I spent Tuesday night being inspired by a talk from Dr Azzam Alwash, Chair of one of our Birdlife International Partners, Nature Iraq.  He spoke about his ten year campaign to restore the 5,000 square miles of Mesopotamian Marshes which had previously been drained under Saddam Hussein's regime.  It's quite a story full of hope and promise about what happens when good men and women decide to think and do the impossible. 

But I came down to earth with a bit of bump with the Chancellor's Budget yesterday.  In contrast to Azzam, the Budget offered little hope or inspiration for how we might tackle our natural defict at home.

Each successive fiscal statement reveals the UK economy to be in a worse state than anticipated.  Growth always comes in under forecast, borrowing remains above forecast and the time it will take to eliminate the budget deficit drifts like a mirage further out towards the horizon.  Given this context, it is understandable for the Government to place ever greater emphasis on the imperative for short-term growth.

Yes, we still argue that economic prosperity and environmental protection can, and must, go hand in hand.  Our long-term economic well-being depends on protecting the natural environment which underpins the economy for us and future generations.  Although there were some positive environmental promises in this Budget, such as the assurance to develop two carbon capture and storage projects, there were further elements which could lead to significant additions to the UK’s already burgeoning environmental debt.

Providing tax relief and easing planning restrictions for the development of shale gas could add considerably to the environmental load of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, unless the Government takes the firm step of removing coal from our energy mix. According to some sources, globally, the fossil fuel companies already have five times more ‘stored carbon’ on their financial books than the environment can handle. Adding more carriages to the runaway train of unsustainable climate change doesn’t sound sensible. Providing tax relief for the exploration of more carbon could clearly increase a debt that – unlike the financial deficit - can never be repaid.

Without care, the Chancellor’s commitment to the house-building programme and the investment of £3.5 billion a year on large infrastructure projects could have the potential to force us further into the red on the environmental balance sheet. But with careful planning it should be possible to avoid the most important natural areas. The debate has been brought into sharp focus this week at Lodge Hill, in Kent, where Medway Council wants to develop 5,000 homes on the most important nightingale site in England. The challenge will be to ensure that housing can proceed without paving over vital homes for wildlife. And by ensuring the implementation of green technology, such as sustainable drainage systems, it should be possible to minimise the wider environmental impact of such schemes.

And, as ever, there was more devil in the detail of the budget statement.  Defra was cut a further 1%.  In fact it seems to get cut every Budget.  Defra's budget in 2009-10 was £2.5 billion and its budget in 2014-15 is now projected to be £1.7 billion.  This is inevitably going to squeeze spending on the natural environment and makes the case even stronger for Ministers to make best use out of existing budgets, especially the Common Agriculture Policy.  We need Ministers to stick to their guns, bolster the Rural Development Programme and make it work hard for wildlife.  That said, I slightly dread the implications of the public spending review to be announced in June.

If only Mr Osborne could spend some time listening to Azzam Alwash.  Maybe then he'd start to think differently and be prepared to invest in nature.


  • You must have it wrong Martin, remember - this is "The Greenest Government Ever!"

    For my sins I helped to elect them but, I'll certainly be helping to remove them at the next election

  • Thanks, Redkite.  I can understand your reaction, but while we will continue to act internationally where we can make a material difference, I/we have not intention to give up the fight at home!

  • Excellent blog Martin. I agree with all you say. it is such a shame Mr Osborne refuses to contemplate the natural world in his investment plans in his  past and present budget strategies.  It maybe that some of the RSPB's efforts are better spent, at present, concentrating more on overseas work of the sort you highlight, where the money may go further and efforts maybe more productive.