31 Mar 2023
Councils, nature and land use
Councils are responsible for lots of things related to nature and land use – for example tree planting and providing and maintaining green space like parks. Many councils also have planning powers that can be used to protect nature sites from new development and to plan for new nature spaces.
Councils can therefore play a large part in making sure nature thrives and everyone has access to green space. The network of green spaces and water features across your council area may be referred to as green and blue infrastructure.
In the first England-wide analysis of the correlation between green space deprivation and income and race, Friends of the Earth research shows almost 10 million (1 in 5) people live in areas deprived of green space. There's a correlation between low-income households and green space deprivation, and a strong correlation between green space deprivation and ethnicity.
People of colour are more than twice (2.7 times) as likely to live in a neighbourhood with minimal access. Children from the most deprived areas are also 20% less likely to spend time outside than those in affluent areas. So, actions that councils take on nature and land use can also help tackle social inequalities as well as the climate and ecological crises.
Action by local authorities will be essential for delivering the government’s plans for nature, including its Nature Recovery Network (NRN) and its target for everyone to live within a 15-minute walk of green space or a water feature.
Councils can make a difference by:
- Committing to double tree cover on council-owned land, using local planning powers to significantly increase tree cover across the local area, and ensuring existing trees are properly protected and cared for.
- Protecting existing local green spaces and the green belt, and ensuring public access to local authority-owned green spaces, including golf courses. Where access to green space is lacking, for example where people have less access to private gardens, councils should also develop new, good-quality green spaces.
- Increasing biodiversity and drawing down carbon pollution on council-owned land, including through reducing pesticide use, restoring soils in parks and open spaces, increasing the use of biodiverse planting, and changing the regimes for cutting and maintaining grass and hedging.
- Producing nature and ecosystem restoration and biodiversity action plans to reverse nature decline and restore habitats, species and ecosystems. This should be in addition to the Local Nature Recovery Strategies (LNRS) – spatial strategies for nature to encourage more co-ordinated and focused action – that councils in England will be legally required to produce as part of the government’s national NRN, but which may not be adequate to address biodiversity and restoration of ecosystems in-depth.
Councils need to show ambition on a par with the climate and ecological crises. With existing resources and powers, a reasonable target for councils to aim for is:
To ensure everyone has access to nature in nearby green spaces and to restore nature, including to help draw down carbon pollution from the atmosphere.
Frustratingly insufficient and fragmented funding alongside a lack of power in some areas means it’s hard for councils to play their full part in restoring nature and ensuring better and more equal access to green space.
For example, LNRS have the potential to drive forward nature’s recovery on the ground, enabling local knowledge and expertise to deliver habitat restoration. However, the duty to apply LNRS in crucial planning decisions is weak, blunting their effectiveness. Sites identified in LNRS as important for nature could still be damaged by development, for instance.
The current levels of resource, capacity and expertise within local authorities often aren't adequate to deal with their existing planning workload, let alone any increase required for additional work such as ensuring that Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) delivers actual benefits for nature. Although some new funding for local planning authorities has been announced, it’s only about £30k per authority.
Short-term, competitive funding means that time and resource in councils is taken up bidding for grants, including for tree planting and park improvements. And too many local authorities lose out – for example, a recent government promise to “radically expand investment in parks” will actually only benefit 30 existing parks. This kind of cherry-picked, one-off investment in particular spaces won't address inequalities in access to high-quality green spaces. It’s also harder for councils to find funding for essential long-term tree maintenance.
Councils leading the way
Some councils are already making strides in boosting nature and access to green space – despite the challenges noted above. Share these examples with your council using this template email and help inspire them to take action.
Hackney Council aims to make green spaces available to all, especially residents who live in rented accommodation and on estates. From the introduction of street trees, parklets and green corridors to major park restoration projects and the creation of entirely new open spaces, access to nature is now a key commitment in a new strategy developed in consultation with the community. The council has also updated its planning policies to require better green space provision, incorporating a new concept of “child-friendly” places where children can access nature.
Wirral Council has created an ambitious 10-year strategy to safeguard local trees and hedges, as well as to plant hundreds of thousands more, on and beyond council-owned land, by 2030. The council strengthened its approach to safeguarding existing trees as well as planting new trees due to the strength of local feeling. Its Tree, Hedgerow and Woodland Strategy was developed in collaboration with a wide range of partners including Wirral Climate Action and local parks and wildlife groups, and community planting is a key part of its approach. By July 2022, 45,559 trees had already been planted across the Wirral.
Burnley Borough Council has replaced intensive management of its parks with alternative approaches that boost biodiversity, cut carbon emissions and deliver health benefits to residents. This includes creating meadows in parks and converting annual bedding in the town to bee-friendly perennial planting, which also stores more carbon. The scheme has created volunteering opportunities, which have given people the chance to spend time outdoors and learn new skills. It’s also delivered big financial savings – crucial at a time when the council was having to make spending cuts.
Kent County Council has taken a long-term strategic approach – its Biodiversity Strategy 2020-2040 aims to protect and recover threatened species through habitat maintenance, restoration and creation. It addresses the need to "climate proof" nature, and includes ambitions to help local communities access the health and wellbeing benefits of interacting with nature. When Lancaster City Council undertook a climate emergency review of its Local Plan, it took the opportunity to strengthen policies protecting green and blue infrastructure with more emphasis on its multiple benefits, including for climate change mitigation and adaptation. It also created a toolkit to help developers incorporate green and blue spaces into their designs for new development.
Several councils are in the process of cutting out pesticide use – including finding alternatives to the widely used herbicide glyphosate, which is sprayed in parks, playgrounds, paths and streets despite increasing evidence linking it with harm to health and nature. The Pesticide Action Network provides useful examples of pesticide-free towns.
