Ted-Christie Miller

Putting nature at the heart of the recovery from Covid-19

This moment of civic engagement with nature, combined with the looming unemployment crisis, breeds the perfect conditions for an employment program centred around conservation.

Wrenched out of our daily lives and forced indoors, British life came to an abrupt halt in March. Isolated from friends and family, trapped inside, people began to feel the tight embrace of the British state. For many it was work from home, for others it was no work at all, leading to millions of Brits being put on the Treasury’s payroll. But the cost of this was not just financial.

With this came unforeseen crises on a number of fronts: calls to domestic abuse helplines rose by 80% in June alone; 64% of one survey’s respondents reported signs of depression during lockdown; 38% of children were doing less exercise during lockdown; and over 50% of people with pre-existing mental problems reported exercising less and eating less healthily during lockdown. At the root of these issues was the enforced confinement within the home. With a whole nation trapped indoors, permitted to just an hour of outdoor exercise a day, a grim experiment of intense domestication was unfolding - and people began to crave for the great outdoors.

But rather than unpick those problems, I want to unveil some of the positives to come out of the recent lockdown, such as: the resurrection of community spirit, and how this was used to turbocharge conservation efforts up and down the country; the newfound appreciation people have had of the outdoors, green space and the environment; and what this all means for the future of work and recreation. We need bold ideas to sustain the community spirit after lockdown, particularly with regards to conservation, and inventive ways to give people a stake in climate action at home and abroad. I will set out below how I think we can achieve both these aims in the context of the UK.

Community strength was in long term decline at the end of last year. Onward found that 71% of people felt that community had declined in their lifetime. People were less likely to be a member of a local group or volunteer or to attend church or community activities than they were even ten years ago.

2019 now feels like a long time ago. There has been a clear and considerable shift in these attitudes, with some community groups “overwhelmed” with the number of volunteers during lockdown. So, whilst the pandemic in many ways forced people apart, it also served as a catalyst for community togetherness and neighbourly support. As Onward polling in March unveiled, community spirit and care for one’s neighbours soared during the pandemic. People were more worried about the impact of Covid-19 on the health of their wider community (88%) than they were about their own physical (77%) or mental (56%) health. Just 9% were not worried about their community’s health. Despite the horrors of the pandemic, the bounce back of community spirit was certainly a shining light.

As people began to reconnect with their local communities, or in some cases connected for the very first time, they also began to reunite with the outdoors. People yearned to be outside of their four walls, be it in the green space near their flats or in the national parks outside of the city. Lockdown saw thousands of people flood to national parks - much to the dismay of authorities. Pictures of Snowdonia, for example, showed mass overcrowding with no chance of social distancing. In cities, local parks were inundated with people trying to make the most of the uncharacteristically hot spring: Hackney Downs saw the police called several times due to overcrowding concerns. For the first time in a generation, the positives of city life disappeared overnight and people turned instead to fresh air, sunlight, nature and greenery.

Evidence suggests people are now desperate to leave the city for good. A recent poll by the London Assembly finds that one in seven Londoners want to relocate outside of the city. The same poll finds that almost a fifth (19%) now want a garden and 17% want easy access to parks. These are stark figures for the London housing market, but more importantly exhibit a renewed appreciation for outdoor space that lockdown has brought about.

A demonstration of this shift is seen by the “staycation” summer and the booming of the camping industry. Since lockdown was lifted in early July, sales of tent pegs are up by 45%, airbeds by 130%, gas stoves by 300%, cool boxes by 180% and camping chairs by 120%. British camping is back on the agenda. People are trading in their Spanish villas for tents in the Brecon Beacons. Only time will tell whether this is a short-term situation or a long-term shift.

With a boost in community action happening alongside a rise in nature-based experiences, it is perhaps no surprise that the little platoons came out in force to assist in environmental action. The UK has a long tradition of conservation, with nearly one in ten people a member of a green NGO. Between 22nd April to 22nd May, despite people not being able to leave their homes,  thousands joined the #ReturnToOffender campaign from their homes. The aim of the campaign was to challenge big brands on the volume of plastic and packaging pollution found on beaches and other wild spaces. There was also the “The Time is Now” campaign which saw over 14,000 people sign up to ask MPs to put people, climate and nature at the heart of our nation’s recovery. Matt Browne for the Wildlife and Countryside Link put it perfectly saying:

“even though continuing restrictions make a lot of traditional nature volunteering difficult, people have found innovative ways to help, from sharing what nature means to them, to taking part in online campaigns calling for a green recovery”. 

There is a real danger that without support, many smaller wildlife, conservation and environmental groups will disappear, creating a huge loss to our social fabric and our environmental outcomes.

