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Shared knowledge, strong governance, and sustainable finance: reflections from our annual conference

Shared knowledge, strong governance, and sustainable finance: reflections from our annual conference

At our recent conference on Water at the heart of Climate Resilience, we heard from some of the UK’s leaders in water, the environment, and climate justice.  We had keynote speeches from Simmone Ahiaku (climate activist), Liv Garfield (CEO of Severn Trent Water), Tony Juniper (Chair of Natural England) and Laurence Couldrick (CEO of Westcountry Rivers Trust).  Our CEO Mark Lloyd summed up the conference, our urgent challenges and three key strategic ingredients for success.

The event was attended by a record 657 delegates across the two days, with the virtual format allowing people to join from more than 20 countries including our European neighbours, and some further afield such as the USA, Malaysia and India.

Click here to view the full recording of the event, or read Mark’s Lloyd’s keynote speech below:

Our urgent call for shared knowledge, strong governance, and sustainable finance

Our very way of life is under severe threat from climate change and ecosystem breakdown, and, as we heard in Simmone Ahiaku’s remarkable keynote, this is disproportionately affecting the poor and people of colour. We all know that dramatic change is needed if we are to avert disastrous consequences for our children.

The many fantastic new projects and collaborative initiatives we have heard about over the last two days, and the fact that nearly 500 people have attended this conference, demonstrate that we understand this.  Many of us have understood this for decades and have been taking action. What has been exciting over the past couple of years is that the vast majority of people and institutions outside this virtual conference hall have begun to understand it as well.

Inertia is our biggest enemy

Understanding is one thing, acting is another. Inertia is our biggest enemy. We cannot continue to produce plans which don’t get implemented.  We cannot continue to talk about the need for systemic transformation, while maintaining the status quo.  We cannot continue to rely on pilot programmes and strategic reviews to kick the can down the road. We have to think big, act fast and work together.

We’ve heard over the past two days that rivers are the frontline of our battle against climate change and biodiversity decline.  Integrated catchment management could form the foundations of the historic creation of the national nature network Tony Juniper talked about, building better resilience to the climate change which is already locked in, and making a world-leading contribution to reducing our global emissions.  Using catchments as the physical units for recovering our ecosystems is an epic no-brainer.

I believe that progress is being held up by three strategic systemic failures, each of which impacts on the other: knowledge, governance and sustainable finance.

Our ability to make intelligent decisions about the management of natural resources depends on us having knowledge of how, where, and why nature is disappearing, how our resilience is threatened, and the specific places where restoration should be targeted.  If we are to develop consensus about solutions, we first need to agree what and where the problems are and what is causing them, as we discussed after Liv Garfield’s keynote this morning. We all talk about collaboration and partnership, but we suck at it when it comes to data-sharing. Each organisation has its own data, which is rarely made public in a way that anyone can interpret, if it is even analysed at all. 80% of environmental data cannot be accessed by people other than those who collected it. Decisions about spending billions of pounds of public money are – scandalously – being made based on small data sets which can often be misleading. A lack of quality information leads to people forming a wide range of opinions based on their own experience and instincts, rather than science, which leads to conflict and discord, rather than consensus and collaboration.

Pooling data is absolutely fundamental to success.

At The Rivers Trust, we believe that pooling multiple sources of data of known quality into a single, user-friendly platform that anyone can access is absolutely fundamental to success.  We are working with several water companies, Defra, the Environment Agency and Natural England to create a national Catchment Monitoring Co-operative that will bring together multiple existing data sources and generate thousands more with the recruitment and training of a small army of citizen scientists.  They say knowledge is power and that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.  They’re right.

Armed with this knowledge, we need to create the governance structures to build consensus about the problems and solutions and then to make intelligent and powerful decisions about how best to spend public and private funding in each catchment.  We’ve heard many mentions of the Catchment Based Approach in the last two days, but these Catchment Partnerships are woefully under-funded and far too often excluded from the planning process.  Each of the 105 CaBA catchment partnerships receives just £15,000 in government funding to do a highly complex job bringing together a coalition of the willing to gang up on the problem, as Arlin [Rickard] would say. But Catchment Partnerships still don’t know whether or not they will receive their annual funding – or how much they will receive – and the next financial year is less than a fortnight away. Past form suggests they might not know until May.

These partnerships could be the cornerstone of a proper system of governance to restore our rivers and provide resilience for communities, but they need more money, more official recognition by government and its agencies, and more certainty.

As Dieter Helm has said repeatedly, and Feargal Sharkey said this afternoon, we also need someone to be put in charge of all this, and held accountable for their decisions. Helm calls it a Catchment System Operator. The names don’t matter too much, but what is important is that someone can process the information coming from the monitoring co-operative and the knowledge from local communities, and then make strategic, intelligent decisions at a River Basin scale to direct major funding to address clearly identified priorities. They need to be democratically accountable, and given a powerful mandate. We also need firm but fair regulation of polluters but, as we heard from Sarah Jenner at United Utilities, with the flexibility to allow for the inherent uncertainty and variability of nature-based solutions.  We’ve heard powerfully today, the voices of people who are not normally heard in these debates must be heard in informing those decisions. Good governance must be inclusive and embrace diversity.

Ridiculously inefficient ways of using NGOs’ expertise and enthusiasm

Alongside knowledge and governance, the third thing we need is sustainable financing. Much of the brilliant work we have heard about over the past two days has been delivered by NGOs who are totally reliant on project funding to survive. They spend days, weeks, and months each year applying for over-subscribed pots of money, with no guarantee of success, often filling in the application forms in the evenings and over weekends when they get a break from delivering projects. Far too often, they wait for weeks or months for funding to be approved or permissions given, and then they are required to deliver the project in a few weeks to meet a spurious end of financial year deadline.

Recently, NGOs have been required to develop thousands of shovel-ready projects, only hundreds of which have been funded. This is not only unfair, it’s also a ridiculously inefficient way of making use of their expertise and enthusiasm.

There is a lot of money already being spent, but it needs to be spent more intelligently and collaboratively. £1billion of water company investment, £3billion of ELM agricultural subsidies and hundreds of millions of flood risk management budgets need to be spent not separately, but in concert. These sources need to be blended with carbon offsetting, nutrient offsetting, biodiversity net gain, pollution fines, philanthropic grants, and other sources at both a meta-catchment and a local catchment scale. Far more funds could be unlocked if there were clear information about the problems, better monitoring of the impact of solutions, and clarity about how money should be managed and blended.

Knowledge, governance and sustainable finance are all needed.

This three-legged stool needs all three legs in place if is going to be the platform for us to leap forward towards a brighter future. Sound knowledge will inform the clear decisions made by strong governance structures, to bring strategic and local sustainable finance together to allow local catchment partnerships to thrive, and deliver against agreed objectives at far greater scale.

The challenge facing us is immense. We know that fundamental systemic change is required if we are to have any chance of rising to this challenge. The last couple of days have shown us countless examples of what can be done when people come together around a shared goal. I hope that you will all join with us over the coming months and years to build the evidence, convene the partners, and secure the budgets to build a future that is full of hope and delight in our natural world, not despair.

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