Doing the work that nature needs of us

Genevieve Agaba explores the critical role of skilled and valued jobs in developing resilient communities

By Genevieve Agaba

17th December 2021

In these volatile times, the most certain thing we can say about the future is that we need to be ready for the changes, and challenges, that are coming.

Adapting successfully – to climate change, to economic turmoil, to the continued uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic – means ensuring communities, both urban and rural, across all UK nations, can build resilience to meet changes head on.

In essence, this means investing in and nurturing places to make them not just fit to live in, but thriving enough to flex and adapt. And at the core of any resilient community is, by necessity, a flourishing local economy underpinned by skilled and valued jobs.

"With the rapid changes in the workforce, in the post-Brexit and pandemic context, there is a renewed focus on the need for good and meaningful work, that pays financially, as well as environmentally and socially."

The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) recognise this need and have committed to increasing the number of well-paid jobs in green industries, while the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) “…supports communities across the UK to thrive, making them great places to live and work”. The DLUHC is backing locally-led projects to revitalise towns and villages across the UK, the majority of which, so far, focus on regeneration and town centre investment and transport.

A missing piece is horizon scanning for the skills and jobs required to deliver on the UK’s commitments to net zero by 2050 and the 25 year Environment Plan, while also enhancing the resilience of communities. PwC’s Green Jobs Barometer shows an uneven spread of green jobs across the UK. And with the rapid changes in the workforce, in the post-Brexit and pandemic context, there is a renewed focus on the need for good and meaningful work, that pays financially, as well as environmentally and socially, and responds to the needs of different communities.

"FFCC’s recommendation for a national nature service is now being progressed by colleagues and partners in different places."

It’s a need recognised by FFCC’s recommendation for a national nature service in Our Future in the Land, now being progressed by colleagues and partners in different places. To find out more, I recently caught up with FFCC’s Dr Kate Hamilton, lead facilitator of a National Nature Service (NNS) for Wales and Hannah Field, FFCC’s Cumbria Inquiry co-ordinator and lead facilitator of a Land and Nature Skills Service (LANSS) for Cumbria, and Billy Knowles, project development director of a Youth Environmental Service (YES) for the Midlands. These projects aim to make it easier for people seeking work, or switching career, to engage with nature, and are not just about jobs in conservation or farming. They are also designed to expand environmental literacy among citizens. “We hope the movement will help people understand that you can’t put the environment in a box, that good business is what’s good for people and planet too”, says Billy Knowles, “and that our everyday actions have far-reaching effects”.

"We're strengthening relationships between those who wouldn’t usually talk to each other, yet together can come up with great ideas that tackle the challenges we’re currently facing."

Co-design is central to the approach of these projects. They directly involve individuals and organisations - who will both deliver the service and benefit in the long term - as equal collaborators in the design process, using a participatory approach to developing solutions. “By opening up the discussion table, we foster collective intelligence and the possibility of working across boundaries, strengthening relationships between those who wouldn’t usually talk to each other, yet together can come up with great ideas that tackle the challenges we’re currently facing,” explains Kate Hamilton.

The beauty of each of these movements is that they are well positioned to respond to local needs. Kate sets out the context for Wales: “In Wales, the impetus for a National Nature Service emerged out of the Green Recovery Task Force and the quest for ideas on how to tackle the climate emergency, economic fallout from the pandemic and the health inequalities that were laid bare.” This cross-sector approach is echoed in the range of organisations getting involved. “From the outset, the NNS conversation has included a wide range of organisations and people – farming, health & wellbeing, education, community development, employability, probation, utilities – which is one of the most promising features of the process so far.”

It’s a proposition that has the backing of the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales (who recently released a report highlighting a significant skills gap and need for infrastructure investment to support a green recovery) and a growing number of partners, enthused by the co-design process. Kate says, “I’ve often seen new initiatives attracting a lot of interest at the start with participation dwindling drastically mid-way through - in the case of NNS, we’ve seen interest growing and growing."

