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The environment and devolution

Kate Swade

Are debates about the environment starting in the wrong place? Our development manager Kate shares some reflections after the Fabian Society’s recent #GreenPlaces event.

The Fabian Society, Woodland Trust, Landscape Institute and Groundwork organised a conference in London this week with the title “Green Places: Putting the local environment at the heart of the devolution agenda”. There was a fascinating set of panel discussions, with insights from Cllr Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds City Council, shadow environment Secretary of State Kerry McCarthy MP, and Landscape Institute president Noel Farrer, among others.

The discussion was wide ranging, from the role of the environment as infrastructure and the need to consider the wider functions of green spaces, through the wonder of being in nature, to the challenges of managing parks and public spaces in the face of substantial budget cuts. This is really a debate about future environmental policy in England, as the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales are pushing ahead with some quite progressive environmental policy. (As an aside, and as usual, there was no mention of Northern Ireland.)

There seemed, from the amount of sage nodding in the room, to be broad agreement on many things, including:

  • High quality green spaces are vital for the social, environmental and economic health of a place.
  • Local authorities have a crucial ongoing role in the local environment but that role is changing (and shrinking).
  • Partnerships are important, but difficult.
  • The conversation about the environment is often dominated by white, middle class people, and this means it can be one dimensional.
  • The community (or voluntary sector? Or social sector? Or social enterprises?) have a role to play in the future of the local environment.
  • Devolved responsibilities must come with power – which really means the power to raise or keep money.

Much of this agreement, though, is about an analysis of the current situation. The real challenge comes in how to move from analysis to ways forward.

In reality, of course, the environment is what sustains us: what we need is the institutions and structures to manage our relationship with the environment

Firstly, I think we have a language problem. The word “environment” is shorthand for a multitude of things, and can mean many different things to different people or in different contexts. “Community” suffers in a similar way. What “devolution” actually means varies depending on where you are. So debates about the “community’s” role in the future of the “environment” in a “devolved” England can provoke an unsettling feeling of trying to nail the proverbial jelly to a wall.

Language is just the beginning, though. Too often we (certainly in policy terms) see the environment as an external thing – as something that needs to be protected and conserved (or is available to be exploited for our needs). In reality, of course, the environment is what sustains us: what we need is the institutions and structures to manage our relationship with the environment.

This idea of relationship, or connection was a recurring theme in the debate and discussion.  If the future of government is for more power to be held locally (and this is by no means certain), then we need an approach that looks at understanding, supporting and enhancing the relationships and connections of each local area.

This would mean that rather than talking about the environment, we would be talking about how people feel connected (or not) to the place where they live, to their own history and heritage, and to the land and natural world that surrounds them. We would be prioritising active, rather than passive, relationships with land and nature, whether in the form of jobs that sustain people’s livelihoods or through supporting a food system that contributes to rather than depletes environmental and societal resources. We would create policy and support practice which builds up our commons.

At Shared Assets, we have spent much of the past year working on supporting the development of new community-led management and governance models for parks and green spaces. Regardless of whether we’re looking at a small urban park or a network of countryside sites, there is a common challenge: creating the relationships and governance necessary to make these new models a reality. The technical elements of land management are rarely the problem. It’s creating the relationships that make change actually happen that is the real task.

So I think it’s therefore important to consider the relationships that we as individuals, families and social groups have with the state at all of its levels – and the state’s relationship with us as citizens. If the principle of devolution is subsidiarity – pushing decisions down to the lowest sensible level – then this must mean more active and consistent engagement with the mechanisms of government and governance. We will need new institutional forms and ways of making decisions. The work of Elinor Ostrom and other thinkers on the commons is of real relevance here.

In essence, the way forward from where we are cannot focus on putting the environment at the heart of anything. It already is at the heart of everything: it is everything. We need to create a system that starts from that reality and that supports the new relationships needed to expand the environment that sustains us.

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