Greenhouse pioneers: Richard Benwell, CEO of WCL

We want to stop the destruction caused by big development projects; we want to stop the poisoning of our countryside by sewage and poor pesticide use; we want to stop the ridiculous waste churned out by businesses. These are really evocative campaigns that capture the public imagination.

Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife & Countryside Link

Tell us about you and WCL – what’s your mission?  

Wildlife & Countryside Link is a coalition of green charities, working for wildlife, animal welfare, and people’s health and wellbeing.

Right now, we’re fighting for a legally-binding target in the Environment Bill to halt the decline of nature by 2030. This State of Nature target would be like a “net zero” for nature, driving policy and investment for wildlife and habitats. Please sign our petition: Wildlife and Countryside Link (e-activist.com)

Why do we need it? Because without a powerful guarantee in law, we’re just not going to see the scale of change and investment across our economy that we need to halt the decline of our natural world.

We’ve had political promises before, but they haven’t been kept. In 2010, world leaders promised under the international Convention on Biological Diversity that they would halt the catastrophic losses of wildlife and habitats that are driving a worldwide ecological emergency. Unfortunately, the target was completely missed.

Now, world leaders are about to meet again to agree a new global mission to halt the decline of nature by 2030. We need to know that our Government will take action here in the UK. A State of Nature target in law would give us hope that this time, things will be different.

What drives you?  

A steady mix of hope and anger!

The brilliant, inspiring energy of my conservation colleagues. The wonderful examples of local action for our environment and the “Attenborough effect” of a surge in public concern. The stalwart efforts of a few, genuine champions for nature in Parliament – these give me great hope. There are signs that this is beginning to hit home with mainstream political thinking too, not least with the publication of the Dasgupta Review, which has made a powerful case for the Treasury to make nature a priority.

But the ongoing failure to translate this into consistent political action for nature, and the continuing abuse of our natural environment by some polluters show how much work is left to do. These keep us working on the less hopeful days!

What is your greatest achievement to date?  

I have a brilliant team – The Link Team (wcl.org.uk) – and I’m delighted with the way they’re landing environmental messages in Government at a time of so much change and uncertainty.

My predecessor in the role at Link, Elaine King, did a fantastic job of building the coalition. Now, we’re using that strength to ensure nature’s needs cut through the political debate.

One really palpable win has been using the example of the brilliant “shovel ready” projects nature charities had ready to go when the pandemic first struck to make the case for green jobs. The Government responded with an £80m Green Recovery Challenge Fund.

But that’s no where near the support needed for nature, so that’s why the real test will be whether we can make the case as a sector for the legal changes needed to ensure substantial and sustained investment and regulatory action.

What are the challenges you face? 

It’s always easier to campaign against something than to fight for something.

We want to stop the destruction caused by big development projects; we want to stop the poisoning of our countryside by sewage and poor pesticide use; we want to stop the ridiculous waste churned out by businesses. These are really evocative campaigns that capture the public imagination.

It’s much harder to campaign for an amendment to a law to set a target for 2030!

But we think that this single legal change can unlock action in all those other areas. If we can win this one fight, it will arm us to win a thousand more, because the Government will have a legal duty to ensure nature is restored.

So, it’s challenging to ask people to wave a banner for a legally-binding target for nature, but if enough of us get behind the idea, then it could be the most important victory for our natural environment for a generation.

What are you working on that’s getting you fired up and excited? 

We need some fire for the sea!

Marine life is so often forgotten, but we have to do better.

Our marine protected areas are paper parks at the moment, so they need to be toughened up. Our marine planning system is abysmal and needs radical overhaul if we’re going to multiply our offshore renewables in a way that’s sensitive to sea life. And there are new frontiers like the threat of deep sea mining, or the opportunity of redistributing fishing quotas to support sustainability that really need attention.

We also need less fire in our peatlands, but that’s another story…

Where do you want to take WCL next?  

One big agenda for us this year is to try to support our membership in improving our diversity as a sector. We know we’re not representative of our society, particularly in terms of ethnic diversity, but I know there’s a real desire to change across the sector. So, we hope to support our members in their work to become more diverse and inclusive. We think it’s the right thing to do, and we think it’s critical to our mission. After all, we can’t protect nature properly unless we ensure that everyone can be part of our movement.

How is what you are doing inspiring change in others?  

We hope we’re inspiring Government to be braver. Governments are, understandably, reluctant to make commitments when they can’t map out the costs and consequences in great detail. When it comes to understanding the costs and benefits for nature to our society, our Government is still at the abacus stage of accounting.

But we know that ultimately, the economic, social and environmental costs of failing to act for nature will be far greater than the costs of improving our natural world. So we hope we’re inspiring Government with the confidence to take the bold steps nature needs. And we’re doing that by standing together as a movement, bringing science and public opinion to the table to show the Government that action for nature is rational, affordable, urgent and backed by the public.

Can you recommend a life- or game-changing book and useful website for our readers?  

Great book: Robert Macfarlane’s “The Lost Words”. Sometimes we need to remember to put the poetry back into policy.

Great website: Environmental Audit Committee – Summary – Committees – UK Parliament. Have a look at the work this excellent Select Committee is doing.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?  

Just write down the answer.

Who inspires you the most and why?  

There are some folk who just keep doing. The people in our environmental movement who say yes and get it done. I won’t try to name them, because there are too many and I see many of them each day, so it would be embarrassing to be too gushy – but *thank you* to my many colleagues who don’t cruise through conservation, they crusade for it. We’re going to win.

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