After months of worry, speculation and campaigning we now have the headline news on the Comprehensive Spending Review announced by George Osborne at 1230 today.

Defra receive a 29% cut in resource spending.  These figures are over a four-year period but the pain starts now.  All government departments had large 'administration' cuts, and variable resource and capital cuts.  It seems Defra did well on the capital end of things - which is good news for flood defence budgets - and compensatingly less well on resource budgets where it had one of the bigger cuts.

Here I will concentrate on Defra's settlement but over the next few days I'll comment on the implications for wildlife on UK Overseas Territories, climate change action, environmental education and local government. 

The Defra Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman, has fought hard for the environment over the last few months, and quite honestly 29% is much better than had been feared by us and within Defra.  But it is difficult to feel that this level of cuts lives up to the Greenest Government Ever label - but that is hardly Ms Spelman's fault - the Treasury and the Prime Minister must answer on that point. 

There is one very good piece of news - our campaigning in favour of wildlife-friendly farming, particularly the Higher Level Scheme, has paid off and that pot of money will increase by 80% over the next four years.  And that is definitely thanks to Defra and the Ministerial team.  This will be achieved through a technical measure of adjusting the EU co-financing rate and takes advantage of the shift in value of the pound and euro.  It accomplishes the remarkable feat of increasing overall spending and yet reducing UK contribution. 

This year's spend on agri-environment schemes in England is the highest ever and that pot will continue to grow over the next three financial years.  It seems there will be enough cash for about 2000 extra HLS agreements in England each year.  This is good - not quite as good as it sounds because about  1000 of them are needed for farmers coming out of ESA and Countryside Stewardship agreements which are at the end of their natural lives (the agreements not the farmers) - but a real and significant increase.

We believe there is also scope, and appetite within Defra, to get better value for money from the Entry Level Scheme and we will be pushing for this to happen - we hear that ELS is included in Defra's effectiveness review.

And, although we will never be thanked for it, I truly believe that things would have been that bit worse for Defra and the natural world had not the RSPB been campaigning for a fair settlement for Nature.  To all of the RSPB members and supporters who signed Letter to the Future  (over 315,000 - wow!), emailed George Osborne, other Cabinet members or MPs or who supported the campaign in other ways - thank you so much!  You have our thanks, and if nature had a voice it would be thanking you too!

And farmers should be thanking the RSPB's members and those of other environmental bodies for speaking up for HLS funding - a subject on which NFU and CLA have been conspicuously silent throughout the last few months.

But 29% is still a socking great cut!    

What will these cuts mean in terms of wildlife in the countryside? We will need more detail and more time to evaluate - so we'll come back to it.  At least wildlife friendly farming can expand and, if ELS is reviewed and revised, those changes will help restore wildlife to the economically active countryside.

But right now - in headline terms - the RSPB would agree with what we think Defra Ministers and many Defra civil servants will be thinking - 'Not what we wanted, but better than we might have got!'.

Here are links to the Defra Press Release, the Treasury Spending Review Document, and some early news coverage from the Guardian

Anonymous
  • Yes yes, but what about the Governments plans to sell off for comercial exploitation large areas of publically owned forests (reported in the Telegraph) - quite apart from public access rights, what about the implications for bird species (and related environment)?  Obviously detail lacking currently - but surely initial stance should be wary at the very least.

  • GrahamHawker - welcome!  Fair points - but I didn't hear anyone saying that Ms Spelman had got it wrong until the results were out!  Easy to be wise after the event I think.  But we totally agree - the cuts across government will obviously make life difficult for people and nature alike.

    Disappointed - welcome!  I think you should read Mike Clarke's RSPB View again.  Your quote misses out one word by the way.  And you select one sentence from c600 words - the article was written before the size and nature of cuts were known and the article says we'll have to wait and see what happens.  

  • I agree that this generosity to Caroline Spelman is unwarranted. In addition I think that the blinkered view of the RSPB with reference to the proposed cuts across regions, communities and organisations is incredibly blinkered. I am pasting below the letter I wrote on a discussion forum today:

    The Chief Executive of the RSPB states in November's 'Birds' that "there is little doubt that savings can be made without doing too much harm" and he gives small government his enthusiastic support. He goes on to describe how an army of environmental volunteers can work to minimise the harm to nature that government cuts would inflict. For example, with the right farm management and the use of volunteers the decline of farmland birds can be influenced.

    But what about other effects of small government and the consequent massive spending cuts - like the increasing rural poverty which will be forced on people living in the countryside? (Perhaps it is the hope of the Chief Exec that as farmers become bankrupt and give up their farms, the land will revert to wild meadows and hedges and birds, if not people, will flourish?)

    And what about the RSPB's thousands of members who will have their household incomes slashed (not to mention their services)? Will the RSPB give them a subsidised membership so that they can continue to receive the magazine which praises the very measures that are decimating their families and communities?

    These cuts may even be affecting your members, Mr Chief Executive - don't make the mistake of assuming too much about the situations and attitudes of all RSPB members.

    I would have thought that as a voluntary organisation the RSPB should not be taking such a blatant political stance. However if the organisation wants to work with the government and support their massive cuts programme, they will have to do it without my subscription, and I sincerely hope that many others will make their views known in a similar way.

  • I think your being very generous to Caroline Spelman. Agree early and get stuffed. 29% cuts as opposed to the average 19%. It just looks like we have a very weak Secretary of State.

    Couple this with the local government cuts, who support many projects as well as managing important habitats in some country parks, and for people working at the local level this is likely to have worse effects than cuts to DEFRA, things are looking extremely bleak.

  • I so agree with Bob Philpot about the short time given to make a response to this!  Also I am tired of being asked to comment on 'the environment' as if it is a separate thing outside ourselves!  We are part of the environment, ecology or whatever you want to call it it isn't an optional 'add on' and the sooner governments of any colour realise this the better for our quality of life.

    gill