How to avoid nature conservation 'kerplunk'

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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

How to avoid nature conservation 'kerplunk'

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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. 

  • Years of governmental profligacy coming home to roost sadly.  And no surprises about the CAP 'reforms' either.  Now coming round to the view that the sooner we are able to decide and implement our own national policy prescriptions for fisheries and agriculture the better.  

    Our population currently around 63m, is forecast to grow to around 80m by 2050 and over 100m by 2100.  Feeding, housing and entertaining this growing population and conserving nature at the same time will require concerted, and above all properly joined-up collaboration from all governmental, conservation and agri-industrial bodies - not to mention all the other stakeholders eg landowners, land managers, conservationists, urban and rural dwellers, fishermen, field sports adherents, gamekeepers, academics, Joe public, uncle Tom Cobley and all.  We have got to stop the naked politicking, bickering and finger pointing that seems to pervade environmental debate and genuinely engage with each-other if the seemingly inexorable decline of our natural capital is to be avoided.  This will require transparency, inclusivity, compromise, some version of 'sustainable intensification' (perhaps involving GM technology) and less dogmatic, entrenched behavior all round.  And it won't be easy.

  • If the government believes it is possible to have better public services at lower cost, can we get more environmental performance from our fewer green pounds?  Yes, provided we use our resources wisely (to think I once thought owls were wise).   The big challenge must be to increase ‘environmental traction’; take the message: that wildlife should matter to us all, out into the street, to the 'environmentally disenfranchised' – to the many people in our society for whom ‘austerity’ is a way of life; to all those who feel they have no stake in nature and to those for whom the natural environment is irrelevant day to day, especially many young people.  For this evangelical project it would be a good idea to enlist all the passion and fervour at our disposal (trusting it has not become too dampened by our science), rather than sit on our perches and keep twittering to each other.

  • I think in these times of financial crisis when the country is so in debt that the interest it pays on what it owes is so colossal that the ordinary person cannot take it in then like everyone else conservationists have to pay for what they want and enjoy with their own money.

    Without fail almost everyone else pays from their own pocket for their own pleasures and hobby's so I can never understand why hiding behind a conservation banner under the excuse everyone benefits makes conservation people think they are the exception.

    Those of us who benefit most from conservation have to fund it from our own pockets.Almost without exception if conservationists really wanted to we could all find another £100 each but the problem is would it be used wisely or just go on bureaucracy,all these organisations need to get more efficient first before they go on and on about wanting more money.I bet most of the people near the top of these organisations drive bigger cars that are less efficient than those of their members of course all on expense accounts funded by those members.

  • It's not good news but I must say that Natural England needed looking at closely given the poor decision making they've been guilty of.

  • It is all very worrying Martin. There are times when one has to despair at politicians. Just now this is particularly so, given these most important issues and given they are probably applicable across most of the EU states. I think you are 100% right about trying to alter the way politicians view wildlife and the environment, but this won't be at all easy. They seem very focused on bullets and bombs at present and all that entails. Anyway do not give up in the slightest, although it is so dispiriting at present, as you say, we must see what can be salvaged in the next few weeks and carry on the fight. Maybe we need look at improving the way conservation organisations work together so that our voice is that much more effective.