Earlier this month, we set out three priorities for the single year spending review. It was always going to be a delicate balance for the Chancellor Rishi Sunak to deliver any kind of economic statement in such uncertain times - we all appreciate the need to focus on people’s lives and livelihoods right now. That said, our message was clear – if we need to invest in tackling the nature and climate emergency now or we will end up paying for it in the long run.  

Here’s a reminder of our priorities:

  1. Supporting local communities through nature-based solutions.
  2. Supporting jobs and skills through an environmental employment scheme.
  3. Supporting global ambition.

Our team has managed to do a rapid digest of the Chancellor’s announcements (both his speech and  the accompanying documents – see here) and below they provide their assessment of Rishi Sunak’s proposals.  This should be read alongside my take on the Prime Minister's ten point plan for a green industrial revolution announced last week.

  1. Supporting local communities through nature-based solutions.

Nature was conspicuous by its absence from the Chancellor’s speech today. The accompanying Spending Review document does have a section on Nature-based solutions but the Chancellor’s silence was telling. There is a lack of ambition and narrowness of focus, with just £92 million allocated for tree planting and peat restoration from the Nature for Climate Fund – a £640m pot that has already been announced. We calculate that £615m is needed annually restore and expand woodland, as well as peatlands and other habitats to meet nature priorities and tackle the climate crisis, so Rishi Sunak is a long way off the mark yet.

  1. Supporting jobs and skills through an environmental employment scheme.

While protecting jobs and tackling unemployment was quite rightly a major theme of this Spending Review, the document mentions the creation of green jobs just twice. The first time is as a product of the funding for tree planting mentioned above. The second as a product of the Ten Point Plan announced last week. That Plan included an extra £40m for the Green Recovery Challenge Fund. This was welcome investment into the sector but lacking in scale of ambition and again allocated from existing funding under the Nature for Climate Fund. Unfortunately, the Spending Review lacks any explicit funding for the kind of programme we called for under the National Nature Service. That programme has the potential to create 15,000 jobs in 2021 alone so this is a missed opportunity in the shadow of large scale unemployment.  

  1. Supporting global ambition.

As UNFCCC COP26 host (for climate) and a major stakeholder in CBD COP15 this was an opportunity for the UK to send a clear signal of intent. Our actions over the next 12 months can set the tone on the international stage but without any further detail of the UK Government's commitments to double International Climate Finance and a reduction in overseas development assistance spending overall that signal isn’t yet loud enough or clear enough.

The RSPB works very closed with partners in the UK Overseas Territories so we were also looking out for funding to support the unique natural environments of these special places. The confirmation of the uplift to Darwin plus, originally announced at the March budget, is good news but we need to know more about how that money will be programmed to have confidence that it can start to deliver for nature at a transformative scale.  And, despite the great news about the Tristan Marine Protection Zone ten days ago, we were surprised the settlement was silent about the future of the Blue Belt programme especially given the Prime Minister’s desire to furnish his international leadership credentials on the ambition for 30% of sea to be protected by 2030.

Some other notable announcements.

Outside of our priority areas there were some new and interesting developments.

There is an increase in funding for National Parks and AONBs. The numbers are small in the grand scheme of things but credit where credit is due and we trust that this will support improving nature in these iconic landscapes. 

As expected, the Budget settlement confirms “total farm support in England of £2.4 billion in 2021-22 to meet the government’s commitment to maintain the current annual budget to farmers in every year of this Parliament.”  Over time of course, we expect this money will reward farmers for delivering public goods – such as restoring nature or locking up carbon.

The new Infrastructure bank and the £4bn levelling up fund aren’t expressly ‘green’ but if appropriately designed with explicitly environmentally conscious mandates, they could be utilised as important tools in tackling the climate and ecological emergency.

Any detail on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund is good news but we need more clarity still and the green criteria need beefing up to help truly plug the gap left by previous EU funding for nature. The government has yet to clarify how it will replace the EU’s LIFE fund that has been so crucial to delivering innovative and effective nature conservation projects across the UK.

The government has announced welcome reviews to the Green Book to ensure that appraisals facilitate net zero investments and do not discourage investments needed to deliver long term priorities for the environment. However, these measures alone are unlikely to deliver the step change needed to address the nature and climate crises.

The National Infrastructure Strategy is light on natural infrastructure and wont yet deliver the full step change we need for a low carbon economy. That said, the fact that Net Zero and climate adaptation are a priority in the document is positive. Is it the full step change we need to see for a low carbon economy? Probably not, but the fact that decarbonisation is a priority is positive.

So how did the Chancellor do?

With very little truly new money for nature and poor marks against the nature priorities we identified ahead of time, it’s hard not to conclude that this was a missed opportunity. We know the huge boost that nature can deliver for the health of the population and the health of the economy but the Chancellor hasn’t taken advantage of those benefits with his Spending Review today. We have been clear that we need invest now in a future that is healthy, green, and thriving. What we got today is considerably wide of the mark.

*Image of cotton-grass blowing in the wind by Edward Makin (rspb-images.com)

  • With £100bn for HS2 to carve up our countryside, £27bn for new roads and only £1bn for home insulation everyone can see where this governments priorities lie - in enriching it's pals mostly.

    In passing, I just re-read your article in the spring 2015 issue of the RSPB magazine: 'Carelessness, indifference and greed'. You've never written a truer word.