Experts secure £5 million grant to protect and enhance the South West's 'natural capital'

A partnership of three research institutions, including the University of Plymouth, has secured a £5 million award to help protect the beautiful natural resources and the jobs dependent on them in the South West.

Experts from Plymouth, working with scientists at the University of Exeter and Plymouth Marine Laboratory, will work with businesses, policy makers and other organisations in the region to help them enhance their activities and decisions by applying the latest technological advances, scientific research and understanding of the environment.

Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, each institution will lead one of three major components, focusing on terrestrial systems, coastal environments, and the oceans - with Plymouth leading the coastal work and coordinating with PML on the marine side.

Many businesses in the South West are reliant on the natural resources of the area and assets, including land, air, fresh water and seas, to be successful. More than half of all jobs in the South West are directly dependent on this ‘natural capital’, and the region is more dependent on farming and tourism for employment than any other in the country. But the area is vulnerable to natural hazards such as extreme weather, flooding, and pollution. 

The new South West Partnership for Environment & Economic Prosperity (SWEEP) will enable experts and businesses to work together to solve some of the challenges caused by these natural hazards. This will drive sustainable economic growth, help create new products and services, safeguard jobs and create new employment, improve policies, and enhance the health and wellbeing of people living in the South West. 

The University's work in the coastal domain will draw upon its research on erosion, sand and gravel movement on beaches, and tidal behaviour. Professor Martin Attrill, Director of the Marine Institute, said: 

“The South West draws much of its socioeconomic potential from its ‘natural capital’, and so as a region, it relies heavily upon the natural environment. SWEEP will bring together a diverse range of groups from academia, business and other sectors to look at how we enhance our natural capital, how we preserve and restore it, and maximise the economic return. It will draw upon the research strengths of Plymouth, Exeter and PML, who together represent a genuine centre of excellence in marine and terrestrial science.”

SWEEP will be led by Professor Ian Bateman at the University of Exeter, who will work in collaboration with academics from Plymouth and PML to provide this expertise. Businesses, policy makers and organisations in the region have already invested £11 million of their own funding in the project. These partners include South West Water, Network Rail, the National Trust, RSPB, the Dartmoor National Park, Defra, Natural England and the Environment Agency, as well as small businesses such as Offshore Shellfish, a company developing the UK’s first large-scale offshore rope cultured mussel farm. A website will be launched in 2017 to help other partners join in SWEEP projects.

There will be multiple projects, including the use of drones and other new technology to detect leaks in water pipes around the region without having to dig up the ground to search for them. Experts will also use modelling technology to help the National Trust pinpoint where the coastline is at risk of erosion. 

Professor Bateman said: 

“SWEEP will allow a new link between researchers, the latest technology and large and small businesses and organisations in the South West. We have a wealth of research expertise and innovative businesses and policy organisations in our region, and it will be a privilege to work in partnership with them. Together we can both tackle some of the challenges facing our natural environment, and use the latest research and technologies to boost our economy, create and defend jobs and enhance wellbeing in the region.”  
The project is funded under a new NERC scheme, the Environmental Science Impact Programme, which aims to bring research organisations, businesses, policymakers and the third sector together to use their extensive knowledge, experience and contacts to boost regional economic growth. Another project, Yorkshire Integrated Catchment Solutions Programme (Yorkshire iCASP), has also been given financial support.

NERC’s Chief Executive, Professor Duncan Wingham, said: 

"I’m particularly pleased to be announcing these two awards. They entirely encompass the aims of our new Environmental Science Impact Programme, being ambitious, forward-thinking, and potentially transformative. NERC’s world-leading science can and should be used to create both economic and societal benefits in the UK’s regions, in this case, the South West and Yorkshire. I look forward to seeing how SWEEP and iCASP will help to solve some of the biggest environmental challenges facing the country."