Meet the former civil servant banking on bringing people closer to the natural world

James Cross, chief executive of the Environment Bank, may have grown up against an industrial backdrop but that has not stopped him appreciating the wonders of nature, writes Ismail Mulla.

James Cross was seven years old when he was taken on a school trip to Teesmouth National Nature Reserve.

Little did he know that this would trigger a lifelong passion for conservation and ultimately see him play a role in shaping key environmental policies.

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Mr Cross grew up in the shadow of the Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge. Smokestacks of heavy industry dominated the skyline.

James Cross started his career in the civil service.

But as he got off that school bus, Mr Cross remembers “being absolutely blown away” by the “wild and wonderful scene of nature, birds and waves crashing all around”.

The irony is that the nature reserve is managed by Natural England, the Government agency that Mr Cross himself would become chief executive of in 2014.

His career began in the civil service after graduating from Teesside University. He joined Inland Revenue as an admin officer.

“I would really recommend the civil service as a career,” Mr Cross says. “They really helped to develop my career. They developed my training and leadership ability. I got tremendous postings.”

He ended up as chief executive of the Marine Management Organisation.

He even got to work in Northern Ireland, looking at reforms of the coroners’ courts there following the Good Friday agreement.

The civil service may have taken him all over the country but Mr Cross always kept a home in the North.

“Ultimately, I ended up as chief executive of the Marine Management Organisation,” Mr Cross says. “I was 35 when I became chief executive there.”

His appointment caught the eye as he was one of the youngest people to head up such an organisation.

James Cross was also chief executive of Natural England and is now CEO of the Environment Bank.

Mr Cross said: “I’m so proud of the work that we did there. We introduced the country’s first ever marine spatial planning system – really thinking about how you manage strategically offshore renewable energy, aggregate extraction, fisheries activity.”

It was a new organisation and the prospect of it being located in the North – it ended up in Newcastle – was what attracted Mr Cross to the role.

“I was really clear in my mind that we would be able to attract top talent into these roles, which were traditionally London based,” he added.

After four years in the role, the vacancy at Natural England came up and Mr Cross became its chief executive. He said: “It felt like a natural progression. It was taking across many of the skills that I’d learnt and developed in all of my roles up until that point. It did a lot of the things that I was doing at the Marine Management Organisation but on land.”

The biggest challenge for Mr Cross was finding ways to bring nature to urban areas and ensure more people connected with it.

He said: “Nature isn’t just for people who live in the countryside. I was forever trying to find new ways of connecting with schoolchildren and people of all generations and bringing nature closer to them.”

Something that he remains most proud of is delivering the England Coast Path – giving people access to the coast.

He said: “One of my proudest moments was opening the England Coast Path underneath the footings of the Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge.

“We brought it right up into the heart of Middlesbrough and my own two kids cut the ribbon and opened the coastal path at Middlesbrough, which was the culmination of years and years worth of work.”

Mr Cross also spent time as an executive member of Defra’s (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). He said: “We managed a £2bn budget and 20,000 staff as a collective.”

Following his time in the civil service, Mr Cross helped set up the charity, Urban Green Newcastle.

“We took from Newcastle City Council, under lease, every single one of its parks right across the city and over 60 of its allotments and ran it without relying on the public purse,” he says.

Last year, Mr Cross was appointed chief executive of the Environment Bank, a nature restoration business based in York.

The new Environment Act has made biodiversity net gain (BNG) mandatory for new developments and infrastructure projects.

The Environment Bank leases land from the landowner and helps them turn that into space for habitat. In return, it owns the biodiversity credits from that land.

“It’s those credits that we sell to developers to help developments be more sustainable and we can sell them at any point over the next couple of years,” Mr Cross says.

The Environment Bank was founded by Professor David Hill CBE, who created the concept of biodiversity net gain in 2007 and has long campaigned for it to be mandated into planning law.

The York-based business is expanding rapidly. Recently, it made 20 new hires and now has a total of 26 staff.

“I’ve got another round of recruitment happening in the next couple of weeks so we’re bringing a further 16 people on board in the next eight to 12 weeks,” Mr Cross says. “Then I’ve got another round of about 26 people for whom I’ll be recruiting around October, November, December.”

The Environment Bank is rushed off its feet with landowners “grabbing these deals”, says Mr Cross.

“We pay more than the Government grant schemes that landowners are receiving at the moment,” he added. “There’s a tremendous appetite, which is wonderful.”

Mr Cross believes there has been a genuine shift in attitude when it comes to the environment.

He said: “Particularly since 2010, I think there has been an awakening in society. There’s real recognition now that we can’t continue to behave as we have behaved.”

Mr Cross added: “There’s an understanding that if we continue to trash the environment and have disregard for climate change, it will be detrimental to society as a whole.”

The chief executive of the Environment Bank says Britain simply has to hit its net zero targets.

“We have to stand up and make the changes,” Mr Cross said. “It’s one of the reasons why I was attracted to the Environment Bank.”

Curriculum vitae

Title: CEO of the Environment Bank

Date of birth: 07/11/1974

Lives: Guisborough, North Yorkshire

Favourite holiday destination: Lake Garda, Italy

Last book read: Stars Fell on Stockton by Brian K Ashcroft.

Favourite film: The Usual Suspects.

Favourite song: Imagine, John Lennon

Car driven: Mini Cooper

Most proud of: A few years ago I learnt to play guitar and now I play in a band. I love live music and enjoy watching the amazing talent we have here in the North of England. The first time I stood up and played guitar in a pub full of people was something I’m quite pleased about.

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James Mitchinson