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Democratising the environment - access to information is at its core?

Martin Baxter, Chief Policy Advisor at IEMA, highlights the environmental and democratic potential of Local Environmental Improvement Plans.

August 2020

Public interest in the environment and climate is growing, which is not surprising given the very real challenges we face. The plastic crisis and communities being flooded are visible reminders of our impacts on the environment, but many more examples of environmental decline are less obvious to the wider public such as nitrate pollution of our natural waterways and the dramatic decline in many of our wildlife populations including vital pollinators.

Our system of green governance is going through significant change, with the Environment Bill taking centre stage in England as we build a new policy and legislative framework following the UK’s departure from the EU. “Taking back control” was the much-used strapline in the referendum campaign; if we are to be true to the sloganeering in the context of the environment then this means giving people a genuine say in a greener future. Access to environmental information and public participation in environmental decision-making lie at the heart of democratising the environment and needs to be at a level that people can relate to their local communities.

Currently, environmental data sources are highly fragmented and not readily accessible to the public. Moreover, when environmental information is made available it is often in different silos. Try to piece together environmental information for your local community – chemical and biological oxygen demand, pH and ecological status of waterways; sulphur and nitrous oxides, and small particulate concentrations in the air you breathe; species abundance and distribution, and habitat types and status; noise exposure levels; likelihood of flooding or drought and crucially, present it in a way that they can understand. It’s not easy for professionals - if you’re a lay person you probably wouldn’t bother.

The proposals in the Environment Bill for a national Environmental Improvement Plan, Local Nature Recovery Strategies and environmental monitoring are a good start. However, they don’t go far enough in a number of key respects to genuinely give people a green voice. Local Nature Recovery Strategies need to be broader in scope to cover all aspects of the environment, nature recovery should be a key priority within a fully integrated Local Environmental Improvement Plans (LEIP), which would have a number of benefits.

Firstly, they would look at the environment as a holistic, interconnected system to provide the basis for people to engage across the full range of issues and the effective management of our natural capital.

Secondly, a LEIP would provide the mechanism for translating national legally binding targets into a local context, in places where improvements will genuinely make a positive difference. Thirdly, LEIPs would provide opportunities for local communities to be at the heart of setting priorities for environmental protection and enhancement, and provide a key interface for local development plans, infrastructure strategies and other economic activity.

Of course, to underpin this framework there would need to be robust environmental data and information, available in an accessible form. Digital technology has a huge role to play, building on our historical datasets which show how our environment has changed over time and enabling a more granular understanding of our current state of the environment. For this to happen, we need a legislative framework for a green democracy if we are to engage people in contributing to environmental improvements - the Environment Bill is the perfect opportunity.

Martin Baxter is Chief Policy Advisor at the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA)

Follow @mbaxteriema and @iemanet

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.