My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
I have just returned from an excellent few days away with the family in the Black Mountains of Wales. The weather was dramatic but it did not stop us (including my newly intrepid six year old girl) climbing some hills. Standing on Hay Bluff overlooking the Wye Valley you can see how agriculture shapes the countryside (for the good and sadly for the bad).
It was a timely reminder of the role of the Common Agriculture Policy In driving change.
Earlier this month, I outlined a few big issues that the Government is currently wrestling with for its implementation of the next CAP. At the time, we expected a fairly imminent consultation. The Government clearly wanted to leave us on tenterhooks, but finally, they have released their proposals.
Dry and technical the CAP may be, but the decisions Government take will have a make or break influence on the prospects for some of our most iconic species and habitats. With this in mind, I outlined three key tests that we would use to judge their proposals on -
On the first point, the consultation seems sound, making it clear that the Government sees a “...strong case to take full advantage of the flexibility to transfer funds from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2 (15%)”. To us, and many others (see here, here and here for examples), this transfer is a no brainer. It’s as black and white as moving money so that the Government can spend it on something, rather than nothing.
Without a maximum transfer, the consultation makes it clear that the ambitions for their future agri-environment scheme would have to be “significantly reduced”, with a focus on just designated sites. This is the equivalent of sending the wider countryside up the creek without a paddle, and betraying all those farmers that have stepped up and shown what agri-environment schemes are capable of.
On the flipside, a full 15% transfer would allow for “landscape scale agreements across wider areas of the countryside”, helping to realise the vision that Professor Lawton set out in 2010. This is an exciting prospect, but as is made clear today, all hinges on this first decision.
The second point is equally key. Assuming Defra don’t take leave of their senses and they make the full transfer, they then have to decide how to spend that money. The consultation sets out four possible options.
We have long believed that rural development funding should be used to address clear and unambiguous areas of market failure, which provide the public goods that society needs from agriculture – wildlife, beautiful landscapes, access. Following this logic, we strongly support an environment focus for the next RDPE. Whilst growth objectives have other areas of funding dedicated to them (not least the multi-billion Structural Funds), agri-environment schemes are increasingly the only game in town when it comes to funding for conservation in the wider countryside.
The opportunities that an environmental focus provides are highlighted by the Impact Assessment accompanying the consultation. This makes it clear that of all the scenarios, an RDPE with an environmental focus, in conjunction with a 15% transfer, provides a higher net benefit than any other scenario. The affirmation that the “...benefits therefore increase the greater the level of transfer” is particularly satisfying.
As with most things that the Government does though, it’s not all rosy in CAP-land. If our three tests were hurdles, the first is on the way to being cleared, the second might be clipped, but the Government seem to be about to crash straight through the third.
Their approach to the greening of direct payments seems to be based on one that minimises the cost of delivery, focusing on cost efficiency as opposed to cost effectiveness, deciding that, “...the additional potential benefits that could be derived are likely to be outweighed by additional delivery risks and complexity for both farmers and enforcement agencies.”
So in order to save a few million in getting the money out the door to farmers, they’re apparently willing to undermine the best chance their likely to get to extract some value for the billions in public money that will go to farmers as direct subsidy.
We will carry on pushing Defra to revisit this decision, and support them to make the right decisions across the whole of the CAP. But we hope that we won’t be alone in this. The consultation, running from now until the 28th November, is the first and last chance the public will get to influence how Government spend £2billion a year in the English countryside, and the prospects for the wildlife that call it home.
If you want to make your voice heard, you can respond to the consultation by completing our e-action , or even wrestle with the official response form yourself.
Thanks Martin for an excellent explanation of the current CAP situation and consultation. You may rest assured I will be making my voice heard for nature in the next 4 weeks.