January, 2013

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Martin Harper's blog

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
  • Ding! Ding! Round 2 of the EU Budget talks: time to send a message to the Prime Minister

    On 7 February, round two of the EU Budget negotiations begins. For those of you that have not been following this saga, 27 Heads of State need to agree how to spend about a trillion Euros over the 2014-2020. Their meeting next week is the latest attempt to thrash out a deal. The last time they met, the bits of the Budget that offer the best value for taxpayers money and supported the environment, seemed to be most at risk of being traded away. 

    Our major concern remains the fate of funding which supports wildlife-friendly farming (the so-called Pillar II of the Common Agriculture Policy). This provides a lifeline for species such as turtle dove and cirl bunting as well as supporting farmers to deliver environmental public goods which the market doesn’t reward.

    We've produced this short video to explain the significance of the Budget:

    We hope that it inspires people to contact the Prime Minister and give him a clear message to agree a Budget that works for wildlife.

  • It's offsetting time again

    In an interview with The Times this weekend, the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, revealed his interest in establishing a scheme to offer planners the power to “offset” large infrastructure projects that harm wildlife populations.  This is by no means a new idea, but is obviously attractive to Mr Paterson as he looks to reconcile his twin objectives of supporting rural growth while improving the natural environment.  The prospect of exploring new ways to finance conservation projects is to be welcomed, but I thought I should offer a few words of caution. 

    Interest in conservation credits/biodiversity offsetting/habitat banking has grown in recent years. In 2009, the then Shadow Environment Secretary, Nick Herbert proposed a system of conservation credits. This proposal was backed by David Cameron and following the election it was one of the eye-catching proposals in the Natural Environment White Paper.  Six pilot projects have since been established to explore the concept.

    This surge in interest is unsurprising.  The economic crisis and political desire for economic growth has forced policy makers to explore new ways of enabling development and funding nature conservation. 

    Yet, at its heart, the principle of creating compensatory habitat for damage caused elsewhere has been around for decades.  It is even enshrined in law through the EU Nature Directives.  If developers are able to pass the tests set out in the directives (showing that where a development adversely affects a protected site/species, there are no alternative more environmentally benign ways of meeting the project's objective and that there are imperative reasons of overriding public interest for the development to proceed) then the developer is obliged to provide compensatory habitat to cover the damage that has been caused.  Experience suggests that between 3 and 10 times the amount of habitat lost is required to replace extent and functional quality.  Current guidance is that this new habitat needs to be in place prior to the development taking place.

    In our 2010 report on how we would finance nature conservation in an age of austerity, we dedicated a chapter to the principle of offsetting.  We recognised that there was then no system for offsetting damage to sites or species which were not covered by the EU Nature Directives and we were supportive of the principle of piloting the concept.  Our conclusion was that "A strong biodiversity offset market has the potential to reduce environmental damage from development, simplify the planning system and increase funding for conservation. Likely funding raised is £53 million a year."

    Yet, all the experience from similar schemes around the world suggests that we shall need a well regulated, mandatory national system with national standards which apply only to non-designated land.  Without clear rules the obvious danger is that while enabling damaging development to take place you risk deteriorating the overall stock of wildlife.

    When we wrote our report in 2010, there were over 600 offset banks worldwide and a conservative estimate of the global annual market size was $1.8-$2.9 billion.  This has doubtless grown since then.  What I do not know is whether there has been a net gain in biodiversity where these schemes have been operating. 

    So, my message to Mr Paterson is let the six pilots run their course and learn the lessons before rolling out any new scheme nationally.

    What do you think about the idea and practice of biodiversity offsetting?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • Shuffling the deckchairs (5): lessons from Wales

    Defra is currently consulting on whether to merge two of its agencies, Natural England and Environment Agency, or keep them separate.  Redesigning quangos may not be everybody's cup of tea, but as I have written before (here), the outcome could have huge significance for nature conservation. 

    We are particularly keen to ensure that the outcome of the review produces at least one organisation whose primary focus is to protect the natural environment and is able to give advice in public, free from political interference.   As I wrote before Christmas (here), we have been concerned about proposals to make Natural England take into account economic factors as well as impact on wildlife when advising on planning proposals and to reduce Natural England’s independence.

    There are similar issues facing the statutory nature conservation body in Wales but for different reasons. In Wales, the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) is being merged with the Environment Agency Wales (EAW) and the Forestry Commission Wales (FCW) to create a new body called Natural Resources Wales (NRW). The second phase of the legislation (the Second Order) to create this new body is currently being scrutinised by the Environment & Sustainability Committee of the Senedd (the National Assembly for Wales).

    The RSPB’s most significant and serious concern, based on legal advice we commissioned, is that the wording and caveats on the proposed Nature Conservation duty for NRW result in a weaker duty than that currently applying to CCW, and so is not compliant with the Public Bodies Act 2011. The Public Bodies Act 2011 is the legislative measure that allows Welsh Ministers to create the new body and transfer the existing functions of CCW, EAW and FCW to it. While they are allowed to make some modifications, the Public Bodies Act does not allow them to make widespread legislative changes. In particular, Welsh Ministers are not allowed to remove “any necessary protection” (Section 16(2)(a)). Our view is that a weakened Nature Conservation duty constitutes the removal of “necessary protection” for the wildlife and natural environment of Wales.

    The weak Nature Conservation duty is further compounded by the fact that the new statutory purpose for NRW (set out in the First Order to create the new body) is ambiguous. It implies that the new body must show benefits for people and the economy as well as environmental benefits when carrying out actions to conserve nature. This could seriously undermine the effectiveness of the NRW as often the economic and/or social benefits of conservation action are indirect or may not be immediately quanitified or realised. It also sets a dangerous precedent, as it implies that achieving environmental objectives and protecting the natural environment for its own sake are no longer sufficient.

    This begs the question, how will the Welsh Government, and the UK Government for that matter, meet the EU and international target to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity by 2020 (the Nagoya agreement), if the main bodies responsible for the natural environment, NRW and NE, are unable to put wildlife and the natural environment first?

    Just before Christmas, the news in Wales was of a leaked European Commission document criticising both the Welsh and the UK Governments over the consenting of the Pembroke gas-power station in the international important wildlife site of the Milford Haven Sound. In this case, the views of CCW were ignored and the permissions granted for the power station in a marine Special Area of Conservation without proper consideration of the impacts or respect for a host of international environmental laws. I believe that if Welsh Government sets up NRW without giving it that clear nature conservation purpose and with robust nature conservation duties, it will be at risk of many more infractions in the years to come. The UK Government would do well to take note of this case, as it seems the root of the problem was the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s initial permission for the power station in Pembroke without fully considering the environmental impact.

    The understandable political imperative to prioritise economic growth must not undermine the role or responsibilities of any environmental agency.  This is why, in Wales, we are calling on the Welsh Government to make the necessary changes to the draft Order to ensure the Nature Conservation duty is at least as strong as the current CCW duty and that the statutory purpose is amended to set out a clear and robust natural environmental remit for NRW. And this is why in England we shall continue to make the case for a strong independent champion for the natural environment through the triennial review consultation.

    These agencies must be free to do the job that we and wildlife need them to do: conserve and enhance biodiversity while also safeguarding the natural capital on which we depend.