a vast store of national natural riches which are in a state of decline and neglect. If we’re to turn that around we need to pay people properly to stop a historic decline in biodiversity. £6bn – to get more farmers in the basic schemes and for those who go the furthest and fastest, they should be paid handsomely for the service they’re doing us as a nation.”

Benwell advocates a ladder of effort where farmers are encouraged to move up the tiers of ELMS, with a cranking up the baseline over time so lower tier measures become part of standard practice so there is more money to invest in braver actions over time.

Regulation-wise, there needs to be a level playing field where good practice on one farm isn’t let down by negligence down the road. He cites the farming rules for water and says there is good evidence that they are being ignored widely. “I’d like to see regulation that requires a certain amount of habitat delivery required in every farm, regulation which cranks down a nutrient budget at the farm gate. And the same for pesticides. This all has to go hand-in-hand with positive payment to reward the good stuff.”

Nature for everybody

Benwell is a proud Brummie, and quotes one of Birmingham’s proudest statistics as its having more canals than venice. “Would you know that growing up in Birmingham, except for the fact?” he asks. He regards this as a national failure and points to the overwhelming benefit society derives from being able to access nature.

Having waterways at the heart of urban environments has so much potential for bringing nature for where people live, the sense of solace and wellbeing that the natural environment can bring as well as being corridors for biodiversity he points out. There’s such potential there but he says there’s only about 3 per cent of waterways to which there is legal access. The proportion of those impacted by poor water quality in-turn means the ability to unlock that value from them is small and shrinking.

Benwell wants government to get creative about developing blue corridors with buffers along them, creating access so it’s not just about honeypot sites which get overloaded.

“An imaginative government would see that network of blue as untapped potential to create something new for the nation to be proud of: Green corridors along every river with a plan to make a great many more accessible and swimmable. It could be such a legacy for the nation and I hope a brave government takes that on.”

“People love the idea of the right to a healthy environment – it’s just so obvious, especially when you think about it in the round”, he continues.

The Natural England statistic that a third of us don’t have access to green space within 15 minutes’ walk from home is sobering. Particularly, Benwell says, when you consider the huge impact that has on health and physical wellbeing at a time when as a nation we’re suffering from increasing levels of non-communicable disease.

“People just get the idea that this should be a basic right, and why isn’t it?” He says there’s been great engagement around Link’s campaign. He also acknowledges interest across the political spectrum on the issue of environmental rights.

As a closing comment, Benwell highlights the other nugget in Link’s Nature 2030 campaign he’s particularly ambitious on: Its call for public interest in private land.

Link propose a public nature estate, which means improving management, acquisition and disposal of public land but also recognising that where important natural assets are held in private, everyone has an interest in the way those are managed in the future.

So, they’re thinking of ways in which requirements can be put on private landowners to inform how those nature assets are managed in the public interest, for the long-term. Starting to recognise that in law is an exciting frontier he says with a glint in his eye. Scotland is just starting to dip into this issue, so why not in England too?

Read more about Link’s Nature 2030 campaign here.