Cllr Jane MacBean is a councillor on Buckinghamshire Council and chairman of the Council’s Health & Adult Social Care Select Committee
As Conservative councillors across the country stand for election this May, with many competing against the Lib Dems and Greens, let’s be clear about one thing: the environment is a political battleground and resident topic of choice. However, if handled properly, protecting, increasing, and enhancing, Green Infrastructure in your local area can be a real vote winner.
Green Infrastructure is the collective name for green spaces and natural features of all sizes in urban and rural settings, which can deliver quality of life as well as environmental benefits for communities. Everything from entire woodlands to window boxes on balconies in crowded city centres deliver GI value and form part of the green webs that we are striving to create. Why green webs and not green belts? Because webs integrate and fuse urban and rural areas to deliver better quality environments rather than setting clear boundaries that separate the two. Green webs bring built and natural spaces together in a way that enhances the value of both.
It is important to stress that the benefit delivered by Green Infrastructure is not solely environmental; it is also an intrinsic part of our social, economic, and health, agendas. GI delivers sustainable drainage, natural flood mitigation, insulation, carbon sequestration, and improves physical and mental health and wellbeing – as well as increasing property values.
Tree lined streets are a case in point. Not only do trees aid urban cooling, but also slow and reduce rainwater runoff, offer natural flood protection, and improve air quality. Studies have even shown that the presence of street trees can have a positive effect on drivers, showing a reduction in both speed and road rage.
Tree planting is exactly the kind of popular, nature-based project that Conservative councillors should be exploring at any point in the election cycle. A love of trees and strong climate concerns raised by residents were the inspiration and drive behind the Communi-Tree project in Chesham, our urban landscape planting project that is on track to put hundreds of trees back into our barren highway verges. Enthusiasm to participate has been strong from the start as we ask residents to nominate each site and invite them to play an active part in planting and caring for ‘their tree’. Streets that initially had a single Communi-Tree request have inspired interest from neighbours, and lone saplings are now part of tree lined avenues. Even our environmental projects can embrace healthy competitiveness with one re-populated street fuelling interest and enthusiasm in the next.
It is the universal popularity of nature that makes it a vote winner. The broad range of projects that can be defined under the umbrella of “Green Infrastructure” means that there is something for everyone. Whether you are campaigning in a bustling city or rural hamlet, there will be a project that simultaneously brings value to your residents, the wider community, and to the environment.
With such a wide array of rewards to be reaped, rather than shying away, Conservative councillors should recognise the vote-winning potential of nature and champion it in their upcoming campaigns. For any councillor or candidate looking to campaign on the environment this May, the Conservative Environment Network has put together a set of campaign ideas to provide you with inspiration.
Nature recovery is becoming an increasingly important responsibility for councils in England following the ground-breaking Environment Act passed late last year. It endows local councils with much greater responsibility for the environment, which will need to be evidence-based, locally led, and collaborative. County and unitary authorities will need to develop Local Nature Recovery Strategies, which will establish a network of shared plans that public, private, and voluntary sectors could and should all help to deliver. An LNRS will map existing and potential priority habitats and identify areas where nature can bounce back.
Although the Defra consultation is still underway to determine exactly what these strategies will look like, here in Buckinghamshire we are leading the charge as one of five areas in the country to trial the development of an LNRS. Councillors, officers, and partners representing a range of organisations have forged ahead with the creation and launch of our Biodiversity Action Plan, which sets out measures that will help to reverse current wildlife decline and help it to thrive. The plan serves as our interim Biodiversity Strategy as we convene our Nature Recovery Working Group that will focus on specific aspects of BAP delivery while our formal LNRS is finalised.
The Environment Act will also deliver changes in the planning process, with all new residential developments and infrastructure projects required to deliver a ten per cent uplift in biodiversity. As many of us wrestle with planning policy, work to build our Local Plans and resist speculative and often inappropriate and unpopular development, it will be essential to champion nature as an integral element of future local and national planning reform and policy.
Councillors who want to find out more about Green Infrastructure should look no further than the latest CEN briefing on this topic, which provides a detailed overview of the policy landscape as well as ideas on how to approach local GI projects. Natural England has also developed a Green Infrastructure Framework, an interactive mapping tool designed to support the greening of our towns and cities and their connections with the surrounding landscape.
Those standing for election this May should incorporate Green Infrastructure plans into their campaigns, and all councillors should make use of the wealth of resources provided by their own local authority, Natural England, and local wildlife groups, to spot opportunities and begin to map out their own nature recovery networks and projects.
Choosing to embrace Green Infrastructure in our fight back against the Lib Dems in the Chesham & Amersham constituency, and championing green initiatives as the majority group across Buckinghamshire, we are setting an agenda that is inclusive, engaging, financially sound, and popular, and shows voters that it is the Conservatives that can deliver solutions that are good for voters, public and private bank balances and, ultimately, the environment. A blue core fuelled by a green web that is woven through policy, campaigning, and workstreams, equals political and environmental gold.