Is a Biosphere the same as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or a National Park?
No. These are protected areas for conservation. Biospheres are not protected areas (apart from the already protected Core Zones) and as such can’t prohibit any activity. The big idea behind Biospheres is the creation of strong partnership working across the area: organisations, local authorities, communities and businesses will work together more and better through the Biosphere, making the area a better place for all.
What status does a Biosphere designation have when it comes to making planning decisions?
A UNESCO Biosphere is a non-statutory designation made by UNESCO.
Unlike other UNESCO designations (e.g. World Heritage Sites) Biospheres do not have any planning powers: it is entirely non-statutory in its nature.
A UNESCO Biosphere is a not a material consideration in planning terms.
So how come I have heard that some Biospheres can be material considerations in planning decisions?
Some Local Planning Authorities have decided to incorporate their local Biospheres into their Local Plans as material planning considerations. The examples of this in the UK are , for instance in the established North Devon Biosphere and the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere in Scotland:
- The LPAs in North Devon have used the BR in the local development plan and are currently seeking to use it to guide the 2050 vision for the next Local Plan. In that context the BR and the strategy are material considerations by the volition of the LPAs.
- The three Local Planning Authorities that cover the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere also all recognise the Biosphere through their respective LDPs thereby requiring that developments take account of this international designation. For instance Dumfries and Galloway Council specifies this as such: Policy ED10: Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere: The Council supports the designation and aims of the Biosphere and will encourage development that demonstrates innovative approaches to sustainable communities and the economy, and supports the enhancement, understanding and enjoyment of the area as a world class environment. Development must be appropriate to the role of the different zones within the Biosphere.
The Fens Biosphere Steering Group, which is behind the proposal for a Biosphere in the Fens, however, does not need Local Planning Authorities to incorporate the Biosphere in their planning policy.
Rather, we are of the opinion that no specific proposals need to be set out as existing strategic planning policy provides for all planning needs and the Biosphere will not attempt to interfere in planning matters and will respect existing legal protection/ designations for planning decisions.
Is the Fens Biosphere all about conservation and wildlife only?
No. A Biosphere will shine a light on positive examples of people and nature thriving together. We believe that people’s quality of life and the health and diversity of nature are inextricably linked. So, the Fens Biosphere will find ways to celebrate and advance culture, nature and economy together.
Is the Fens Biosphere going to promote returning farmland back to wetland?
No. Some of our conservation partners such as the National Trust and the Wildlife Trust have long term visions of extending their nature reserves this way. Some farmers may choose to return appropriate (such as unproductive) pieces of their land back to wetland. The Fens Biosphere will support this kind of activity as a possible choice for some farmers. The Fens Biosphere will explore new ways of living and working that solve global challenges. We want to work with and support local expertise in a way that tackles global challenges.
Ok, but how does the Fens Biosphere sit amongst all these other initiatives that sound very similar?
A primary purpose of the Fens Biosphere, once this will be up-and-running post-designation by UNESCO (expected 2022/23), will be to add value to what key initiatives and partnerships are already doing well in the area. Key to the Fens Biosphere’s role in this will be around enabling knowledge exchange and linking up people, organisations and partnerships with one another, across disciplines and interests, to speed up the process of sustainable development, to ultimately benefit all.
As an example of links with initiatives around the natural environment, we already work closely with the well-established Fens for the Future Partnership and Natural Cambridgeshire, the Local Nature Partnership for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough: the latter in particular around promoting and contributing to implementing its ‘Doubling Nature’ vision, and the former around adding value to its ambitions for landscape-scale conservation work.
We also work with a number of organisations representing farmers and managers of water and land, such as the Internal Drainage Boards and nature-friendly farming networks in the fenland area, looking at opportunities to promote their work and to showcase best practice land and water management examples. In addition, we work with Water Resources East, identifying opportunities where the Fens Biosphere can add value, such as helping Parish Councils to create more ‘water wise’ and ‘climate-resilient’ communities.
Working with the East Anglian Fens Lowland Peat Pilot and the Water Works ‘wet farming’ trials at Great Fen, the Fens Biosphere is also discussing how some of the promising low-carbon farming techniques and the carbon sequestration methods for fenland’s peat soils could be taken forward by the Biosphere – see, for instance, this press article, summarising some of the key ambitions of both initiatives.
This list is not exhaustive, by far: we are also developing stronger relationships with partners working in the local visitor economy, green space management and natural capital investment planning, and with research institutions and community groups, to name just a few.
But why then do we need a Biosphere if you are mainly about supporting the work of others?
Biospheres are about sustainable development, across the economic growth agenda, management of the environment, and community empowerment.
Many initiatives tend to work in only one of those arenas. Although complimentary to many other initiatives, it is important to realise that the Biosphere’s ambitions are wider, focusing on building resilience across all aspects of the economy, environment and communities.
The Fens Biosphere’s mission statement summarises this key ambition:
The Fens Biosphere brings people, nature and science together to promote innovative, sustainable solutions to future-proof the fens
The Fens Biosphere will be in a position to bring together partners, develop projects, lever in funding and target sustainability issues through direct delivery to add value to decision-makers’ and other initiatives’ work.
The Fens Biosphere’s ambitions are to work closely with all decision-makers, initiatives and organisations who can make a difference for the economy, the environment and communities and will actively support their work. The Biosphere can provide a long-term sustainability perspective to their agendas and provide knowledge and expertise to underpin critical decision-making.
A Fens Biosphere can help decision-makers work towards a more resilient economy and environment, providing for a high quality of life, a world-class environment at people’s doorstep and innovation underpinning a successful economy, to include a much-needed green recovery coming out of the Covid-19 crisis.
The Fens Biosphere is also uniquely placed to bring a global perspective to the table: the UNESCO Biosphere status brings international recognition to an area and puts it on a global map of ‘special places’. No other designation can do this for an area, its inhabitants and decision-makers.
I can see you are planning to work across a range of important issues but what are you going to do then?
Collectively, as a great number of partner organisations working together in this, we have come a long way identifying where we feel a Biosphere can add real value. It will all be about showcasing best practice examples and bringing together partners to make more of the collective expertise and knowledge, targeting sustainability issues more effectively through Biosphere coordination.
We have some clear ideas as to the areas of work where we believe a Fens Biosphere can add value and fill in gaps in current provision, although we are still developing our portfolio in more detail. The below diagram provides a summary of the five ‘work areas’ the Fens Biosphere is most likely to work across.
Taking the ‘Fenland Identity’ work area as an example, we can see the Fens Biosphere, for instance, taking a leading role in developing a clearer brand for the area, adding value to businesses and visitor assets by coordinated branding and promotion, and working with rural businesses to develop a quality mark for their produce and products. This is an area uniquely suited for Biospheres, as has been proven by other Biospheres in the UK and elsewhere: the global status a UNESCO Biosphere brings is something no other designation can do for an area, leading to real economic and social benefits for communities, businesses and Local Authorities in the Fens Biosphere.