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.
Back in 2005, the Government introduced a law that required people to ask for permission to protest outside Parliament. For many, this was an affront to our democratic right to make our opinions heard.
In response, the comedian Mark Thomas organised a series of “Mass Lone Demonstrations”. Hundreds of people applied for individual, simultaneous protests: some about environmental issues, like the need to reduce packaging waste; others protested about everything from “more modern art” to “ban modern art”! The point was that we should be allowed to make our point. It was fun and effective: the law was repealed in 2011.
Nearly ten years on, and with a different government in office, I’m reminded of the mass lone demonstrations by the Lobbying Bill.
This time, the threat is less tangible. There’s no outright ban on a physical expression of discontent. The problem with the Lobbying Bill, as I explained in previous blogs (here and here), is that in seeking to improve transparency and keep big money out of politics, it risks stifling legitimate campaigns in the run up to elections (for example our successful campaign for new marine laws in the run up to the 2005 election - see Nick Copping's image below).
The RSPB has been part of a brilliantly unified response from civil society, culminating in two reports of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement (here). The Government has conceded on some of the most unworkable aspects of the proposals, like the definition of political spending and a tangle of bureaucratic requirements. And last week, it was defeated in the House of Lords on the question of whether staff costs should count towards the limits on spending.
So the bill has been substantially improved, but it’s far from fixed.
One of the biggest problems that remains relates to collaborating in a coalition. The bill would require every organisation that takes part in a coalition campaign (such as the marine bill campaign) to add the cost of the whole campaign to its own spending limit, if the campaign could affect an election. The RSPB rarely campaigns on our own and so we would be caught by this.
Effectively, the wider the concern about an issue in the run up to an election, the less we will be able to collaborate. The strength of charities is often in our united voice: for example when the RSPB spoke out about the State of Nature with 25 other nature charities we reached far more people than we could have alone. These new rules risk reducing our common cause to a series of mass lone demonstrations.
The coalition rules are particularly risky in light of the other changes that the Government will make: cutting the overall spending allowed by 60%, creating a new limit for constituencies, and adding new activities to those that we have to account for.
Of course, the matter of election spending is extremely serious, as was the need to protect against terrorism in 2005. In 2010, the American Supreme Court lifted restrictions on financial contributions to federal campaigns. As Lady Williams pointed out in the Lobbying Bill debate, in 2012, $6 billion was spent in U.S. elections by non-party funders—an extraordinary sum. It seems sensible to me to set limits on the amount of cash that can be thrown around at election time and to have real openness about who is spending what.
But this bill goes too far in the other direction. The House of Lords has another chance to improve the bill at Third Reading this week. I hope the peers live up to their reputation as defenders of our constitution, so that at the RSPB we can build on our 125 years of political (but not party political) campaigning to help "stop the rot, protect the best and restore the rest".
Miles King kindly reminded us all through his blog last week (see here) that the new Chairman of Natural England, Andrew Sells, starts work this week.
What a fabulous job: leading government's statutory body for nature conservation. But it is not the easiest time to take the helm.
Miles chose to focus his advice on Natural England's human resources (both Board and staff). Mr Sells can do little about the economic and political context within which he is working and he is unable to reverse the cuts that the Agency has suffered over the past few years. But he inherits a dedicated and talented workforce and can, of course, help create the right conditions for success.
I am sure advice will be flying in from all quarters and the Secretary of State will no doubt have shared his expectations.
Ouse Washes RSPB Reserve. Bewick's Swans at dawn (rspb-images.com)
To my mind, however, his best guide can be found in the legislation that established Natural England - the NERC Act. This outlines Natural England's core purpose: "to ensure the natural environment is conserved, protected and enhanced for the benefits of present and future generations, thereby contributing to sustainable development". The message is simple - do and say whatever nature needs, irrespective of the economic context.
A further steer can be found in government's international commitments (the Aichi targets and the EU Nature Directives), and domestically in the outcomes in Natural Environment White Paper and England BIodiversity Strategy (see here). You cannot get clearer set of performance targets for sites, species and habitats. Focus on these and Natural England will help us live up my conservation mantra of 2014 (see here): stop the rot, protect the best and restore the rest.
I look forward to meeting Mr Sells - he is due to visit the Lodge soon. The RSPB wants and needs Natural England to be successful and I wish him the very best of luck.
Thanks to Wednesday's parliamentary debate on farmland birds, we now have a few more clues about how the Government will be rolling our the new Common Agriculture Policy package in England.
Sir John Randall, former government Whip, MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, champion for marine conservation and birder called the debate and eloquently put a spotlight on the challenges facing famland wildlife. Parliamentary protocol obliges a response from the Minister and on this occasion the honour fell to George Eustace MP.
As with the perversity of the CAP itself, there is a danger that people become inured to news of the calamatous declines in farmland birds (species such corn bunting - down 88% over the past 40 years, turtle dove - down 93% , lapwing - down 45%, starling - down 88% and grey partridge - down 91%) so it was great that Sir John used his political voice for nature and encouraged others to do the same.
Starling murmuration by Andrew Mason (rspb-images.com)
As ever, the transcript of the debate was posted online by Hansard and you can read it here.
The headlines from the Minister's response included...
...the Government still intends to review the position (over transfer of funds from Pillar 1 to 2) in 2016, with a view to moving to a full 15% modulation
...the new environmental land management scheme will be more targeted and focused that Environmental Stewardship
...the new ‘mid-tier’ will “... identify areas of particular priorities for given objectives and incentivise the right options; we call that the directed option choice”.
...“Biodiversity is among the things that I want to promote as we design NELMS. I want to make sure we have those directed options, so that there must be certain options, from a particular list, that will prioritise the recovery of farmland birds".
...“the directed option choice will enable us to encourage farmers to maximise the environmental outcomes on their land, in response to the agreed environmental priorities in their area, rather than simply seeking the lowest-cost or most convenient options.”
...“we shall adopt a landscape-scale approach to establishing NELMS. I hope that that will result in some critical mass and wildlife corridors, and a concentrated improvement in habitats to sustain the recovery of certain bird species.”
...“we shall prioritise biodiversity as we design the new environmental land management scheme.”
This is promising and reflects much of what we want from new scheme. But the hard truth remains that less of the farmed area of England will be covered by future schemes. Widespread but declining species such as skylark (down 64%) may need a different approach. Wouldn't it be great if all farmers were obliged to provide habitat for these species (such as skylark patches) as a condition of their Single Farm Payment?
I am delighted that Sir John called the debate and we look forward to welcoming the Minister to Hope Farm to share our experience (on recovering species such as skylark) so that the new CAP works hard to recover farmland birds.
What else should the Minister have said?
It would be great to hear your views.