“The goal is to launch a series of pilot projects next year to test and refine our model."

Across the border in England, a place-based initiative is emerging in the Midlands - the Youth Environmental Service – with a focus on younger generations. “We wanted to revive the idea of service-work for young people, to allow us to engage different groups of young people in nature and the environmental sector, not just from a career perspective, but also as citizens contributing to the betterment of society.” explains Billy. It’s in the early stages of co-design, exploring key issues facing young people in the Midlands and scoping different ways they could address these needs: “We’re clear that young people should have a say in what YES should and could offer them,” Billy says. And there are exciting developments ahead: “The goal is to launch a series of pilot projects in the Midlands next year to test and refine our model. Young people will be employed and hosted by organisations involved in the co-design process across different parts of the environmental sector, all working as part of a wider collective movement.”

Further north in Cumbria, Hannah Field is convening a broad, cross-sector leadership group for a Land and Nature Skills Service. “The group is essential for understanding local needs, making sure a LANSS proposal for Cumbria is culturally appropriate, and the Service is filling a genuine gap”, she explains, “linking opportunities that come from the top down to the capacity that exists at the local level.” The Cumbria movement is made up of a wide range of people and organisations, “they each bring such a phenomenal dedication and expertise to the process,” notes Hannah, “it underpins the LANSS proposal – giving it great depth and value.”

The three projects share many similarities. They are addressing environmental, economic, societal, and health challenges. They work by convening a range of organisations and individuals and seeking out voices from lesser heard groups. The conversations are vibrant and there is a real energy for taking a fresh look at how things are and how they could be. And they’re in it for the long haul. The co-design process is challenging and time-consuming because of the investment in relationships and meaningful collaboration, but it’s worth it for the shared ownership and positive outcomes that result from diverse views and experience, and partners having a deep understanding of the places in which they’re working.

"If policymakers begin to publicly back the idea and reassure funders that it is worth investing in pilot projects, this could lead to a potentially transformative change across UK nations.”

It’s an approach that needs wider recognition and support: “Developing a service with built-in longevity is essential – many current initiatives and projects are supported through short-term funding when we need to be building more ongoing, long-term support. Supporting capacity to continue to hold the process and the network is key,” says Hannah.

For this to work in the long-term, however, there is a key role to be played by funding bodies and governments. Kate explains, “We need policymakers to signal that this is the right direction of travel, and for them to have patience with the process of co-design, which is pragmatic and extremely necessary,” paying significant dividends in shared and long-term commitment. Billy reiterates that this backing is essential for the finance to follow: “If policymakers begin to publicly back the idea and reassure funders that it is worth investing in pilot projects, this could lead to a potentially transformative change across UK nations.”

“Job creation and training delivers on UK-wide priorities, including net zero carbon, green recovery, nature recovery, and more.”

And it’s a win-win for governments too – as Hannah points out: “Job creation and training provision across sectors is paramount to delivering on UK-wide priorities, including net zero carbon, green recovery, nature recovery, and more.”

This long-term financial and political support is within reach, especially given the vast array of support already in place from business and civil society. The NNS for Wales is now the creation of over 150 organisations and individuals, Cumbria’s LANSS involves more than 30 organisations, and YES in the Midlands is engaging with over 20 regional and national organisations.

With this kind of backing, and the energy these projects are generating, there is great hope for the future of all of our communities. A future where it’s normal for everyone to feel connected to the natural environment and to have a strong understanding of their dependency and impact on it - and of how they can impact it in a positive way - through their day-to-day work. As we move through 2022, with all of its uncertainty, it’s a vision, and a reality, that we can hold on to.

News about Cumbria's Land and Nature Skills Service coming soon in 2022. The LANSS is part of FFCC's Cumbria Inquiry work programme - find out more.


Genevieve Agaba is FFCC Programme Lead for Place-Based Inquiries Contact Genevieve and read her bio