The value of a price tag on nature

There is a peculiarly 21st-century need to quantify everything, to list and put a price on it, in order to make it entirely real. The first sign of the trend was New Labour’s obsession with league tables. Then, under David Cameron, it was decided that happiness should also be assessed on a regular basis. We will soon all be able to check how contented we are on an annual well-being index.

Now nature itself has been measured. In advance of the potentially significant Natural Environment White Paper, published today, a group of scientists, commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, have come up with the last word in price-tagging, the National Ecosystem Assessment. With mind-boggling ambition, the report attempts to put a hard economic value on Britain’s nature. A warm and woolly view of the environment of the green space, landscape and wildlife around us is no longer enough. We need to know, apparently, that it is paying its way. Woodland is contributing £680m a year to the national economy by absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. The pollination of crops by bees and other insects is worth an annual £430m. As for humans, the amenity value of living near a river, lake or coast, is estimated at £1.3bn a year, while simply having a view of green space is worth £300 per person per year.

It may sound grimly prosaic and reductive but frankly, if it helps the whey-faced policy-makers in Whitehall understand that space, greenery, nature, tranquillity and the state of the countryside matter to the well-being of all of us, then this new nature-register is already doing an important job.

This week’s Natural Environment White Paper, unless it involves political flannelling on an epic scale, will mark the moment when the Government finally has to declare itself on the environment, having hitherto been boldly facing in opposite directions. Cameron has claimed that his is the greenest government ever and, launching the NAE last week, his Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman was firmly on-message. “The natural world,” she said, “is vital to our existence, providing us with essentials such as food, water and clean air – but also cultural and health benefits not always fully appreciated because we get them for free.” The Prime Minister himself has given every impression of caring so much about parish-pump Britain that he introduced legislation to enshrine in law its rights against centralist bullying.

But wait. The Localism Bill, which reaches the House of Lords this week, turns out to be rather less than was once promised. The right of local communities to object to large-scale planning decisions has been removed. No limit has been placed on the number of times a fat supermarket or property development company can keep applying for planning permission.

In fact many of our leaders’ pronouncements, far from being green, are as ruthlessly pro-market as anything the Thatcher government dreamt up. Cameron’s “enemies of enterprise” are the people safeguarding the environment, “ridiculous rules and regulations that make life impossible for small firms” would doubtless include legislation like the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, which may well be in the flames of the Government bonfire of red tape.

There is an important choice to be made here. If the natural world has a value to the economy and to well-being, as the Defra report argues, those national attributes need protection in law. They cannot survive the cheerful free-market libertarianism represented by George Osborne’s remark, “the default answer to planning is ‘yes’.” To be green, we need red tape. Perhaps a price-tag has to be put on our nature for us to understand that its importance is priceless.

Independent, Tuesday, 7 June 2011