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Governing Scotland’s natural resources: are our policies sufficiently joined -up?

Analysing how policy instruments shape soil, water and biodiversity

Image showing a body of water surrounded by trees

Decisions about natural resources need to balance multiple interests and goals in order to safeguard Scotland’s economic, social and environmental prosperity.   However, many existing policies for the environment focus on separate problems, such as protecting endangered species or reducing water pollution: this may not automatically enable a joined-up approach to environmental management.  Our research explores the interactions of a sample of ‘policy instruments’, including regulations, incentives and guidance, and the consequences of those interactions for managing biodiversity, soil and water. Our results identify if, and when, adjustments may be needed to help achieve balanced outcomes when managing Scotland’s environment.


Work in Progress


Scotland’s natural assets of biodiversity, soil and water provide us with multiple benefits that are essential to our social and economic development; however, natural assets are sometimes in poor condition or at risk of degradation. Several policies have goals related to protecting or improving the condition of our environment but each policy has been separately designed, has different objectives (usually relating to single natural resource assets), and specifies different means by which the objectives should be achieved (e.g. using different policy measures). 

Therefore, the aim of this research is to understand if and how policy measures (often called policy instruments) designed for different purposes and implemented through different approaches currently interact; whether there are trade-offs or cross-overs, who is involved, and how policies have been designed and implemented. These questions help to identify whether the policies are sufficiently joined-up, and whether there are opportunities to align policy instruments through coordination or integration, or build on examples where this is already happening.  Realising these opportunities offers the potential for policy delivery to be more effective and more efficient, meaning that the natural environments can be better managed to deliver multiple benefits for us all.  

The policy landscape around the issues we cover in our research is complex, due to uncertainties around post-Brexit implementation.  However, there is a continuing need for public goods such as soil fertility, water quality, flood protection, biodiverse habitats, and amenity and recreational value to be provided in return for public funding and support. Our research is important for reflecting on current practices, and for suggesting ways to change and improve our management of the environment in the future. Our findings will evolve and be updated as we explore new governance opportunities in the next few years.


There are over 60 policy instruments applied in Scotland to manage the environment. For our study we chose to analyse 10 policy instruments designed to safeguard or improve the condition of natural assets in both rural and urban Scotland (see figure below). The 10 policy instruments we chose were reviewed by a group of stakeholders in Scotland who agreed that they were representative of the diversity of approaches to natural resource management. The instruments included voluntary initiatives, regulations, incentive-based schemes and hybrid approaches (which combine two or more categories) and were targeted at improving and protecting different natural assets (water, biodiversity and soil). We undertook analysis of official documentation and conducted 17 interviews with those who designed or currently implement the instruments (including officers from SEPA, Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Government and three other associated organisations) to explore if the objectives, content and implementation reveal insights about joined-up or integrated practices.

We found that most instruments do affect more than one natural asset, even if they were not designed to do so. For example, the Natural Heritage Regulations target biodiversity but are implemented in ways that also try to protect soil and water quality. Many instruments are complex so require working within or across organisations and involve linking-up diverse stakeholders. Considerable effort, often invisible externally, is made to avoid duplication or conflict by those charged with implementing instruments. This confirms that current policy delivery already shows some signs of coherence or integration. 

However, there are opportunities to do more in relation to joined-up practices, particularly in terms of enhancing the protection of soil health and air quality, mitigating the impacts of climate change or increasing habitat and biodiversity gains.  Furthermore, the mix of instruments used currently does not always account for the diversity of settings and factors that affect each natural asset - imbalances could make it harder to deliver multiple benefits. Continued investments in collaboration and partnership working are essential to ensure balanced management of Scotland’s natural resources.

Our 10 chosen policy instruments represent the policy mix in Scotland targeting water, biodiversity and soil and can be categorised by type of instrument and natural asset focus.


Overall, we found that the implementation of the policy mix does try to balance different issues. Equally, our research demonstrates that perceptions about policy conflict are not always accurate. Although conflict between stakeholders can exist, we found no evidence of conflict between instruments themselves, and many layers of alignment. Many stakeholders in our interviews thought that there were already strong relationships between the main players (Scottish Government and their agencies) and that there was an increasingly business-friendly approach that could help encourage engagement. However, there are gaps to fill. Change is desired so that policy instruments can help deliver balanced and coherent management.  Stakeholders recognised the challenges of delivering change, but also felt positive about the potential to manage our natural assets more effectively to help achieve multiple benefits.

Our research has helped to collect ideas about specific opportunities for better alignment between instruments. These include:

  • An opportunity for cross-compliance to achieve more for soil and climate change.

  • Making more formal connections between instruments that manage the water environment (such as the Controlled Activities Regulations) and the instruments that encourage cross-compliance across multiple areas (such as Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions schemes), and better alignment with pollution control (through the Prevention of Environmental Pollution from Agricultural Activity code).

 In the longer term, our work signposts the need to explicitly consider if adjustments to Scotland’s mix of policy instruments are required to help better manage and protect the environments we use and value.




Project Partners

James Hutton Institute


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