Learn from others
Some groups have already been working within their communities to protect and restore nature. For example, Oxford Friends of the Earth ran a successful campaign to get Oxford City Council to commit to double tree cover. As part of this campaign, the group set up Oxfordshire Trees for the Future – a group that organises tree planting events to help efforts to double tree cover. In October 2021 as part of National Tree Week, the group organised a Trees Champions Day, which involved networking and learning about tree planting and maintenance. It also supported the setting up of the Oxfordshire Treescape Project, which created the Oxfordshire Treescape Opportunity Map – a powerful tool that shows the right places to establish treescapes for the right reasons.
Caerphilly Friends of the Earth has also set a great example of how local communities can play their part in protecting green space. Residents in Caerphilly came together to stop a beautiful and incredibly biodiverse area of countryside from being turned into housing. The proposed development on green space would have led to more traffic and air pollution, and increased the risk of flooding. It would also have led to the destruction of rare habitat and endangered species, and affected the wellbeing of local people, depriving them of their precious green space – used by children, dog walkers, ramblers and by people in an adjacent estate, many of whom have very small or no gardens of their own. The successful campaign by the community, which included a local petition and a horseback protest, resulted in Caerphilly County Borough Council rejecting the planning applications. This means the whole community, including families with little or no gardens, can continue to enjoy the green space. Find out more about Caerphilly's campaign.
Leicester Friends of the Earth has developed a local nature manifesto to influence councillors and officers –take a look to see how you could adapt it for your local area.
Convince your council
The more people involved in your campaign the better. Your council is much more likely to listen if you can show that your group is representative of your wider community. Make your campaign diverse, stronger and more impactful by building alliances with others. In particular, you might want to think about building links with groups that recognise access to nature is a social justice issue, for example Black Girls Hike.
It’s also worth reminding your council that it, and other public bodies, has a statutory duty on biodiversity. The government's Environment Act places extra emphasis on the role local councils in England play in nature's recovery, although details of how the duty itself will be strengthened are yet to be published. They’ll also be required to collaborate with each other and their communities to draw up Local Nature Recovery Strategies – there are expected to be around 50 county-based LNRS that’ll cover the whole of England. Similarly in Wales, a duty in the Environment Act places biodiversity as a natural and integral part of policy and decision making within public authorities.
Councils are more amenable to introducing schemes that have a wide array of benefits, as it generally means they’re more cost effective, so be sure to tell your council about them. They include:
- Health benefits – better access to good-quality, nature-rich green spaces has significant mental and physical health benefits (see pages 6-16 of our "England's green space gap" report) – so much so that in some places the NHS now prescribes time in nature as a health intervention.
- Financial benefits – nature- and climate-friendly management of parks and green spaces can save councils money, as illustrated by the Burnley case study above.
- Climate benefits – because there are clear overlaps between climate and nature (and public health), it makes sense to deal with climate and nature together. Fully functioning nature is one of our best, free / low-cost solutions to climate change. When in good condition, species, habitats and ecosystems help build climate resilience, from providing shade to relieve overheating to absorbing excess rainfall to help prevent flooding.
Funding and powers
Action by central government will empower councils to do more. Councils can and are acting now, but it’s hard to find a council able to act across all the areas they need to and at the scale and pace commensurate to the climate and ecological emergencies. For example, although investing in green infrastructure can save councils money in the long run, including on flood prevention and response, many struggle to make the initial investment due to a lack of funding. Councils can and should be refusing development that’ll harm nature or reduce access to green space, but their efforts would be helped by stronger national planning policy. That’s why they need additional powers and resources.
Central government can help by:
- Publishing the long-awaited National Action Plan to reduce pesticide use, making sure that it includes an ambitious target to cut chemical use on farms and a commitment to banning use in parks, streets and playgrounds.
- Providing financial support to farmers who deliver nature and climate benefits, which’ll be essential to the success of LNRS in rural areas. Councils can work in partnership with farmers but government needs to ensure that there are also attractive incentives in place to make the switch to nature-friendly farming.
- Strengthening its National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which strongly influences how councils plan and manage development in their area. It needs to be clearer on how to ensure green spaces and nature are properly protected, including giving sufficient weight to LNRS. It also needs to ensure that local planning authorities can require new development to provide new space for nature – and that this is a genuine gain for nature, not an attempt to “replace” an existing nature site that’s lost or damaged by the development (sometimes known as offsetting or biodiversity net gain).
- Providing increased, long-term and stable funding for tree planting. Although grant funding is available, including for planting woodland and urban trees, it falls short of what’s needed, and its competitive nature means too many places miss out when restoring tree cover should be planned and strategic, not random or by chance.
- Increasing funding for parks and green spaces. The government has set out a raft of new standards for increasing and improving green spaces, but after decades of funding cuts local authorities will need more money to play their part in delivering on these aims.
- Ensuring local authorities have the capacity and expertise they need to fully play their part in delivering on national objectives like the Nature Recovery Strategy and the Green (and Blue) Infrastructure Strategy.
Friends of the Earth has joined local government organisations, academics and other NGOs in setting out a Blueprint of what’s needed from national government to support councils in key policy areas, including nature. The coalition has assessed how the government is doing so far in its progress tracker. Be sure to ask your council to sign up to the Blueprint if it hasn't done so already.
Find out what progress your local area has already made on this topic with our data tool, “Near you”.
Watch our training video and learn what your council can do to back nature and green space access:
Find out how you can build a strong campaign to push your council to take ambitious action in this area.
For more in-depth information, including more on what your council should be doing, see our guide to local campaigning on nature.
Find out more about the inequalities in access to green space in our “England’s green space gap” report.
Find out more about where woodland could be created in your area.
Find out more about the problems with biodiversity offsetting.
Read more examples of best practice by councils.