Building back better in the West Midlands

It’s impossible to miss the role that nature is playing in providing a source of comfort and relief for so many during this difficult time. This comes as no surprise – a thriving natural environment is essential to our lives, and the benefits that time outdoors can have on our mental and physical health and wellbeing are well documented.

The RSPB can expect that nature will continue to support us as society begins to recover from the current crisis. But the relationship must work both ways – the species declines and habitat losses that we were experiencing before lockdown remain, and nature needs our help now more than ever. Last week the RSPB wrote, as part of a coalition of organisations (including SWM members and partners: Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country, Social Enterprise UK, CPRE, and the Circular Economy Club), to urge our Prime Minister to place the health and well-being of people and nature at the heart of the nation’s recovery from coronavirus.

National to local

Investment into conserving the planet will make a valuable contribution to achieving a sustainable economic recovery. In the past, nature conservation has often been seen to be in conflict with economic development and job creation, yet it is now widely accepted that protecting and enhancing the environment can benefit the economy, create employment, and have far-reaching positive impacts on health & wellbeing.  But it is not just our national Government who need to listen to the increasing calls from the public for the environment to be prioritised in our economic recovery.  Our Combined Authority mayors have an important role to play in leading the economic recovery in their own city regions.

The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), also SWM member, was first out of the blocks with their announcement of plans to develop a recovery action plan to help the West Midlands economy bounce back quickly once lockdown restrictions start to be lifted. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for mayor Andy Street to deliver a new normal across the West Midlands by rebuilding the economy and society to be more resilient, more environmentally sustainable, and more socially just – with a clear focus on nature and biodiversity.

RSPB are therefore calling for a clear commitment from the mayor of the WMCA that economic recovery across the West Midlands will not be at the expense of nature and climate. We need a recovery that puts the health of the planet and people at its heart and does not undermine the ambition outlined in WMCA’s draft climate plan (#WM2041). This will send a clear signal that the WMCA is truly committed to delivering on their declaration of a climate emergency last June, and also recognise the concurrent nature emergency that must be tackled alongside it.

Delivering a green recovery

The current crisis has highlighted inequalities in people’s access to nature across society, and the need for more and better accessible nature-rich green space where people live. All WMCA residents must have access to greenspace to improve their health, wellbeing and quality of life. By preserving, protecting and improving the natural environment near people’s homes and in the wider countryside, and creating new greenspace where necessary, this will reduce social inequalities in the local communities it supports. By including green transport infrastructure such as cycle routes and footpaths, cycling and walking throughout the Combined Authority area will be both safe and enjoyable.

The environment has historically been at best an afterthought in the development of major infrastructure, but the need to respond to the climate and nature emergencies requires a shift in the way we plan, design and build major and large-scale infrastructure.  Infrastructure planning and development must shift towards an approach that has the environment and nature at its core – seeking to not only minimise environmental damage, but to maximise new infrastructure’s contribution to repairing and restoring the natural environment, and to upgrade existing infrastructure to realise its potential to benefit the environment.

These are, of course, just some examples of measures that, through benefiting nature as well as the economy, will not just create jobs now but will underpin future prosperity across the West Midlands for years to come

Recovering together

In order to effectively forge a path out of this crisis, development of the West Midlands recovery plan will require broad engagement across all sectors of society – beyond just political and business leaders. We will achieve so much more and see greater benefits for people, economy and environment if business and industry, local and national government, NGOs, and local communities all work co-operatively, both within and across political borders.

City leaders across the world are now recognising that a green economic recovery from coronavirus is absolutely essential if we are to “recover better”. Yesterday we were pleased to hear the news that a new taskforce of mayors from cities in Europe, the US and Africa (including London mayor Sadiq Khan) have published a ‘statement of principles’ putting climate action at centre of their recovery plans. Government at all levels – national and local, and in all four countries of the UK – now need to come together and coordinate their efforts to ensure that people and wildlife are kept safe not just now, but for decades to come.