Across the last 3 months, the Oxfordshire Treescapes project has conducted interviews with most of the 55 parish councils that have had our reports. This has given us a strong understanding of the role parish councils can play in addressing the climate and nature crises, and has led us to trial the development of a simple support package to enable parish councils to create long term nature recovery strategies for their community.
LOCAL NATURE RECOVERY STRATEGIES
By the end of 2023, every county in England will have to produce a nature recovery strategy, setting out the priorities and opportunities for recovering or enhancing biodiversity in the county and how these might be implemented. In many ways, parish councils are perfectly positioned to support this process:
·They are democratically elected bodies that represent their local community;
They usually have good connections to both local landowners and community groups;
And councillors have a strong knowledge of their local area and of the challenges it faces.
On the other hand, parishes tend to own very little land, and councillors only work voluntarily and so have limited time and resources.
THREE OPPORTUNITIES FOR PARISH COUNCILS
Our discussions with parish councillors have led us to the clear conclusion that parishes have three distinct opportunities for engaging with work on nature recovery (see graphic):
Firstly, they can look to establish treescapes on the small areas of land they already own, such as trees and hedges around playing fields or village greens;
Secondly, they can look to work together with local landowners and farmers, supporting them in their own plans to expand hedgerows or woodland, or perhaps in establishing a community orchard;
Finally, they can develop parish-wide nature recovery plans that can be consulted and voted on by the entire community, and that may later go on to become part of the county-wide Local Nature Recovery Strategy.
Most parishes are already well aware of the land they own and the opportunities it presents. And money is usually not a barrier here either, as the council is likely to have its own funds available, and if not it can apply to the many small grant schemes open to community groups. The limitation is only that schemes on parish land are generally very small scale; while still important to carry through, they will have limited impact on the wider crisis.
Working with local farmers and landowners to implement treescapes on their land opens up greater opportunities, but the role of the parish council is likely to be limited. Farmers and landowners know their own land well and have businesses to run. Some parishes have local expertise which can help, such as by surveying local wildlife, and this can lead to mutually beneficial collaboration between farmers and communities. But ultimately the decision on what a farmer or landowner does with their land will be driven by their own business considerations, wider policy and national grant schemes such as ELMS.
Our view is that the most important role parish councils can play is to develop their own nature recovery plans. These are an ideal opportunity to engage all stakeholders including farmers and landowners in the nature recovery process. The plans can be agreed on with community-wide support and then fed into the county-wide Local Nature Recovery Strategy. Having won local acceptance, these plans can then be more readily implemented.