Strategic Planning Research Paper: Improving Strategic Planning for Nature Conservation

PAS commission three research papers to look at the linkages, challenges and opportunities of the integration of strategic planning and key agendas of transport, the natural environment and health. The papers, through academic and policy reviews and workshop and research projects, highlight the present realities and challenges to integrated delivery and tries to give recommendations to planning authorities that wish to produce integrated strategic plans. Embedding these agendas with strategic plans will allow a coordinated approached to place making across a strategic area. Recognising the role that strategic plans and coordinated planning can have in adding value when delivering places that is more than just the costumery housing provisions. This report produced by the Alister Scott from Northumbria University looks at the improving strategic planning and nature conservation. 1st February 2021


1. Introduction and Terms of Reference

The project brief was to “research and write a paper that draws on a comprehensive and appropriate range of data and examples that demonstrates how nature conservation  matters can add value to a strategic planning approach”.

Consequently, this report is built upon a bedrock of academic and policy reviews of strategic planning literature in general and nature conservation in particular from which the core strategic concepts of  mainstreaming and landscape scale are identified to deliver improved nature conservation outcomes.

The report then draws upon the results of a series of workshops and research projects conducted in early 2020, together with intelligence from a Natural Environment Research Council knowledge exchange fellowship on mainstreaming green infrastructure from 2017-2021 conducted by the author.  This has been supplemented by select good practice case studies.  

All this evidence is then assessed to help define a roadmap for improved strategic planning for nature, mindful of current drivers of change (climate change, Post COVID-19 recovery and biodiversity decline).

The paper concludes with a series of recommendations for local and combined authorities together with a plea for stronger national guidance in any planning reform. 

2. What does good strategic planning look like: academic and practice perspectives?

2.1 Academic perspectives

Strategic planning  is “a socio-spatial process through which a range of participants  in diverse institutional relations and positions come together to design plan-making processes and develop contents and strategies for the management of spatial change; an opportunity for constructing new ideas and processes that can carry them forward; collective efforts to reimagine a city, urban region, or region and to translate the outcome into priorities for area investment, conservation measures, strategic infrastructure investments, and principles of land-use regulation”  (Albrechts 2015:511).

This useful academic definition is now further unpacked with a focus on necessary actions.  

Crucial to managing change successfully is the co-development of a shared vision with strong governance and leadership (Riddell, 2019).  Change should be managed proactively to best advantage, reflecting the public interest.  Forester (2010) sees this as a deliberative opportunity space where negotiation, dialogue and contestation intersect with diverse interests, needs and perceptions and where core values and power relationships shape increasingly messy outcomes (Haughton et al 2013).

The focus here  is on co-design and coproduction; working collectively from the outset within an effective, diverse and inclusive partnership model engaging multiple public(s); crucially going beyond the ‘usual suspects’.  Practicing effective co-design and co-production challenges participants to have a real stake in  the process and outcomes which also may challenge existing power structures and governance frameworks (Beunen et al., 2013: Scott et al. 2013).  This is often  seen as threatening to existing governance structures which may be resistant to such changes.

Integration seeks to overcome the predominant sector/agency/policy silo mentality and agency myopia, to better coordinate planning across horizontal (sectors), vertical (spatial) and temporal (time) scales (Scott et al., 2013; Tewdwr Jones et al., 2010). Scale becomes a key consideration and focus which becomes challenge-led rather than agency-led.  Here, Leach et al., (2019) recognise the fallacies of identifying, diagnosing and treating strategic planning challenges separately within established sectoral and professional silos leading to ‘disintegrated’ outcomes (see also Scott et al., 2013). However, Mommaas and Janssen (2008:27) caution against viewing integration as a panacea given the danger of compromise in which too many things are interwoven resulting in conservatism and risk-averse strategies hindering much needed innovation.  

 Evidence bases are needed that are proportional to the challenge, which are then assessed and used to inform priorities for policy and decision-making (Carter et al, 2020). Currently, there is a danger of policy-based evidence where policy direction is first agreed and then evidence sought retrospectively to justify it.

Regulation is mistakenly  seen as a magic bullet for ensuring strategic planning outcomes. However, regulation needs to be carefully designed within participatory processes supporting its imposition and with necessary guidance and resources for effective delivery and enforcement.  It should not drive existing standards down to a required level. If regulation is not welcome, then it may be seen as a hurdle to overcome resulting in a tokenistic tick box culture which will not necessarily deliver positive outcomes.  Regulation also works best when used in tandem with other incentive and participatory tools as bundles (Scott et al., 2014). 

Strategic planning should lead to outcomes that identify new opportunities to lever funding and investment. All too often the process can become a talking shop with outputs finishing up as reports which deliver little on the ground. This creates a significant policy– delivery gap (Albrechts, 2015: Scott et al., 2009).

Delivery is a key to a successful strategic planning process;  its capacity to produce action frameworks and interpretative images capable of mobilizing people to action (Albrechts et al 2003). Action plans within strategic planning outcomes need to identify who does what, when and how (Dryberg, 1997). Cycles of ongoing and regular review are an integral part of this.  


