The tension at the heart of government

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

The tension at the heart of government

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In the space of just three hours yesterday, the tension at the heart of government was revealed warts and all.

First, I chaired a highly entertaining and informative marine question time with the Biodiversity Minister, Richard Benyon.  We wanted to put him on the spot over his plans for delivering a network of marine protected areas.  Ever positive and full of passion, Richard impressed the assembled audience of RSPB supporters as well as those who watched online (yes, we've tumbled into the twenty-first century by airing this as a webcast). 

Richard recognised that the timetable was slipping and that more needed to be done to protect more than 20% of our seas. He also acknowledged that we would not give up until there was a network of sites to protect the feeding and roosting areas for seabirds. 

Is Defra moving fast enough? No.  Do they have a convincing business plan? Not yet. Can Richard Benyon deliver?  With support, yes and this is why we gave him this little momento of the event - an image of a common tern made up of the 50,000 signatories to our latest marine petition. 

Within an hour of this event, my bubble of optimism was burst by the Chancellor's Autumn Economic Statement.  Mr Osborne did not pull any punches.  He bemoaned the burden of ‘endless social and environmental goals’ on industry and described the Habitats Regulations as a ‘ridiculous cost on British business’, claiming that they amounted to ‘gold plating’ on European legislation. Defra is now set to carry out a review of the regulations.

The Chancellor’s attack on vital environmental regulation is below the belt and shows how short sighted his policy for growth is.  These regulations have been in place for 17 years and they have not been a brake on development. Many large scale projects have gone ahead in that time and this legislation has ensured that they have not trashed some of the most important wildlife sites in Europe.

The Davidson report carried out under the previous Government in 2006 looked at the claim that the Habitats Regulations had goldplated European legislation, and it found there was no case to answer.

Clearly the chancellor believes that he can bring about a quick fix of the economy by allowing unrestrained growth to trample over our precious natural environment. 

He also failed to rule out the development of an airport in the Thames Estuary saying the Government would look at all options for a new airport hub, except a third runway at Heathrow.  This signals a u-turn as the Coalition Agreement had ruled out new runways in the south-east. The Thames Airport would be an act of environmental vandalism and would further undermine the Government’s commitment to a low carbon future.

The Treasury’s plan is a simple one – let’s build our way out of recession.

For me, this marks the biggest backward step in environmental and planning policy for a generation.  It simply serves as a short term economic sticking plaster on a problem which requires a long term plan for effective, sustainable growth.

If only Mr Osborne would come and talk to RSPB supporters.  They'd put him right.

What did you think of the Chancellor's Economic Statement?  Would you like to be Biodiversity Minister in these austere times?

It would be great to hear your views.

Comments
  • Sooty, you make a good point.  And oddly, that is what to a certain extent happens already.  The many charities from the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust and National Trust all depend to a large extent on the voluntary donations from members of the public.  In many ways we are already substituting government delivery.  There are, however, some things that only governments can do and this includes setting policy and agreeing legislation.  Unfortunately, it pains me to say it but even the RSPB cannot change the law.

  • Well do not think you will probably like my thinking but the facts are we all had the good times,we all lived beyond what we were earning so we all have to put up with the hard times and I mean all of us.There is absolutely no money and it could get worse.

    We do of course have the answer in our own hands as compared to lots in the world we are rich considering all the fancy goods we all have so the answer is instead of going to the government with moan after moan and demanding or begging we will have to fund it from our own pockets so it is as simple as do we have cheaper holidays and/or less/cheaper contracts for our PCs,phones etc and fund wildlife or carry on regardless and let wildlife suffer.