Claire Coutinho is MP for East Surrey.
Britain has seen a 41 per cent decline in our species since 1970. In England, one in eight species are currently threatened with extinction. Simply put, wildlife habitats in this country are fewer, smaller and more distant than ever before.
This is not only a problem for biodiversity, it is also a problem in our efforts to fight climate change. When nature is working as it should, it can capture carbon, act as flood defences, and improve our air and water quality. But when nature is broken, it cannot protect us.
The Government is taking action, pledging to create a new Nature Recovery Network stretching across Britain. This will mean the creation of 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitats by 2042 and a commitment to protect 30 per cent of our land overall for nature recovery by 2030.
And we are backing up our pledges with investment, investing £640 million into a Nature for Climate Fund to restore our wetlands, peatlands and woodlands.
Our historic Environment Bill also introduces a new biodiversity net gain requirement for development, creating a new sustainable funding stream for environmental improvements and making sure when homes for people are built then habitats for wildlife must be improved alongside them.
But, as things stand, while we have numerous land designations in England, none of them exist to strategically connect nature in recovery.
The Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) designation is critical for preserving individual sites which have been identified as wildlife hotspots. The National Park, Areas of Outstanding Beauty (AONB) and Green Belt designations protect landscape and amenity value but do not directly protect biodiversity value. And although we very much like to spend time in beautiful green fields, they can often be quite poor in terms of wildlife habitat.
That is why I am proposing a new designation, a Wild Belt, to plug this legal gap. A Wild Belt designation would provide long-term protection for land that is being managed for nature’s recovery, and it would help us to create connected corridors across land – making sure that wildlife and the natural environment had the space and time it needs to flourish.
The brainchild of Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of the Wildlife Trust, a Wild Belt would protect areas of land that are being managed for nature’s recovery, providing long-term protection from future development and densification.
Across the country, we can see signs of progress. Take the return of the beaver – one of the best natural flood defenders, flow regulators and flora supporters. Once native to England, we are now seeing their return after four centuries of British extinction. Stork!
And I am hopeful this year we will see a return of sand martins nesting in Surrey for the first time in 25 years thanks to the hard work of the Surrey Wildlife Trust.
Bringing back species will be a key part of helping our ecosystems function. But these examples are in a minority. Across Britain, we have seen declines in hedgehog and bees as they struggle to navigate increasingly fragmented habitats. A Wild Belt designation could put a stop to this, by creating green stepping stones for our hedgehogs and pollinator pitstops for our bees.
The benefits of a Wild Belt would also extend to our own health and wellbeing. A survey carried out at the peak of the first lockdown found that 87 per cent agreed that being in nature makes them happy. And the science is clear – having good access to nature can reduce our risk of developing obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
It makes socioeconomic sense too. Poorer households are 3.6 times less likely to live close to green spaces than richer households. By stretching round, through and between England’s town and cities, a Wild Belt would knock down barriers and level up green access.
And while making sure we can build the right homes is our moral duty to the next generation and an important part of maintaining our edge in an increasingly competitive world, a Wild Belt would help to address very real concerns across our communities about species loss and would help us to live in harmony alongside nature.
Schemes like the Trumpington Meadows development in Cambridge have synchronised both housing and biodiversity ambitions. It was once degraded agricultural land, when the housing developer and Wildlife Trust came together to build in an ecological way. It is now home to a 1,200 strong community, where 80 per cent of the land remains biodiverse space and 40 per cent of the properties are affordable housing.
And although a Wild Belt might encompass some green fields, it could also make use of forgotten land – river valleys, roadside verges, railway lines, scraps of golf courses. All of these could be rewilded, creating a network of green continuous corridors from the countryside all the way through our towns and cities.
Just as Britain has led the world in renewable energy and reducing carbon emissions, with the introduction of a Wild Belt designation we can plug a legal gap, safeguard our investments, and lead the world in restoring nature.