Investment in our natural infrastructure (features of the natural and built environments, including water, that provide a range of ecosystem and social benefits) has a key role to play in securing a green and transformative recovery.
This is something that the Scottish Government’s independent Advisory Group on Economic Recovery recognised in their report published last month. Encouragingly, some of the groundwork required to deliver the step change needed in such investment to address the combined climate, biodiversity and economic crises has already taken place.
It may seem like a long time ago now, but back in January the Infrastructure Commission for Scotland (ICS) produced their first report. The ICS is the independent body established to advise Scottish Government on their long-term infrastructure strategy and their Phase 1 report set out a 30-year infrastructure vision to support and enable an inclusive net zero carbon economy.
There were 22 recommendations, but the one that stood out the most from our perspective was that the Scottish Government’s definition of infrastructure should not only include traditional ‘grey’ infrastructure such as transport, energy and telecoms, but also Scotland’s natural assets. This builds on the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 which also includes green and blue infrastructure in its definition. Both of these important inclusions are in keeping with the Trust’s own advocacy of a new strategic approach to investment in our green and blue infrastructure, just as in other infrastructure. This approach must go beyond terrestrial boundaries and also extend to marine and coastal infrastructure.
If the Scottish Government follows the ICS advice then, by 2023 at the latest, a system–wide needs assessment for natural infrastructure will need to be completed and repeated at least every five years. This advice from the ICS is ground-breaking in Scotland and suggests a new approach to how we look at our natural infrastructure.
The ICS is expected to produce its second and final report later this month, setting out the practical implications in relation to the “how” of infrastructure delivery. If the first report is anything to go by, then this second report could lay the foundations for a new transformational approach to how we plan and invest in natural infrastructure in Scotland. It is worth taking time to consider what this should include and how we go about undertaking a needs assessment for natural infrastructure.
The 2019/20 Programme for Government gives a good indication of what is required. It stated that with respect to the Central Scotland Green Network (CSGN):
We will publish a blueprint for the network, providing a targeted map that identifies the best opportunities for greenspace projects that will deliver the biggest climate change and biodiversity benefits to communities across the central belt.
The CSGN covers a large part of central Scotland, 19 local authorities and 3.8 million people, and such an approach is equally justified at the national level for our green and blue infrastructure. A similar holistic approach at the national level can help bring a more strategic approach and join up many of the exciting projects already underway in Scotland such as the Coigach & Assynt Living Landscape, Cairngorms Connect and new woodlands in the Scottish Borders.
There are three practical steps that could be taken to develop new opportunity mapping and replicate this holistic approach at the national level:
- We can build on work already done to map the amounts and types of greenspace for all of urban Scotland and key features of our Living Seas to map all our existing green and blue infrastructure in a consistent manner and identify any gaps, with a particular emphasis on connectivity.
- A similar map needs to be drawn up to show the condition of biodiversity across the country, drawing from this map of biodiversity intactness. This can help establish ecological coherence and identify gaps where investment could have the biggest impact on nature.
- We already know from international, expert advice that natural capital investment has a vital role to play in our fight against climate change. Work undertaken by the RSPB has identified that our nature–rich sites are also high in terms of carbon storage. This type of mapping could also be used to help identify where we can maximise the nature and climate benefits of investment in natural infrastructure.
These three steps could help identify a long-list of new green and blue projects that maximise climate and biodiversity benefits. These projects could then also be assessed on their economic benefits in terms of job creation and impact on wellbeing. In the initial stages of what needs to be a green recovery there could also be an assessment of which projects could be delivered quickly and help stimulate the economy.
We already know from recently published research that investment in natural capital is one of the highest scoring economic recovery policies in terms of both climate change and economic benefits. Other research also shows that such investment is effective in boosting local jobs and economic activity, which is much needed in the current economic climate.
Creating the change
To aid the required step change in investment in nature we would also need enabling changes in three other areas of the policy framework.
Firstly, the National Planning Framework 4 should include a Scottish Nature Network as a national development which will help inform Regional Spatial Strategies and Local Development Plans. To complement and inform the national mapping highlighted above, local authorities could be tasked with undertaking Local Nature Recovery maps that identify where new natural infrastructure could deliver the greatest benefit for wildlife and people.
Secondly, if we are to deliver the scale of new natural infrastructure required then more funding will be needed. There are several ways this can be achieved:
- In the Scottish Budget earlier this year the Scottish Government committed £2 billion in funding for the Infrastructure Investment Plan and natural infrastructure should get its fair share.
- Existing funding for forestry and peatlands could focus on reinforcing the Scottish Nature Network. Where changes are needed in the way we manage agricultural land then existing subsidies could be repurposed to ensure that in key areas farmers are incentivised to enhance our natural infrastructure and support the Scottish Nature Network.
- The Infrastructure Levy as set out in the Planning Bill could be brought forward in regulations and raise funding from development that local authorities could use to fund Local Nature Recovery maps and help deliver parts of the Scottish Nature Network.
- New innovative ways of financing investment in our natural infrastructure could help source new funding, such as those outlined in the ‘Route Map to £1 Billion’ which the Scottish Wildlife Trust published recently in partnership with SEPA.
- The review of Scotland’s Fiscal Framework proposed by the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery must also ensure that natural infrastructure investment is treated on an equal footing with ‘grey’ infrastructure and can be financed through the same mechanisms.
Finally, greater policy coherence is required so that there is joined-up thinking and a common approach across biodiversity, planning, climate change and land use policies. This approach would help ensure that Regional Land Use Partnerships play an important role in decision making and identifying funding opportunities at the local level.
The ICS recognised in its first report that “we will have to take some infrastructure decisions according to agreed principles for which detailed empirical evidence may not yet be available”. These three steps backed by an enabling policy framework will mean that we will be much better placed to take critical decisions regarding natural infrastructure investment. There may still be gaps in our understanding, but a lack of empirical evidence must not be an excuse for procrastination.
Dougie Peedle, Head of Policy
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Investment in our natural infrastructure (features of the natural and built environments, including water, that provide a range of ecosystem and social benefits) has a key role to play in securing a green and transformative recovery. This is …