2.2 Practice Perspectives

The Royal Town Planning Institute (2015) publication on strategic planning identifies  six core ingredients which complements the academic section above.   

Focus: This requires being efficient in the use of resources and clarity about its purpose set within a long-term vision.  Landscape-scale has become particularly influential here and is highly pertinent to nature conservation considerations (Ahern and Cole, 2012).

Be genuinely strategic:  This requires dealing only with matters which require resolution across boundaries.  Scale is crucial here as strategic plans may duplicate issues which are covered by local plans and/or national planning policy. Thus, the strategic bounding and framing of such issues whether they be housing, health, transport or nature conservation, become important considerations. It is also recognised that such issues need to be dealt with holistically rather than within their separate silos. 

Be spatial:  Strategic plans should set out where, and in what form, interventions and investments in housing, transport, environment and economic growth will happen.

Be collaborative:  Strategic plans must be joint endeavours meaning that partners work together to not only deliver each other’s agendas but crucially work to an overriding vision and holistic agenda where the outcome is greater than the sum of the individual parts (Scott et al., 2018).  Often this means breaking down existing authority silos and not just reproducing them under the guise of a joint strategic umbrella. The collaboration process should also be extended to designing the internal governance arrangements of strategic planning collaborations. Here the concept of subsidiarity becomes a significant component.  

Have strong leadership:  Leadership is vital at both officer and political levels in order to build traction so that negotiations between places are productive and not protracted and that new approaches are acceptable  (Scott et al, 2018: Toderian, 2015).  Strong leadership can help functional areas to come together to tackle problems in partnership.  In addition, a strong leader will enable people to go outside established comfort zones, overcoming institutional inertia, when embracing change.  This is a neglected area of research and practice.  

Be accountable to local electorates:  Here decisions and interventions need to be located within deliberative processes of consultation and public feedback.  The role of local authorities with elected councillors is a key part of local accountability which can be obfuscated by the growth and influence of other bodies without such a mandate such as Local Enterprise Partnerships. Here the operation of governance frameworks and power relationships become influential considerations (Lockwood et al., 2010).

2.3 Summary

Both Albrechts (2015) and the RTPI (2015) contributions reveal the complexity and dynamics of good strategic planning. Here the process of strategic planning (e.g. change management, collaboration, co-design, inclusivity) is as important as the outcome (vision, action plans, investment). This initial understanding is now applied specifically to nature conservation as required in this report.

3. Strategic planning for nature conservation

The project brief was to research and write  a paper that draws on a comprehensive and appropriate range of data and examples that demonstrates how nature conservation  matters can add value to a strategic planning approach.  However, a key tension underlying this brief is the focus on strategic planning for nature conservation when a core ingredient as described above  stresses that strategic planning is about securing policy integration and reducing sectoral silos.  What follows, therefore, is an initial review of strategic planning literature regarding nature conservation, highlighting key concepts that can best help “bridge” this tension.  

3.1 The context for improved strategic planning for nature

'There is compelling evidence that England’s collection of wildlife sites are generally too small and too isolated, leading to declines in many of England’s characteristic species. With climate change, the situation is likely to get worse. ' (Lawton Review 2011).

Our statistics demonstrate that the abundance and distribution of the UK’s species has, on average, declined since 1970 and many metrics suggest this decline has continued in the most recent decade. There has been NO let-up in the net loss of nature in the UK (State of Nature, 2019)

The two quotes above illuminate that, despite improved evidence, concepts, tools and strategies, the decline in species and ecosystems in England is ongoing, indicating policy and/or delivery failure. Indeed, there is a significant body of research highlighting the ongoing decline in the state of nature globally, nationally and locally with some claiming a nature emergency  (IPBES, 2019; UKNEA 2011, 2014; WWF 2019).

Traditionally, the approach to environmental protection has been through designation of key species and habitats within a designation hierarchy with dedicated management plans and advisory committees for the most important landscapes, sites and species.  However, more recently there has been a shift towards a natural capital approach involving the re-conceptualisation of the natural environment as an asset leading to financial valuations of the contribution of nature to society (MEA, 2005; UKNEA, 2011; Defra 2020: Scott et al., 2018).

Another key but associated  concept  has been the development of landscape-scale conservation. The Lawton review (2011) highlighted the need for nature conservation policy to be “bigger, better and more joined up”, reflecting a shift away from the protection of nature towards the recovery of nature. This changing focus to recovery involves very different strategic planning responses, crossing traditional administrative boundaries and the creation of new governance frameworks such as local nature partnerships and concepts such as ecological networks. However, operating at this scale poses challenges for wider public engagement which tends to focus at more local scales.

From the above summary two “bridging” concepts can be identified that help us better understand the potential of   strategic planning, in its widest sense, with strategic planning for nature conservation.   

1. The need to mainstream nature conservation more effectively within wider strategic planning processes and subsequent policy and decision making.  

2. the need to better understand and use the landscape scale concept in strategic planning for nature conservation

These core concepts are now unpacked in turn.  

