Friday, 2 December 2011

NEF - Natural Environment Framework

In the spring edition of Natur Cymru we hope to publish something about the Natural Environment Framework (NEF) which will be out to consultation by then. As this is going to be a very significant change to the way we manage the countryside it's important that readers of Natur Cymru understand what's at stake and make their thoughts and views known. The following is an article prepared by John Griffiths, Minister for Environment and Sustainable Development. Please feel most welcome to share your comments.

John Griffiths
As Minister responsible for the environment in Wales I am very aware of the quality and rich array of landscapes and habitats we have in our country. Wales boasts three National Parks, five Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, more than a hundred European Protected sites and over a thousand sites of Special Scientific Interest. Indeed around 30% of the land and marine area of Wales is protected for its scenic beauty, wildlife or geological value.

These protected areas and the land and seas around and between them make a huge contribution to the health and well-being of the people of Wales.

The recently published UK National Ecosystem Assessment is the first analysis of the UK’s natural environment; it aims to measure the benefits an environment can provide socially and economically. The assessment confirms that the benefits we derive from the natural world are really important to our well-being and economic prosperity. Arguably these benefits are relatively more important to the Welsh economy than to other UK countries. A 2001 study estimated that the environment contributed £8.8 billion of goods and services to the economy every year, forming  9% of Welsh GDP and equating to one in six Welsh jobs in sectors including leisure and tourism, agriculture and forestry, water abstraction, conservation and waste management. In addition to this figure, important services are also provided by the environment to fishing, mining and quarrying, food processing, construction and other industries.

The benefits and services provided by our natural environment include the provision of food, water, timber and energy, the regulation of climate, floods, air and water quality; and a range of important cultural services, including health, recreational, aesthetic and spiritual benefits. All of these are supported by natural processes such as soil formation, photosynthesis, nutrient cycling, and biodiversity which are essential for the operation of the system as a whole.

There are increasing pressures on our natural resources. A third of the services we get from the UK’s ecosystems are in decline, and Wales, like other countries in Europe faces major challenges in meeting international targets to protect biodiversity.  Population growth and climate change will only increase these pressures in the future coupled with rising demand for food.

Over the past 60 years governments working with the private and voluntary sectors have tried to regulate and manage natural resources through a number of approaches aimed at addressing specific problems. While this has led to progress in many areas, the result has been a complex and piecemeal system that often struggles to address cumulative impacts or reach the best outcome in terms of costs, sustainability and resilience.

Thinking about our landscapes and natural environment holistically, in terms of the ecosystem services provided, and the breadth of social, economic and environmental issues that need to be considered, is a powerful aid to our understanding and management of natural resources. This approach is in keeping with the principles of sustainable development and helps us move away from the single issue approaches which have had limited success in the past.

For these reasons I am pleased to be taking forward our work in developing the Natural Environment Framework, ‘A Living Wales’. This is based on an ecosystem approach, which demands that we look at the environment as a whole and understand its relationship to our social and economic needs, health and well-being. Its guiding principle is to ensure that Wales has increasingly resilient and diverse ecosystems that are managed to deliver economic, social and environmental benefits. And, with the new powers the Welsh Government now has to make laws for Wales, we now have an opportunity to refresh the way we manage our landscapes and natural resources for the future.

I have been particularly struck by the potential value of mapping ecosystems and their services as a means of drawing together and communicating key social, economic and environmental opportunities for a given area. I believe this could become an important tool for developing positive collaborative action which seeks to achieve multiple benefits for our people, environment and economy. The current financial climate means we need to achieve multiple benefits from single places or projects and our new framework is being designed to achieve just that.

I want ‘A Living Wales’ to benefit all sections of society. In particular we will bring forward proposals to strengthen the approach to the urban environment so that we can make a direct contribution to improving prospects for our most deprived communities. Access to, and contact with, nature has been shown to have significant health and wellbeing benefits and I want to ensure that our urban communities have the best possible quality of environment on their door steps. The need to reconnect people with their local natural environment is compelling and is an important way of improving everyone’s quality of life and securing ‘buy in’ to future positive environmental action.

Climate change is one of the key challenges facing the world today. An ecosystems approach can enable better, joined up strategic action to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, through for example the protection of carbon rich soils, and changes in land management practices which are important for carbon regulation in Wales. Equally, an ecosystem approach will enable us to modify and develop landscapes to help protect us from future climate change impacts, such as expanding wetlands to help manage flooding, and increased green space in urban areas to moderate local temperature extremes.

A Living Wales will also identify a range of sustainable economic opportunities arising from ecosystems and their services and ensure that future investment in the environment maximises employment and training opportunities to support the development of green jobs and sustainable Welsh businesses.  

In the 60 years since Wales gained its first National Park our understanding of the environment, its processes and key drivers of change has increased considerably. Whilst it is right that we celebrate what these protected areas have achieved, in looking forward it is important that their purpose becomes focused on the management of ecosystems for resilience and the services they provide. We are currently reviewing the Policy Statement for National Parks and National Park Authorities in Wales to consider how we can build the ecosystem approach into the management of our National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty

Our approach builds on the European Landscape Convention definition of ‘landscape’ as a framework in which to manage natural and/or human interactions, as well as considering landscape quality as an ecosystem service. It must be forward looking and should seek to create future landscapes as well as sustainably managing those we have inherited.  We also need to look at the marine environment to develop ways in which terrestrial and marine issues can be integrated.

As a priority I want to start turning ecosystem theory into practice through a series of pilot projects to test our approach in different environments and contexts from urban to deep rural and coastal, including protected areas. I also want to look at some of our most pressured urban environments to ensure that we deliver a better quality of life for people who live there.

This approach will only work with the full involvement and commitment of local people, the private sector and land managers who need to see the advantages that an ecosystem approach can bring. We must ensure that there is ample opportunity for people to input into the design and to lead on the implementation of ecosystem action. It is this joint working that will help to ensure we deliver.

We will soon be launching our Green Paper to set out our direction for this radical approach to natural resource management in Wales. This paper will set out where we are now, the challenges we face, how we plan to involve people and communities, governance and next steps. We are asking for your views on a number of set questions such as do you support this ecosystem approach and what do you think our main priorities should be?

The Green paper and all supporting documents will be published on our website in early 2012 – please visit for more information. 

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