June, 2013

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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
  • Reshuffling the deckchairs (7): a verdict on the outcome of the triennial review of Natural England and Environment Agency

    Last summer, the Government initiated a review of  the Environment Agency and Natural England. Yesterday, it published the results of its review.

    We argued that any review should improve the agencies' abilities to meet the ambitions set out in the Natural Environment White Paper.  Has it achieved that?

    It has been clear that some sections of the Government saw this as an opportunity to reduce costs, reduce the number of quangos and quieten any pesky bodies who might get in the way of commercial interests.  The question of whether to merge EA and NE dominated the discussions.
    The review has taken a year to complete. This is not a great use of taxpayers' money and no way to motivate staff in organisations that are already feeling the squeeze from hefty cuts.  This level of uncertainty is not conducive to high performance, particularly if you feel obliged to continuously prove yourselves to your paymasters.

    For all that, the review is now complete.  And the good news is that Natural  England and the Environment Agency rightfully remain as two separate agencies.   They have distinct, important jobs and can now be free to get on with them.  Both organisations have excellent staff and I am glad their independence was defended by their advocates in government.

    But, if you delve into the detail, there are a few nasty surprises about how the Govenment wants the agencies to operate.

    1. There is continued talk about  the agencies having a duty to support economic growth. The whole point of agencies is to provide specialist advice. In the case of Natural England, this should mean providing impartial scientific advice on ecological matters decision-makers. Ecologists should not be expected to factor economic considerations into their advice.  This not only undermines their scientific integrity and impartiality, there is a very real danger of ill-informed decisions, which fail to safeguard our legally protected wildlife and habitats.

    2. The report highlights the need for ‘more stretching targets for reducing regulatory burdens’. Time and again, the value of the natural world to our economy is laid bare. Defra’s own research shows that biodiversity-related regulations in England have a benefit-cost ratio of almost 9:1. Meanwhile, the net direct costs are only a small fraction of total turnover of agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. Despite this, some in Government seem fixed on a race to the regulatory bottom that will severely undermine the sustainability of our economy.

    3. The report talks about consolidating the planning functions of the Environment Agency and Natural England. In such a scenario, how do you maintain transparency? Part of the rationale for separation is to maintain transparency where there might be conflicting advice. For example, in a case of flood defence v habitat restoration, how do you ensure that ‘a single conversation’ for developers doesn’t mean one agency doing what two agencies are needed for? This sounds a little like a merger by the back door.

    There are only so many ways in which you can protect wildlife: incentives to encourage people to do the right thing, penalties to get them to stop doing bad things, pricing natural assets and creating a market in which to trade them or... exhortation.  The Chancellor has confirmed that there is no money. If the Defra spending axe falls in the way we predict, by 2015-16 Natural England will be about half the size it was in 2009.  Markets for natural assets are either a long way off (eg for carbon rich soils or water resources) or inapporpiate (for species).  So, no markets, much less money, and fewer laws.  That leaves exhortation - good old-fashioned persuasion.  And, as Professor Sir Bob Watson once said, no environmental problem has ever been solved solely by voluntary means. 

    Failing to invest properly in the natural world will either sell us short or, worse, come back to haunt us.  And it means we shall undoubtedly leave our natural environment in an impoverished state for our children to grow up in, which is counter to the ambition set out in the Natural Environment White Paper.

    We are where we are. 60% of species declining (State of Nature Report), nature's life-giving services being eroded (Natural Capital Committee) and the slow abdication of the State's responsibility for any of it. 

    In the short term, we may have to make do with the decisions that have been made: use existing money well, prevent bad things from happening and be creative about how to get new investment. 

    We are sleepwalking into an environmental catastrophe and it is time to wake people from their slumber.  Not just politicians, but businesses, landowners and, yes, you and me.

    We need a new deal for wildlife and we need it fast.

  • How to avoid nature conservation 'kerplunk'

    The natural environment took two big hits yesterday: Defra fared particularly badly in the spending review and we also received final confirmation that European politicians had failed to green the Common Agriculture Policy. 

    First, the Spending Review: with a 10 percent cut, DEFRA was once again amongst the Departments hardest hit by the Chancellor.  The cuts announced are on top of the deep cuts already made in comprehensive spending review in 2010. DEFRA has already shouldered a disproportionately large cut of 30% in real terms between 2010-15. This took their budget  down from £2.4 billion in 2010/11 to £1.8 billion in 2014/15. Due to underspend, this was then revised to £1.7 billion. Yesterday's announcement takes its budget down to £1.6 billion for 2015/16, which is nearly half its 2010 level in real terms.

    First row shows Defra budget in £bns [adjusted for inflation to the 2011 level].
    Final three figures are projected. Second row shows cumulative percentage cut since 2010.

