UK: Main Green Infrastructure – A Deliverable Alternative?

Last Updated: 25 September 2013
Article by Malcolm Dowden

A new European Commission strategy promises guidance and an EU financing facility to encourage "green infrastructure". Launching the strategy, Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said: "Building green infrastructure is often a good investment for nature, for the economy and for jobs. We should provide society with solutions that work with nature instead of against it, where that makes economic and environmental sense".

For advocates of green infrastructure the EU announcement, and the promise of future funding mechanisms, is undoubtedly good news. However, it does not necessarily create a direct route to delivery of green infrastructure projects on the ground, not least because of the dominant role in current policy of the Coalition government's economic "growth agenda". In that context, a key difficulty is that "green infrastructure" does not necessarily look like infrastructure, and it can be extremely difficult to trace any significant, direct or immediate connection between investment in green infrastructure and economic growth.

Green infrastructure: what is it?

"Green infrastructure" is a strategically planned and delivered network of high quality green spaces and other environmental features. It includes green spaces such as parks and also green roof or green wall schemes and sustainable urban drainage solutions. More broadly, it extends to flood plain reinstatement or preservation, woodlands and wetlands.

According to Natural England, green infrastructure should be designed and managed as "a multifunctional resource capable of delivering a wide range of environmental and quality of life benefits for local communities". Green infrastructure can provide wildlife habitats, networks and corridors for species (including pollinating insects), space for health and recreation, water quality, drainage and a tempering of the "urban heat island" effect.

The EU press release observes that green infrastructure is often cheaper and more durable than alternatives provided through conventional civil engineering. By the end of 2013 the EU Commission plans to issue guidance to show how green infrastructure can be integrated into a range of policies, including climate change mitigation and adaptation, transport, energy, disaster prevention and land use policies.

Delivering green infrastructure. Measurable benefits?

Robust guidance would be extremely useful. Authorities seeking to deliver green infrastructure face major hurdles, including:

  • measuring and demonstrating economic benefit in a way that would survive scrutiny under the UK's current planning gain mechanisms, and
  • delivering green infrastructure on land that may be remote from residential or commercial development sites, making planning conditions inappropriate or section 106 agreements difficult to justify.

Local authorities have no general statutory duty to manage green space. Consequently, while funding for long-term monitoring or management must be factored into Local Plans and any community infrastructure levy (CIL) charging scheme, provision may well depend on innovative or complex contractual arrangements with not-for-profit companies, trusts or other funding sources. The temptation must be to look instead to ad hoc creation or improvement of green infrastructure as planning gain from transport or other major infrastructure projects.

Quantifying benefits from green infrastructure is even more difficult than for "traditional" infrastructure. The National Audit Office (NAO) has cast doubt on the economic case for the HS2 rail scheme, finding that the link between enhanced rail connections and regional economic growth had been "poorly articulated" and it was far from clear how the scheme would deliver "growth and jobs". The nature and extent of doubts over a project that would involve major construction works and deliver highly visible "hard" transport infrastructure strongly indicates how much more difficult it is to draw a simple and quantifiable connection between green infrastructure and the growth agenda.

What benefits can green infrastructure deliver?

When CIL was being debated and developed, Natural England considered that green infrastructure ought to be a permissible element in CIL charging schedules. However, it observed that the legislation "stops short" of any explicit statement to that effect. In practice, green infrastructure must jostle for attention and funding with engineering solutions that lend themselves much more readily to spreadsheet-based assertions of economic growth and regeneration, and face a far more difficult challenge when CIL schedules are examined.

Natural England acknowledged the nature and scale of the challenge in Microeconomic Evidence for the Benefits of Investment in the Environment (2012). The report highlights the key distinction between:

  • economic impact, which refers to the measurable effect on GDP, whether positive or negative, and
  • economic value, which refers to the total effect on the welfare of the individual, whether caused by changes to consumption of traded goods or more intangible things such as the beauty of a landscape.

Economic values are placed on intangibles either by asking people how much they would be willing to pay for them in a hypothetical market, or through observing market behavior related to their value, such as higher house prices near an attractive park. Consequently, evidence to underpin logic chains can be slender, and quantification extremely difficult. It is logical to suggest a connection between green space, health and labour productivity (stemming in part from reduced worker absence). However, the connection is difficult to prove and extremely difficult to quantify.

Economic security might offer a more direct route to proving benefit. Economic security involves planning to ensure that the economy is resilient in the face of potential shocks which could significantly undermine it. Key issues include freshwater availability, flood risk, heat and air pollution, carbon sequestration and avoidance of energy use (eg for mechanical cooling and air conditioning of buildings).

Green infrastructure is capable of playing a significant role in economic security. For example, wetlands offer habitats to promote biodiversity, flood risk mitigation and a significant degree of natural carbon sequestration.

Energy security arguments offer a more direct and meaningful comparison with other possible approaches than those asserting economic value. Green infrastructure is designed to derive benefit from what nature is doing, reducing the amount that needs to be done by expensive technology and hard infrastructure. For example, Natural England observed that "natural water filtration is much cheaper than the alternative, natural flood defence even more so. Natural climate control is much cheaper than the air-conditioning or heating it replaces. Finally, natural air filtering is likely to be much more efficient compared to technical alternatives, particularly as trees provide so many other benefits."

Natural England's research paper was produced primarily to help its own staff make the case for green infrastructure to decision makers such as local authorities and local enterprise partnerships. On each point, it is scrupulous when reporting on the limitations or lack of evidence. However, at 84 pages its length is a fair indication of the complexity of the issues discussed, and the provisional nature of its judgments.

It does not translate easily into the soundbites and spreadsheets required to gain easy acceptance through processes such as the examination and approval of CIL charging schedules. The Coalition government's guidance on CIL, revised in April 2013, requires charging authorities to consider what additional infrastructure is required in its area "to support development". Those calculations must be made in a context, set by the National Planning Policy Framework, which strongly favours housebuilding and hard infrastructure which lends itself more readily to arguments based on economic impact, rather than the equally important but less tangible economic security benefits of green infrastructure.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Malcolm Dowden
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