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Public dialogue influences local decision making and national practice on biodiversity, ecosystems and landscape management in England

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The NIAs dialogue project worked at both local and national level to influence current and future policy and practice in the development of local partnerships to enhance and reconnect nature on a significant scale, and to feed learning and community insight into evolving national policy processes and priorities.

The context for the project was the threat to UK ecosystems from the loss of biodiversity, as identified in the National Ecosystem Assessment Report in 2010 among others, which led to the development of the Natural Environment White Paper in 2011. That White Paper included a commitment to develop new policy that is able to protect biodiversity on a landscape scale and that is embedded in local communities, especially through Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs).

Natural England and Defra identified the first 12 areas for NIAs and committed spending of £7.5 million between 2012-2015. The NIAs are pilot partnerships of local authorities, local communities and the public, the private sector and conservation organisations. These initial 12 NIAs were designed to unite local communities, landowners and businesses through a shared vision for a better future for people and wildlife.

Sciencewise helped develop, and then provided funding and support for a public dialogue project in three of the initial 12 pilot areas. The project aimed to support Natural England, Defra and partners to enable the NIA partnerships to embed public dialogue for decision making in their areas and contribute to future national development of biodiversity, landscape and ecosystem policy.  

The project started in May 2012 and continued until May 2015. The total project cost was £567,000 including VAT, to which Sciencewise contributed £240,000. The final evaluation report was published on the Sciencewise website on 20 August 2015.

At local level, the impacts of the dialogue projects included:

•    The Morecambe Bay NIA in Lancashire and Cumbria involved nearly 200 people in four site-based dialogues including on highly controversial planned restoration works on Nichols Moss and a future vision for nature and farming in the Lyth Valley. The dialogues enabled local discussions on at least three of these sites to move beyond entrenched arguments, towards more constructive conversations. For Natural England, the work "proved that the approach works", and they have agreed to continue funding for the work in Nichols Moss.

•    The Nene Valley NIA in Northamptonshire involved over 300 people in various ways. The most intensive engagement was with 26 people who took part in community panel processes to develop action plans for two key sites of ecological importance. 53 people were involved in online activities (surveys etc), and a further around 250 were involved through a local family festival, a photo competition, training for local organisations and a guided walk. Four local youth groups were also involved.

•    The Meres and Mosses NIA in Shropshire and Cheshire involved over 100 members of the public in 10 local workshops. A film promoting the local landscape, a Google Earth tour and a dialogue report were produced. New relationships were built between the NIA and local organisations and some NIA staff discovered the value of engaging a smaller sample of the public in depth rather than always engaging a larger number more superficially.

At national level, the project was seen to have impacts including:

•    Building the capacity of Natural England staff to understand and oversee public dialogue. One said "we convinced and educated a number of people about the nature, value and importance of good dialogue".

•    Raising awareness of public dialogue across all 12 pilot NIAs. Presentations were made to NIA conferences in September 2014 and February 2015 to present the work undertaken and the benefits of dialogue with the public.

•    Developed, tested and applied novel methods of engagement, including art projects and installations in Morecambe Bay and Nene Valley NIAs, the film produced by Meres and Mosses to raise awareness and their Google Earth tour which was effective in engaging members of the public in landscape-scale discussions.

•    Participating in the Government's agenda of devolving decision-making to local people, and playing an active part in an experiment of how to do this.

•    Demonstrating the value of formative evaluation. It was agreed early on that the evaluation should spend time particularly on early and ongoing feedback that would help support the design and delivery of the dialogues. The Natural England project manager commented that “The evaluation interim report was invaluable. It caused us to discuss difficult questions about the projects’ progress early on, and make changes as a result. Our difficulties would have multiplied otherwise, and we may well have ended up off the rails”.

The evaluation report is available at www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk/cms/assets/Uploads/NIA-Evaluation-Report.pdf. The overarching dialogue report and individual NIA reports are available through www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk/cms/nature-improvement-areas

See related project page: Nature Improvement Areas