Blog: Working collaboratively is key to the success of Natural Course

Natural Course is a collaboration made up of the Environment Agency, Natural England, Greater Manchester Combined Authority, the Rivers Trust and United Utilities.  The project has brought these organisations together to design projects to better understand and overcome some of the biggest barriers to implementation of the North West River Basin Management Plan.  What stands out most about this collaboration, is that it’s a unique mix made up of two national Government bodies, a regional water and sewage company, a national NGO, and a regional Combined Authority.

The team takes some time to discuss how Natural Course has achieved success through collaboration, and reflect on some of the benefits it brings…

Dave Marshall, Natural Course Programme Manager

“We have just passed the half way mark, and gained lots of experiences (both good and bad) of the many challenges of true collaboration.  It’s not been easy and it hasn’t happened overnight, however we can honestly say we have successfully showcased how it is possible for five organisations, each with their own organisational remits and drivers, to work together in a truly collaborative way.  One striking result we see already is that a fully collaborative project delivers massive, multiple benefits for people, for wildlife and the economy – more so than by organisations working alone.

Collaboration is about building relationships, but these take time to develop. A sense of openness, trust and honesty is needed to create a safe space where you can acknowledge differences and address difficult issues. Natural Course enabled this by committing to a dedicated member of staff from each organisation to form a Collaborative team who operate as one.  The Collaborative team normally co-locate in Manchester one day a week, where they represent their own organisations, provide positive peer to peer challenge and work to better understand each other’s needs and wants.  The huge benefit to having everyone working in the same space means it is easier to plan activities and meetings, and can take advantage of opportunistic meetings and conversations too (although we must say, this is one area that has been challenging with remote working).

Working in collaboration can harness resources to allow increased ambition, and can lead to shared priorities.  It can drive innovation and enable the delivery of bigger, multi-benefit projects. This enabled us to look at why the River Basin Management Plans are not being implemented in a way that meets the EU Water Framework Directive targets.  In collaboration, the identified barrier and its priority is agreed by all involved, which leads to greater alignment of investment (joined up funding rather than working in silos, which helps to tackling affordability issues), which in turn allowed for the co-design of a solution.

Taking a collaborative approach has resulted in Natural Course finding innovative solutions around individual constraints and limitations, including human resources, policies, finance and procurement. A great example of relationships prospering was the finalisation of a co-designed, co-financed and co-delivered phase 3 programme of work valued at approximately €7 million. This was the result of aligning priorities, committing time and money, and working towards common goals.  By demonstrating the benefits of collaboration, our activities have also gone on to influence, mobilise or achieve cost savings of a further €34 million since Natural Course initiation”.

Mark Turner, Natural Course Team Leader at Greater Manchester Combined Authority

“For us, a collaborative approach has enabled projects to be delivered more quickly, and with a greater range of benefits, across Greater Manchester. A great recent example is when the Environment Agency and the Greater Manchester Ecology Unit worked together to support and enable environmental NGO Groundwork Greater Manchester to remove a failing weir at the Meeting of the Waters site on the River Tonge, Bolton, in a way that delivers maximum benefit for the EU Water Framework Directive without harming local ecology or increasing flood risk”.

Sion Platts-Kilburn, Natural Course Collaborative Team member at United Utilities

“The collaborations that Natural Course has enabled have provided a range of benefits both internally and externally to our organisation. Through the action ‘mobilising water industry investment’, we have been able to host a secondment from the Rivers Trust within our Natural Capital Strategy and Planning Team. This has enabled a greater range of skills and insights to be utilised during our planning processes. More still, through the ‘Catchment Operation’ action, we have worked collaboratively with partners including the Environment Agency, Natural England, the Rivers Trust and others, to develop the Cheshire Hub. Through this Hub we are co-developing plans within the Cheshire Catchment, utilising shared resources and data, in order deliver environmental benefits in a holistic, collaborative manner”

Craig Higson, Natural Course Collaborative Team member at the Environment Agency

“Collaborating through Natural Course has allowed the Environment Agency to build bigger and better relationships with partners and stakeholders. As a result, we are now starting to look at new ways of tackling problems that would have been very difficult had we approached them alone. Approaching problems together means we are now taking innovative approaches to tackling the challenge of achieving improved water body condition across the North West River basin”


Editor’s note:

The photo attached was taken before Covid restrictions were in place.