    The CSR announcement only sets out the headline figures. It is now up to the individual Departments to decide where those cuts will fall and that detail may emerge later this week. However, we can be sure they will not be shared around equally and that the costs to conservation are likely to be even larger than the headline figure. We have good reason to be concerned when The Times reports a Defra insider saying “We’re past efficiencies and into very difficult decisions. Flood defence, animal and plant health can’t be touched — they are crucial, as we have seen in recent years. It’s the ‘nice to have’ stuff that will have to go.” That's probably bad news for Natural England (whose future will be announced imminently) and bad news for some of the core functions they perform.

    Clearly Defra is not alone in suffering cuts on this scale and with the economy in the shape it's in it we would be foolish not to expect the coat to get cut to fit the cloth.  However the State of Nature report published in May laid the facts bare about the worrying declines in our native species. Without investment in the future of our natural environment the situation will only get worse.

    Second, the CAP:  European Ministers yesterday agreed the final CAP package.  And it's pretty depressing.  Commissioner Ciolos' promise of a greener CAP has failed to materialise.  Promises of tougher environmental conditions on farm support payments have been watered down to render them meaningless while it will now be down to the discretion of individual Member States to do what they can with the small percentage of the budget designed to support wildlife friendly farming.  This will do little to help address the fact that Europe has 300 million fewer birds than it did forty years ago.

    We are now appealing to Owen Paterson, and his counterparts in the devolved administrations, to use their full powers to reward those who are willing to really deliver the most for wildlife and the environment.  The Secretary of State was one of the few voices in Brussels calling for more fundamental reform.  It will now be down to him and his colleagues in the devolved administrations to make the best of a bad deal and bolster schemes designed to support wildlife friendly farming.  We may hear more about the Secretary of State's intentions later this week as we also await the results of the triennial review of Natural England and the Environment Agency. 

    Given the amount of upheaval there has been over the past few years, there is a real concern that we are embarking a dangerous version of nature conservation kerplunk where the straws of environmental protection are being withdrawn meaning that (species) marbles will continue to fall. 

    I am increasingly convinced we need a radical rethink about the way all politicians view and support the natural environment.  I oultined the bare bones of this last week, but once the dust has settled on this week's wave of announcements I shall reflect further on what I think is needed.

    Until then, it would be great to hear your perspective on yesterday's announcements. 

  • Spending Review 2013 - a preview

    Later today we shall hear the results of the now traditional Westminster sporting spectacle of the Spending Review.

    The Chancellor is due to announce the departmental spending settlements for Whitehall for the period 2015-16. While much of the commentary will focus on the winners and losers in the Cabinet, there are real consequences, not least, for the State's ability to protect the environment.

    We are not expecting any major surprises from today's announcement (the 10% ballpark figure has been known for some time) but it is worth remembering the context.

    In the last CSR, DEFRA volunteered to shoulder a 30% real terms cut between 2010 and 2015. This took their budget from £2.4 billion in 2010/11 down to £1.8 billion in 2014/15. Due to DEFRA underspend, this has now been revised down to £1.7 billion. We will be keeping an eye on whether spending for 2014/15 is revised downwards again. If DEFRA has negotiated an 8% cut for 2015/16, its budget will be closer to £1.5 billion. This is around a 40% cut in real terms, but the costs to conservation are likely to be much larger as these costs will not be shared equally around the Department. Flooding, for instance, which represents a large chunk of DEFRAs budget, is effectively ring-fenced. The UK has an agreement with insurers who guarantee to provide affordable flood risk insurance to all households in exchange for flood defence spending from Government. That agreement ends very soon and the thought of hundreds of thousands of homeowners suddenly finding their homes uninsurable will have made a strong argument for the Secretary of State in his negotiations with the Treasury.

    A glance over last year's DEFRA budget highlights the vulnerability of other areas of DEFRA spending. Natural England, for example, was asked to make a 38% cut after the last CSR. There must be a real danger that further cuts will damage some of its core services (e.g. monitoring, enforcement of the law, providing advice on the impacts of damaging development, supporting farmers who want to do more for wildlife, identification of Marine Conservation Zones, etc).

    George Osborne announced in his post-election ‘emergency’ Budget 2010 that the budget deficit would be balanced within four years. That is now forecast to happen in 2017-18, leaving us still four years away from achieving the target. This economic downturn is taking a lot longer to fix than many expected and, particularly given the Labour party's new position of sticking with current goverment's spending plans, we need to get used to the idea that we could be living in what some refer to as an "age of austerity" for a long time to come yet.

    Yet, even when spending is tight there is still a valid debate about what constitutes the right level of spend for the environment. As I have argued through this blog (see here and here) - it pays to invest in wildlife. And, irrespective of today's announcement, it is this debate that needs to be resuscitated with each of the political parties.

    Watch this space for our reaction to today's announcement.