This blog is intended to begin a conversation about where we, as the
Local Environmental Record Centre (LERC) sector, want to be headed.
Our strategic direction.
I’ll start with some chat about how I see things – as manager of
Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre and Chair of ALERC. But if you’re
interested enough to read this blog, I want to hear your perspective!
This conversation will feed into a refresh of the
ALERC strategy. The goal is to identify some strategic
objectives all us LERC folk can get behind.
I guess most of us in the LERC sector have experienced people telling
us our business models are broken. This is, of course, demonstrably
not true: the LERC sector continues to provide trusted environmental
data & information services across much of the UK. Thankfully, the
national conversation around biodiversity data now seems to be moving
on. I sense that, over the last couple of years, the tone of
discussions within the NBN Network, and with the NBN Trust, has been
changing. I’m hearing much more emphasis on collaboration and
supporting the Network, including from the NBN Trust’s new Chair.
The debate around open data – toxified somewhat by the position
Natural England took when it withdrew from funding agreements with
LERCs – also seems to have mellowed. There is recognition in the SBIF
Review that a fully ‘open data infrastructure’ is only viable if
publicly funded. Parts of the Government in Westminster also seem to
be talking sense, such as in HM
Treasury’s discussion paper on ‘The economic value of data’
which says: "[open data] may not be the right approach … where
data is already monetised, and where making it open would remove a
source of income. This could harm business models which use resale
to invest in better data gathering, and in the public sphere, could
result in taxpayers replacing lost revenue". LERCs in
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland continue to provide services to
the countryside agencies and in England it looks like we’re on track
to renew data licences with the Environment Agency. This is welcome
recognition of the value of LERCs’ services.
In the East of England, Herts Environmental Records Centre (HERC) has
been working with other LERCs in the region to produce a heat map
showing the number of NERC act (section 41) species recorded in each
monad. This was one of the recommendations of the Making
“Open” Work workshop with the Open Data Institute, organised by
GiGL, and is a great example of how open data could help to advertise
and showcase LERC data services. ALERC is now working with HERC to
explore options for deploying derived datasets such as this.
I am, however, very aware that, in some parts of the UK, LERCs are
operating under extremely precarious funding arrangements and – in
Scotland especially – some areas do not have access to the types of
services that LERCs typically provide. We are waiting to see how
Scottish Government responds to the SBIF
Review recommendations, and what a deliverable outcome might look like.
LERCs have successfully weathered some stormy years, with funding
cuts and major disruption associated with the switch to the NBN Atlas.
Yet still the winds of change blow…
The NBN Trust has heard our clamour for… *whispers*… ‘access
controls’ and has
secured an HLF Resilient Heritage grant to explore how the NBN
Atlas can become more sustainable and responsive to users’ needs. Jo
Judge has told ALERC that this will include “exploring the option of
having a two tier system to enable approved enhanced access to high
resolution data that is not available publicly,” as well as “exploring
options for income generating services at the multi-regional and
We may yet regain ‘access controls’! There is, however, no appetite
for funding this mechanism from the public purse. If we want this, we
need to find a space in the service-delivery arena that the NBN Trust
can occupy. Where they can add value. And where they can get paid.
Jo Judge has been very clear in discussions with ALERC that “we have
no desire to provide local level services or take over existing
arrangements for regional services currently provided by LERCs (unless
LERCs would like us to?)”. I personally believe that the NBN Trust is
genuine in wanting to find a way forward that is mutually beneficial
for Network members and the NBN Trust, e.g. by engaging with new
audiences, and new customers.
ALERC exists, first and foremost, to promote LERCs. We have therefore
been careful to explain that the LERC network has already tapped
significant chunks of the market for national and regional services,
for example in Wales where LERC Wales provides access
to national datasets and in various regions in England where LERCs are
already working across borders to provide services to the likes of
water companies, Network Rail and the National Trust. A crucial first
step will be for NBN Trust to engage with LERCs to identify untapped
markets. There is scope for our ALERC National Coordinator, Tom Hunt,
to be involved in facilitating these discussions – we would be keen to
hear ALERC members’ views on how you want to be involved.
These new developments around the potential role of NBN Trust and NBN
Atlas have happened in parallel with work ALERC has been doing,
trialling a national ALERC data exchange system (AXS). ALERC Directors
will therefore need to assess the costs and benefits of progressing
that further – as the likelihood of the NBN Trust providing similar
functionality becomes clearer.
These developments are highly relevant to LERCs’ core functions:
providing access to biodiversity data & information services. We
will have plenty to do just figuring out what a future relationship
between LERCs and the NBN Trust could look like and how the NBN Atlas
might need to develop to support this. But the world is also turning
25 Year plan places focus on a Nature Recovery Network. As
custodians and managers of high quality local habitat data, LERCs must
surely have a role in delineating England’s Nature Recovery Network –
but what will this look like in practice?
We heard in the Chancellor’s Spring Statement that the
government will use the forthcoming Environment Bill to mandate
‘biodiversity net gain’. ALERC had discussions with Defra during
the consultation and published a
prospectus, as well as our
consultation response. Now it looks like this is really
happening. We need to be ready to move quickly from ideas towards
implementation – if we want the LERC sector to have a role in
providing supporting services.
It is a unique selling point of LERCs that we are local. We have
evolved as a network of separate organisations – adapted to meet local
requirements and engage local recording communities. LERCs have lots
in common with each other – reflected in the LERC
accreditation framework which, as ALERC members, we are all
committed to working towards. But we can also be quite different
creatures, with different strengths and perhaps different priorities.
As LERC leaders, some of us will feel invigorated by the winds of
change blowing around us. Some of us may fear being blown away. From a
strategic point of view, we must decide whether to hunker down and
keep doing what we know we’re good at. Or feel the wind beneath our
wings and see where engaging with new service delivery models and new
agendas carries us.
I feel certain that the more we can organise ourselves to work
together as a sector – the greater will be the sum of our parts. I
fully recognise that’s not always easy. As LERC leaders, we are each
answerable to our own governing bodies and we operate under different
constraints. That’s why I want to begin the refresh of the ALERC
Strategy as a conversation. As an exploration of what we could do as a
sector, if …
The ALERC Directors would love to hear your perspective on what
should be the key strategic priorities for ALERC, for the next five
years (2020-2025). Please join the conversation over on the ALERC
discussion forum, or add your comments to this public blog.