Applying the natural capital approach to Sustainability Appraisal: Method Summary


This guidance has been prepared as part of the South West Partnership for the Environment and Economic Prosperity (SWEEP), a programme led by the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth and Plymouth Marine Laboratory together with partners in the public, private and third sectors, and funded by the Natural Environment Research Council. This work forms part of a wider project that is exploring ways to improve and extend the use of natural capital approaches in decision-making for the marine environment. The project was integrated within the Marine Pioneer, one of four Pioneers established by Defra through the 25 Year Environment Plan (HM Government, 2018), and led by the Marine Management Organisation.


A stakeholder workshop identified Sustainability Appraisal as the preferred mechanism for integrating the natural capital approach into local decision-making (Hooper, 2017). The proposed method was developed using an iterative process, which included regular discussion with local stakeholders and testing of the different elements and steps, primarily through case studies related to: (i) the South West Marine Plan (MMO, 2016a,b,c; 2018; 2019a); (ii) the North Devon Marine Natural Capital Plan (North Devon UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, 2020); and (iii) the North Devon and Torridge Local Plan (Torridge District Council and North Devon Council, 2018). Wider developments nationally in operationalising the natural capital were also considered.

The proposed natural capital methodology is designed to be comprehensive while also recognising that Sustainability Appraisal is undertaken at different scales, in different contexts and with different levels of resource. Therefore, it is flexible and can accommodate differences in the requirements for (and availability of) data. The framework has been developed with the broader planning and licensing system in mind, and so has a wider application beyond Sustainability Appraisal. For example, the framework can be used at more strategic levels such as in setting overarching Local Plan objectives (not just those for the Sustainability Appraisal), and can also be applied to Environmental Impact Assessment, supporting better integration of assessment at site and strategic scales. In order facilitate use of the framework in a range of contexts, the approach seeks to fit to other obligations, processes and tools that may be relevant to planning and decision making at different scales, in particular those for the evaluation of net gain.

This guidance aims to summarise the key steps in applying the approach, and is complemented by a more detailed report (Hooper and Austen, 2020) that provides further explanation and justification of the conceptual framework and the process of method development. The proposed methodology is expected to evolve, as lessons are learned from additional use of the framework in practice. Supporting materials are available in the form of spreadsheets that present full tables which are too large to be accommodated within this document.

Download the Method Summary

Method Summary
Published: October 2020
Tara Hooper
Mel Austen
School of Biological and Marine Sciences, University of Plymouth, Drake Circus, Plymouth, Devon, PL4 8AA
Hooper, T., and Austen, M. 2020. Application of the natural capital approach to Sustainability Appraisal. Method Summary. October 2020. Report prepared as part of the South West Partnership for the Environment and Economic Prosperity (SWEEP) and the Marine Pioneer programme.

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