South East Rivers Trust (& the Wandle Trust)

Takeaway messages from CaBA Conference 2019

“Don’t forget you can’t bring any single use plastic bottles into the building”

These were the last words of the briefing to those attending this year’s Catchment Based Approach (CaBA) Conference. It was held at WWF’s Living Planet Centre in Woking, a fantastic building that can count being opened by Sir David Attenborough as one of its many green credentials. Would we have expected this kind of commitment even two years ago, let alone when the building was opened in 2013? I’m not sure, but it serves to emphasise the shift in public mindset that a concerted effort of organisations all pulling together can bring about. What better place to hold a conference on partnership working in the context of delivering the ambitious 25 Year Environment Plan?

WWF Living Planet Centre, Woking.

While the catchment based approach has been around for a while (HRH Prince Charles pointed out, a little tongue-in-cheek, last year in his speech to celebrate the Catchment Management Declaration that he has been advocating the concept himself for the last 25 years), the day served to illustrate that the concept seems to have reached beyond the ‘usual suspects’ and established itself as an accepted approach to collaboration and delivery for a better environment. With speakers from a range of sectors including the water industry, retail, government and NGOs, there was opportunity to get insight from different perspectives. Here are a few key points that we took home – let’s start with the obvious one:

We still need to do more, and we still need to do it faster.

The gap between what we want to achieve – leaving the environment in a better state than we found it – and what we will achieve if we continue as usual is undeniable. We, the rivers trusts, as well as many of the organisations we work with in catchment partnerships, have come a long way and should celebrate our achievements. Still, only 14% of our water bodies are at good ecological status, we are still losing soil to the sea and compacting that which remains on land, greenhouse gas emissions are rising, ambitious political goals from 10 years ago are only starting to be implemented now and the regulators are not able to keep up with the challenge. Harvey Bradshaw, Environment Agency, reminded us in the panel discussion that the money available to regulate agriculture is only enough to inspect every farm once every 200 years.

We need to step up from only protecting land in nature reserves to restoring it across the landscape. A strong environment and agriculture bill, with a strong Office for Environmental Protection, that enforces existing regulation and holds the government to account, will support us in delivering the goals set out by our organisations and the government itself.

The social capital that is built and strengthened through CaBA is crucial.

With speakers and delegates from agriculture to retail, CaBA is clearly gaining support across sectors. Notably, Rachel Fletcher (Ofwat) declared herself ‘a big fan of catchment management’, pointing out how delivering nature-based solutions and taking a systems-thinking approach links the 4 critical success factors for the water industry: a strong public service purpose, innovation, connecting with people and collaboration.

A key strength is the soft power of partnership, especially in the context of underfunded regulatory bodies with weak enforcement. The ability to link a diverse set of skills and partners is a success factor pointed out by Sarah Anderton (CIWEM): catchment partnerships achieving the best results are those with diverse skills and good partnership working, not ‘just’ leadership of a few individuals. Capacity building in partnerships across the country will give staff and volunteers the time and skills to deliver and succeed. It is great that Thames Water is already taking steps in that direction by identifying dedicated staff members for each Catchment Partnership and through their Smarter Water Catchments programme.

A snapshot from Rachel Fletcher’s (Ofwat) presentation

There are diverse funding opportunities, but we need to get better at identifying them and up-scaling.

Opportunities to fund the implementation of measures which benefit the environment and society can arise through businesses when you can demonstrate how they reduce business risks or save money. On a global scale, water security is listed as one of the top five risks by the World Economic Forum.

On a national scale, Ofwat will allow funding for projects that take risks to be innovative and may not deliver a return on investment within 5 years to enable out-of-the-box thinking. Although how innovative it is to let nature ‘just do its thing’ was rightly questioned by Stephanie Hilborne, Wildlife Trust, but in any case, it is a positive development.

United Utilities, Nestle, Anglian Water and Tesco illustrated in various case studies the value of identifying joint risks and challenges on a catchment level. The risks of deteriorating water quality and unsustainable soil management to their businesses – reputational as well as financial – were instrumental in leveraging investments, alongside the insight that nature-based solutions can be delivered cheaper than traditional built solutions and yield a wide variety of additional benefits (also demonstrated by the much-loved Ingoldisthorpe Wetlands). Tesco’s first catchment management project started in 2016, working with Norfolk Rivers Trust amongst others, to improve the impact on water and biodiversity their suppliers were having.

It’s exciting to see these businesses engaging and opening up to a more holistic, collaborative approach. Initiatives like the Water Stewardship Service or Landscape Enterprise Networks can support making the links on all scales – from small local businesses to national and international corporations. Going further, the Natural Capital approach and the work undertaken by government agencies and others around it could help us bring in a completely new partner: the financial sector. Identifying projects that could not only deliver environmental and social benefits, but also a financial return on investment, might be going slightly beyond what many of us are familiar and comfortable with, but the debate is open.  The reward could be the opportunity to bring in more resources than even businesses, with their large but ultimately limited funds, might be able or willing to provide. To develop this, it is for us to strengthen our ability to not only see an ecosystem in need but also an asset at risk and communicate this in a language that everyone can understand.

There are certainly lots of reasons for us to be cheerful, but there are many more to keep working hard – 200+ chalk streams that are not in good health, 81% of freshwater species that have been lost, 11 years to limit the impacts of climate change. The mantra seems to be: we know what we need to do, we just need to get on and do it! And at the end of the day, only one question remained for Arlin Rickard, who has been steering us not only through the day but through many years of Rivers Trust events: ‘I wonder how I will get home..?’ Ah yes, it’s the South Western Railway Strike. Alas, another example of why partnerships are great: if you have them, someone is likely to offer you a lift home. If you don’t, you might end up stranded and unsure of the best route to take.

The Basingstoke Canal flowing through Woking, just outside the conference.

You can download all the presentations from the conference HERE.