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House of Lords Select Committee on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006

The House of Lords Select Committee on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 have launched an inquiry to review the NERC 2006 Act.  Details of the inquiry can be found on the committee website.

The submission produced by the Geological Society can be found below:

Submitted 11 September 2017

1. The Geological Society (GSL) is the UK’s learned and professional body for geoscience, with over 12,000 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia, regulatory agencies and government with a broad range of perspectives on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies, those in education, and other non-technical audiences.

2. We have not attempted to answer all of the questions outlined in the inquiry but instead have responded on points as they relate to the functions of Natural England and environmental management.

Natural England

How well has Natural England fulfilled the mandate that it currently has? How well do its wide-ranging functions fit together, and does it have the appropriate powers and resources to perform these functions?

3. Natural England’s role is to ensure that the natural environment is conserved, enhanced and managed for the benefit of present and future generations, thereby contributing to sustainable development. This includes responsibility for conserving the diverse geological aspects of England’s landscapes and geological outcrops. This is set out in the ‘general purpose’ statement of Natural England’s constitution according to the NERC Act 2006 which includes the following detail:

a. Promoting nature conservation and protecting biodiversity;
b. Conserving and enhancing the landscape,
c. Securing the provision and improvement of facilities for the study, understanding and enjoyment of the natural environment,
d. Promoting access to the countryside and open spaces and encouraging open-air recreation, and
e. Contributing in other ways to social and economic well-being through management of the natural environment.

Geology and the subsurface are significant components of the responsibilities outlined in the Act. According to the wording in the Act, ‘nature conservation’ means the conservation of flora, fauna or geological or physiographical features. In that context we wish to raise a number of points regarding the importance and value of Natural England in its role of promoting geoheritage and geoconservation as part of nature conservation.

4. Natural England has a vital role as the statutory body responsible for nature conservation in England; including the conservation of geological and physiographical features. The Geological Society has sought in recent years to raise awareness of the UK’s geoheritage and the importance of geconservation through our Geoconservation Committee whose aim is to help conserve the diverse geology and rich geological and geomorphological heritage of the United Kingdom. England has extremely diverse geology that underpins and shapes our landscapes, ecosystems, habitats, provision of natural resources and land use. These in turn support a wide variety of ecosystem services and environmental processes.

5. An important part of managing and conserving the environment and supporting local communities is the process of designating and protecting geological sites. Protected sites raise awareness of local geological features and hence form part of the understanding of landscape conservation. Local sites across the UK such as Local Geological Sites in England and Local Geodiversity Sites in Scotland are protected by a variable set of notifications and protection orders. These designations are administered by the different devolved statutory bodies. Natural England has an important role to play in working with other organisations such as Scottish Natural Heritage, Natural Resources Wales and Geoconservation UK to promote good practice and consistency across the devolved nations. Protection and regulation of these sites is a devolved matter but given the complex landscape of conservation and protection measures it would be useful to have clearer guidance on the differences between designations to provide transparency and to develop a more joined-up system. Currently, the system is not fit for purpose and the lack of clarity around different designations generates confusion and misunderstanding for site users. The progress towards having consistent and effective networks of designated sites is very patchy across the country and there is a common need for recognition, protection and sharing of local geodiversity sites.

6. Natural England is the statutory body responsible for the designation of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). In order to be considered for designation as a geological SSSI, a site must first undergo rigorous assessment through a process called the Geological Conservation Review (GCR). Should a site be assessed being of national importance it is added to the GCR and should then be considered for notification as a 'Site of Special Scientific Interest' (SSSI). The sites selected through the GCR form the basis of statutory geological and geomorphological site conservation in Britain. Designation as SSSIs is a critical step in providing adequate protection for these nationally important sites.

7. In England there are approximately 1200 SSSIs with a geological or geomorphological interest but there are also approximately 150 GCR sites that are yet to be designated and additional sites that are being considered for GCR nomination or that require boundary changes. In recent years, progress in designation of geological or geomorphological SSSIs has been very slow and this has resulted in a backlog of sites that do not benefit from the protection that SSSI status affords. The resources now available to Natural England to designate and protect geological SSSIs are now simply inadequate to effectively deliver the programme.

8. Designation of GCR sites as SSSIs is an essential requirement for the sustainable management of the environment. It creates protected spaces to be used by people for leisure, education and training at all levels, particularly in the Earth sciences, as well as providing a basis for generating economic benefits and for future conservation of scientifically important sites. GCR and SSSI sites are continually used in carrying out geoscience research, for teaching purposes at both secondary and university level and many are also used for industry training purposes when carrying out professional training in the minerals, water and oil and gas industries. These sites also contribute to the tourist draw of England as part of the landscapes and natural beauty of the UK. A joined up and effective approach to designating and protecting geological sites is an essential component of protecting and exhibiting rural landscapes for visitors and locals alike. It is the designation of SSSIs that provides the legal protection required to support the UNESCO Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site and the two UNESCO Global Geoparks in England which between them generate significant social and economic benefits through geotourism.

9. Many of the sites identified in the GCR but not yet designated as SSSIs face threats from a number activities such as coastal protection, quarry infilling, development that obscures or removes features, and threats from site misuse by visitors who may remove material from the site or carry out damaging practices such as unsustainable rock coring and hammering. Designation as SSSIs is required to allow these sites the statutory protection they require to ensure conservation and the management needed to achieve favourable condition, as is the case with biological sites.

10. Natural England has recently relaunched the National Nature Reserve (NNR) programme and this is a great opportunity to further the work of protecting sites and implementing a holistic approach to nature conservation. NNRs exist in most cases due at least in part to the unique geodiversity of the area in question and indeed some are specifically declared for geodiversity. There is great opportunity for new NNRs to reflect geodiversity. This is an area that needs continued resourcing for both evaluation of new sites and maintenance of existing reserves.

11. In order to meet the high level aims set out in Natural England’s constitution, there needs to be a greater emphasis on maintaining an active programme of designation of GCR sites as SSSIs. Ongoing subsequent maintenance of these sites and the activities and functions they support also requires a greater allocation of resources and funds within Natural England. This is vital to clear the backlog of undesignated sites and boost the protection, maintenance and site evaluation programme.

Are any changes to the remit and responsibilities of Natural England required, either as a result of Brexit or of other significant developments in the period since 2006?

12. The resource and expertise required to designate, manage and identify protected sites such as SSSIs and NNRs needs to be maintained in any post-Brexit settlement for environmental funding and regulation. In particular, future agri-environment schemes should include provision for management of geological and geomorphological features, as they do for biodiversity features.

Sustainability and biodiversity

Is the duty to ‘have regard’ to biodiversity, which is contained within the Act, well understood by those bodies to whom it applies? Is any further work required to raise awareness of the duty?

13. Effective and sustainable management of the environment and the natural capital of England requires a holistic approach to understanding environmental processes and their interconnectedness across the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and geosphere. It is important that the contribution of geology and the subsurface is not omitted when developing environmental conservation and management regulation. The act explicitly details the protection of biodiversity as the responsibility of Natural England. Though not explicitly mentioned, geodiversity plays an essential role in sculpting patterns of biodiversity. The geology found in a given ecosystem is involved in important buffering functions that impact on the geochemistry of the water, soil and therefore plants and animals found in a given environment. Geodiversity also has its own intrinsic value, and the highly variable and world-leading geology in the UK needs appropriate protection and conservation. It is critical that this component is well understood in the appropriate statutory and regulatory bodies. This requires organisations to have the appropriate in-house geological skills and knowledge to secure the consideration of the important role that geology plays in environmental systems so they are managed and regulated effectively.