Britain needs a National Nature Service to power a green recovery

By Ben Goldsmith, originally published in Reaction, 7th July 2020

The most effective back-to-work peacetime programme ever conceived was America’s 1930’s Civilian Conservation Corps which put three million young people back in employment. They planted three billion trees, established seven hundred new national parks, installed flood protection across a continent, and more. The Corps was established in April 1933 and by July that year more than 300,000 Americans were at work. US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had said in his inaugural address, 4 March 1933: “Our greatest task is to put people to work, treating the task as we would the emergency of war […] but at the same time accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganise the use of our natural resources.”

Today, the British government says it too understands the need for a Rooseveltian New Deal-style recovery, hinting at the introduction of a plan that would begin – finally – the work of restoring the terribly depleted natural fabric of our country.

During the Covid-19 crisis people everywhere have experienced an upwelling of love for nature. Video clips have gone viral of dolphins playing in Trieste harbour, of the Himalayas seen from cities in northern India for the first time in decades, of wild boar trotting the deserted streets of Berlin. The pace of life for many of us has slowed, offering us time and space to reflect on the beauty of the world, and on what really matters in our lives. The disappearance of traffic from our roads has given us a glimpse of how clear the air can be, how riotous the birdsong, how rich with wildflowers the road verges left unmown.

Given the chance, nature rebounds astonishingly quickly – as British fishermen discovered immediately after the Second World War, when they found a North Sea thronged with fish of all kinds after just a few short years of respite from commercial fishing. We’ve been reawakened – amid the unfurling of a spring that seemed especially vibrant this year – to the central importance of diverse, healthy, abundant nature in our lives.

A recent study involving 230 experts, and led by economists Joseph Stiglitz and Nick Stern, found that long-term, climate-friendly stimulus polices have high economic impact. Topping the list are investments in renewable energy, retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, relevant sector education and training, clean technology research and development, and of course the restoration of natural habitats.

The creation of a present-day Civilian Conservation Corps – under the banner of a “National Nature Service” – would put people back to work quickly, especially in hard-hit rural and coastal areas. The effort must be focused in particular on disadvantaged communities and on the expected one million newly unemployed young Britons across the country. A National Nature Service would provide the young with the confidence of gainful employment and new twenty first century skills, as well as improving public health, expanding access to nature, and protecting our country from the effects of climate change.

Initially they could work on establishing new woodland, restoring coastal saltmarshes, peat bogs and wetlands, creating corridors of nature through the landscape, building local green spaces, supporting local farming and improving our national parks. Over time, training programmes would be developed to upskill trainees, for example in fisheries monitoring and protection, flood protection, tourist infrastructure construction, renewable energy technology and green building.

Such a plan would leave a legacy of a healthier, more employable workforce, an infrastructure for on-going community and volunteer work in nature, and ecosystems across our country restored to health and abundance.

How would the plan work? Governments have often shown themselves to be ineffective when it comes to the actual delivery of projects on the ground – so the plan should revolve around the provision of grants to private organisations and nature NGOs, local authorities and other devolved public bodies, many of which already have projects lined ready to go. To ensure meaningful outcomes, the scheme should be overseen and steered by a group of individuals who understand how to go about building a green economy and restoring nature, with all the economic benefits those things entail, whilst creating new jobs for both the short and the long term.

One way to measure the success of projects supported through this plan could be the number of jobs created across the country. Another could be the rebuilding of our country’s “natural capital”, on which we depend for clean air and water, food production, flood and drought mitigation, fixing the climate crisis and everything else. Most importantly, the effort must address the terrible iniquities of access to nature that were exposed by the Covid lockdown. Urban and disadvantaged communities must have ready access to vibrant green spaces

Is this a pipe dream? Not if you speak to nature conservationists. A great panoply of nature NGOs are supporting Wildlife and Countryside Link, the body coordinating the shaping of the plan.

These groups estimate that around 12,000 jobs would be created immediately by turning on a £500 million pipeline of projects that is ready to go now, with tens of thousands more to follow. As a nation we have never invested meaningfully in nature, the proof of which can be found in the endless declines of almost any species you care to name. The price tag of this proposed plan is substantial, but not really when you consider the £300 billion invested in stimulus so far, the enormous social costs of a generation of young people out of work, the disconnect from nature endured by swathes of our society, and the terrible and ongoing depletion of nature all around us.

How wonderful it would be if an ambitious nature restoration plan, hand in hand with the creation of many meaningful new jobs, is placed at the heart of our national recovery plans.

Individuals and organisations can pledge their support for the National Nature Service here.