This new-found connection with the environment and nature would have been no surprise to Sir Roger Scruton if he were alive today. He saw environmentalism as the pinnacle of conservatism, touching on the three pillars of conservative thinking: trans-generational loyalty, the priority of the local and the search for home. This Burkean view of the world put innate faith in the individual and their community to achieve social good, rather than the state. Scruton would perhaps have hated the big brother state of pandemic Britain, but he would also have been heartened by such a solidifying
of communities strength across the country not least in the case of environmental action.

There is now the urgent question of what the Government does to capitalise on this moment of community strength and environmental awareness. Debt and unemployment are due to hit historic highs in the months ahead. At the same time, people are more engaged with place, home and the environment than ever. It is time now to enable a truly green recovery that simultaneously deals with unemployment, environmental issues and mental and physical health. A National Nature Service, an English Right to Roam and a support package for conservation groups would be a bold and impactful trio to kick-start that green recovery.

This moment of civic engagement with nature, combined with the looming unemployment crisis, breeds the perfect conditions for an employment program centred around conservation. One such idea is to create a National Nature Service in the mould of the Citizens Conservation Corps, which was launched as a part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. In the 1930s, it was a state-led conservation-focused employment programme which employed 3 million young men during the Great Depression, helping to build the foundations of the US National Parks which their descendents enjoy today. In the UK, 60 organisations, including NGOs, banks, councils and trusts, have written a letter to the Chancellor calling for a 21st Century version of the scheme to deal with the recovery from COVID-19, and more than 8 in 10 UK adults want the Government to help those left unemployed by the pandemic into nature-related roles. The UK Government’s Kickstart Scheme provides an opportunity to achieve this. With 100% of the relevant National Minimum Wage for 25 hours a week being covered by the Government, employers in the conservation and wildlife sectors have a huge opportunity to engage a new generation in conservation. The demand is certainly there, as seen by the Government’s Pick for Britain campaign filling vacancies at a rapid rate. All that is needed is for the opportunities to be created.

As people began to reconnect with their local communities, or in some cases connected for the very first time, they also began to reunite with the outdoors. People yearned to be outside of their four walls, be it in the green space near their flats or in the national parks outside of the city. Lockdown saw thousands of people flood to national parks - much to the dismay of authorities.

To further seize the moment of civic engagement with nature the Government should be bold and open up access to the countryside in the UK. As the pandemic has shown, people more than ever want to camp, walk, cycle and ride on this great isle. While the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act was a big step in the right direction, 90% of land and 97% of rivers are still inaccessible for English and Welsh citizens. As billions of taxpayers money is set to be invested in restoring biodiversity on farmland through the Environment Land Management Scheme, it is only right that the public should be able to appreciate more of the habitats and wildlife they are paying for.

In Scotland, there is a ‘right to roam’, meaning any member of the public has the right to walk, cycle, swim and ride on private land as long as it is not within the confines of a garden. After the Scottish Outdoor Access Code act was passed, recreational walking levels rose by 14% between 2007 and 2017. Walking now contributes an estimated £1.26 billion a year to the Scottish economy, according to VisitScotland.

England and Wales should create their own version of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, specifically for Green Belt land, albeit with a few exceptions: the access rights should be stricter with regards to proximity to stand-alone private homes, and a strict and punitive clause enforcing a “leave no trace” rule for walkers and ramblers should also be included. The country is at a unique juncture in its history and reform of our land access could trigger large changes in the British way of life. It is about time that urban dwellers in England were allowed to ramble, swim and ride across the Great British countryside. The evidence tells us that such engagement with nature will trigger eco-actions, encouraging people to live more sustainably, having a positive impact on people’s mental health.

Finally, a series of measures should be taken to support conservation charities in the medium and long term. These should include: charitable loan support from the UK Treasury; reform of tax reliefs to incentivise donations and social investment; and the removal of VAT on online advertising for civic groups. These changes, from an Onward report earlier this year, would provide meaningful and impactful support to the charities sector, including conservation NGOs, at a time when donation levels are falling and many are just on the brink of survival. This support package would be superior to straight funding, which would just further increase their dependency on the state.

While we begin the year under the cloud of COVID-19, we will hopefully be on the ascent of a green economic recovery by the time of the COP26 summit in Glasgow in the Autumn. It is vital that the Government puts nature restoration and conservation at the heart of its net-zero strategy, embracing market forces and empowering local communities. The three recommendations set out here are by no means a complete manifesto for a green recovery, but if implemented they would lay the foundations for a people-first and community-led net-zero transition with nature at the forefront.

Geoffrey Van Orden

The Ukraine crisis and the West