3.2 Mainstreaming as a core component of strategic planning for nature conservation

Mainstreaming involves taking an objective (or knowledge, idea or innovation) in one policy domain such as nature conservation (within the environmental domain)  and normalising  it within other policy domains such as housing, economy and transport, where it is not (yet) sufficiently understood or accepted (Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen et al., 2017).   This necessarily involves a ‘messy’ and dynamic process of diffusion from initial ideas through persuasion to testing and adoption and or rejection (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The mainstreaming process: Source (Scott, 2019:424)

Strategic planning currently prioritises the need to plan for a certain number of houses, based on strategic housing market assessments and housing need (SHMA).  Nature conservation interests are then incorporated as secondary issues, viewed primarily as constraints.  Effective mainstreaming requires nature conservation interests to be inputted at the outset with its  inclusion and application across other policy chapters, recognising its potential and capability to deliver benefits on other policy objectives[1].  This means challenging the traditional view of nature conservation as simply a constraint to development. Here, the concept of natural capital and ecosystem services help transform nature into an asset that delivers multiple benefits (Scott et al., 2018).

Consequently, the need to work across different spatial, sectoral and temporal scales becomes essential  (Cowling, 2005).  Furthermore, the efficacy of communication channels and securing the active support of key non- environmental gatekeepers become crucial in the adoption of nature conservation priorities (Jordan and Russel, 2014: Figure 1).  However, institutional and gatekeeper inertia can become significant barriers to securing the desired policy and behaviour change (Kingston and Caballero, 2009: Scott et al., 2004).   


3.3 Landscape Scale as a strategic planning mechanism for nature conservation.

Henson et al. (2009: 508) describe the goal of landscape-scale as “to halt or reverse the process of landscape fragmentation” and “…..  to conserve an area large enough to sustain a majority of conservation targets but that is a manageable size for intervention strategies to be applied effectively”. 

This definition is useful reflecting the dynamic and pragmatic nature of landscape scale according to the focus.  However, few studies have scrutinised what landscape scale actually means and its implications for policy-, plan- and decision-making (Selman, 2006; Terkenli, 2005; Sayer et al., 2013). Drawing from the literature that does exist, the following key elements are identified (Carter et al., 2020).

The Spatial Dimension remains the dominant focus of landscape scale research and practice.  Authors emphasise the notion of nested scales to describe a “Russian-doll” like array of various functions and processes of a landscape and how awareness and scrutiny within and between the different scales contribute to informing multi-functional and more holistic solutions (e.g. Marshall, 2008; Wyborn & Bixler, 2013).

Multi-functionality operates across landscape scale plans, ranging from biodiversity conservation such as UNESCO’s biosphere reserves (Price et al., 2010); to England’s Nature Improvement Areas (Natural England, 2014); to catchment management as outlined in the EU Water Framework Directive (Holzkämper, 2012); to ecological networks (Hackett et al. 2019); and economic growth (Pugalis, 2011).  Many of these initiatives are embedded in a natural resource management context and feature an explicit goal to move from the narrowly-drawn territorial (administrative and jurisdictional) boundaries of traditional land-use planning and conservation approaches to adopt more holistic and functional approaches which adapt to nature’s ‘inherent geometry’ (Bailey, 2002).

The temporal dimension to landscape scale planning shifts focus away from short-term timeframe such as election cycles towards  longer-term perspectives to tackle issues such as cumulative impacts (Scott et al., 2014b)  and lag effects (Low, 2002).  

Governance frameworks are crucial to effective delivery with partnerships often assuming the role of principal delivery vehicles (Carter et al., 2020).  These are often heavily prescribed with regulatory and procedural aspects dominating with environmental goals, local knowledge and participatory processes often subservient (Beunen et al., 2009, 2013; Valinia et al., 2012; Toderi et al., 2017).  Work on catchment management plans as part of the EU Water Framework Directive provides a contemporary example reflecting a transformative move from agencies previously operating as environmental regulators towards more deliberative and participative roles in co-produced partnership plans (Demetropoulou et al., 2012; Spray & Blackstock, 2013).

Proponents of the landscape scale champion the fusing of natural resource management with more collaborative approaches (Kruger, 2004; Berkes, 2004). This entails collaboration across sectors and administrative boundaries and working with communities and citizens giving rise to the globally established concept of community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) (Pailler et al 2015).   The active involvement of citizens and/or communities in this institutional context can deliver multiple benefits, such as greater autonomy, equality, social capital and other democratic values (Pateman, 1970; Mansbridge, 1997).  

Finally, there is an  emotional dimension; a much-neglected area in planning research and practice. Yet nature generates important emotional attachments to place at the personal level and shapes social memories and cultural values which lead to contested narratives with top-down notions of landscape scale management and planning often conflicting with more grass roots and personal perspectives (Herbert-Cheshire & Higgins, 2004; Scott, 2002; McMorran et al., 2014). Consequently,  personal, social, expert and lay perspectives need capturing and greater scrutiny for policy and decision making (Terkenli, 2005).

When viewing the landscape scale through ALL these different lenses there are operational challenges and barriers to overcome (Figure 2). In particular, the governance frameworks need closer scrutiny and reflection to identify how and why certain structures impede effective working and what actions or interventions can be made to reduce or overcome such barriers and take advantages of emerging opportunities.