Applying the natural capital approach to Sustainability Appraisal: Final Report


This report 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 report represents progress in developing a methodology for using the natural capital approach in Sustainability Appraisal, which is, to the authors’ knowledge, the first time this has been attempted in either marine or terrestrial contexts. The development of a natural capital approach to Sustainability Appraisal, as with any new methodology, requires an iterative process including significant engagement. Sustainability Appraisal was identified at a stakeholder workshop in North Devon as the preferred mechanism for integrating the natural capital approach into local decision-making (Hooper, 2017).

Specifically, this report presents an overarching conceptual framework and begins to outline the steps that could be taken in practice to apply natural capital principles to the Sustainability Appraisal process. A shorter method summary (Hooper and Austen, 2020) and supporting material has been prepared separately and is available for download here:


Download the Report

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. Final Report. 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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