The Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) has launched a second £40m round of its Green Recovery Challenge Fund, designed to promote nature restoration and conservation, after the initial round proved to be massively oversubscribed.
The first £40m round was launched at the Summer Economic Update and Environment Minister Rebecca Pow revealed earlier this month that expressions of interest totalled more than £270.6m, with completed applications totalling more than £169m.
Nature charities voiced concern over this trend, urging Defra to provide more funding to a sector which is clearly keen to play its part in the UK’s economic recovery from Covid-19 and its transition to net-zero.
Defra seems to have taken note. The second round will be allocated in the same way as the first – on a competitive basis to shovel-ready projects that deliver benefits for nature, climate and society. Projects expected to receive a share include forest conservation and creation; peatland and wetland restoration and schemes which increase public access to nature.
To coincide with the new funding, Defra outlined its plans for helping to protect 30% of land in England, as per the UN’s Leaders Pledge for Nature. Some 26% of land in England is already covered by National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and other protected statuses.
A string of 10 ‘Landscape Recovery’ projects will be used to address the remaining 4% needed to meet the pledge. They will be launched by the end of 2021 and collectively restore the equivalent of more than 30,000 football pitches of land. The move forms part of Defra’s ambition to establish a Nature Recovery Network – a collaborative drive to restore three-quarters of the UK’s protected land and freshwater habitats and to create or restore 500,000 hectares of habitat outside of protected sites.
“Britain’s iconic landscapes are part of the fabric of our national identity – sustaining our communities, driving local economies and inspiring people across the ages,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.
“That’s why, with the natural world under threat, it’s more important than ever that we act now to enhance our natural environment and protect our precious wildlife and biodiversity.”
Walking the talk
The new funding has been welcomed by nature charities and other organisations in the UK’s green economy. But many are still waiting for the longer-term policy supports, including the Environment Bill.
“Going forward, the challenge will be to take a strategic approach to nature restoration to deliver improvements at scale,” The Aldersgate Group’s executive director Nick Molho said. “In addition to the Environmental Land Management Scheme being introduced as part of the Agricultural Bill, this will require the Government to commit to a set of ambitious nature improvement targets and associated policy measures under the Environment Bill.”
The Environment Bill returned to Parliament earlier this month after an absence of more than 200 days. Defra has committed to using the Bill to implement legally-binding targets on nature, air quality and water within two years. However, concern remains about delays to the Bill, given that the Brexit transition period deadline is fast approaching, and about whether it is strong enough to match the scale of the nature crisis.
Moreover, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) is warning that the Government is not properly funding the bodies which will prove crucial to the delivery of the Environment Bill.
The Committee asked Natural England to detail the effects of recent funding cuts on its operations and published the response letter last week. Natural England’s Tony Juniper stated that the body received 45% less funding in 2019 than in 2014.
“Natural England’s current funding is below the level required to deliver all of our statutory duties to a good standard,” Juniper wrote. “That in itself presents several key risks including increased legal challenge, lost opportunities for environmental enhancement and the wider effect that presents on wellbeing.”
The EAC is using the letter to support Natural England’s bid for increased funding ahead of the Spending Review, which will be announced later this month.
“Funding restrictions limiting crucial roles such as monitoring nature can have a negative impact on the UK’s biodiversity, and as my Committee has recently heard, could hamper the success of Government policies in this area,” EAC chair Phillip Dunne MP said.