If a job’s worth doing it’s worth doing well, so the old maxim goes. I don’t think anyone reading this would question that taking action to halt biodiversity loss and restore nature is worth doing (at least I hope not). Yet people generally shy away from the thought of ‘regulating’ how it is done. Why is this?
Is it that those of us involved in conservation are ‘good people’, well-intentioned and passionate about nature, so of course we will do our work to the best of our abilities. Or is it that natural processes are too uncertain, outcomes unpredictable and variables too complex? Or might it be that having ‘rules’ is anathema to the sensibilities of the talented and committed blended workforce of professional and amateur practitioners (many of us with a foot in both camps)? I don’t know the answer to my question. But I do believe that shying away from setting standards ultimately undermines biodiversity protection and does us no favours in the eyes of decision makers and other stakeholders.
The Environment Bill and the Agriculture Bill provide some new opportunities to rebuild biodiversity in England. Mandatory biodiversity net gain (with the additional promise of environmental net gain on the horizon), Local Nature Recovery Strategies, a new Environmental Land Management Scheme – these are examples of potentially transformative approaches to managing our precious natural resources.
But they also introduce new risks to biodiversity. Deliberate or unintentionally flawed implementation, insufficiently up-to-date knowledge and/or decision-making based on poor evidence can turn environmental wins into losses very quickly. Setting standards for the different strands of the biodiversity net gain process, for the provision of environmental advice to farmers and other land managers and for other aspects of managing the natural environment is an important form of risk management and we should not turn away from it.
The role of standards
Standards set out a common understanding of how things should be done if they are to be done effectively. They provide a shared expectation that can give confidence to stakeholders, and they hold practitioners to account. Training and knowledge-sharing activity can be focused around familiarisation with them. Why should we be anxious about having standards?
We do, of course, have some standards (e.g. BS42020 Biodiversity: Code of Practice for Planning and Development), but in general they are voluntary and not mandatory. As such they cannot hope to be truly effective as only those that want to implement them will. The value of such standards is undermined and, in my view, an opportunity to achieve better outcomes for biodiversity can be missed.
Instead we fall back on ‘guidelines’ or ‘advice’. Don’t get me wrong – guidelines and advice are extremely important in helping practitioners understand how key tasks and processes should be undertaken. But they do not replace setting a standard as to the minimum requirement for how they should be done.
Biological data is one area where the key organisations have pushed hard for common standards in the collection, recording, processing and publishing of data that provide crucial evidence to inform decision-making. We need to have confidence in the data we are using. It absolutely makes sense to ensure that such information is handled in a consistent and quality assured matter, not just locally or nationally but internationally as well.
Good biological data is going to be the linchpin for not only implementing approaches such as biodiversity net gain on environmental land management schemes efficiently but also measuring how effective they are. Should we be thinking now about a standard for collecting, using and submitting data as part of the new biodiversity net gain approach in England? Of course we should. Should we be designing a process and standard for land owners and advisers to collect and submit baseline and monitoring data arising from agri-environment funding. Absolutely. Let’s not wait until we are getting it wrong to start doing things right.
Let’s not make standards difficult or over-complicated. But let’s have them, use them and be proud of them.
Sally Hayns is Chief Executive at The Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management
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