Details of the Comprehensive Spending Review emerged today, a fortnight after the Budget (see here).  There were two stand-out headlines...

...cuts of between 25%-40% for unprotected departments such as Defra and Decc

...disposal of public land for 150,000 new houses

While these announcements will send tremors across Whitehall and have consequences for government activity across the country, there is also real jeopardy for nature.   Landowners, businesses and civil society organisations all have their part to play in addressing environmental challenges and the RSPB is obviously doing what we can through practical conservation and by inspiring action from others.  

But there are some things that only government can do and the spending review must not undermine its capacity to do its job.  We'll inevitably want to say more about this in due course, but my instincts are that to avoid seriously undermining its own nature ambitions, the government will have to do at least five things.

1. Protect the bits of the budget that deliver the most for nature especially the match funding of Countryside Stewardship which supports wildlife-friendly farming.  At the moment, Defra/the Exchequer has promised to supplement CAP funding to the tune of £558m up to 2020.  What's more, now feels a good time to enact the previous Secretary of State Owen Paterson's promise to transfer the maximum 15% from direct farm support to bolster these schemes which deliver the most public value for public money (see here).

2. Retain the capacity of agencies such as Natural England and the Environment Agency to enable them to fulfill their statutory obligations to protect our finest wildlife sites, meet water quality targets and recover our most threatened species.  Reform of agencies may be back on the table but before new talk of merger kicks off once again, I would simply repeat arguments about the need to decouple operational functions from regulatory functions (for example see here).

3. Value the contribution that thousands of volunteers make to providing the evidence about the health of the natural world by continue to provide support for some of our most important monitoring schemes.  In fact, go further and defend the departments remaining research budget.  The current Secretary of State, Liz Truss, has made the case for the value of data, so it would be smart to continue to invest in its collection.

4. Safeguard public land of high environmental value and don't trade it away to the highest bidder .  Go further and set the standards to others by improving the wildlife value of public land. 

5. Secure sufficient civil servant capacity in Defra and the Treasury to Initiate a review of innovative finance for nature.  The Natural Capital Committee's seven recommendations (here) would be an excellent place to start.

And one more thing, I hope that all civil servants re-read the NCC report which makes a compelling case as to why and how the natural environment underpins our prosperity.  The message remains that it makes economic sense to invest in nature.

Over the summer, we shall do  what we can to ensure decisions politicians make help rather than hinder ambitions to restore nature.  I'll return to this subject in due course.

In the meantime, what do you think we need to do to protect government's capacity to play its part in restoring nature?

It would be great to hear your views.  

  • Thanks both for your very helpful comments.  Work to do over the summer...

  • You need to start by accepting that this is nothing to do with the deficit - and all about a dogmatic desire to shrink Government in total - and that includes exiting whole areas of policy, of which conservation will be one if the Government can get away with it.

    What is to be done ?

    First I would suggest a forensic policy approach - identifying and questioning, through RSPB's own communications and through friendly MPs, each detail of the changes Government are trying to make and their impact on wildlife. Sustained, day in day out debate and opposition must supplement the occasional outbursts of fury which failed to dent the coalition over the last 5 years.

    Second, and you hint at it but it needs spectacularly strengthening, is the need to provide a compelling alternative narrative of a better environmental future for the country - and to spell out what that means to individuals. Going back through your blog, most of the building blocks are in place but are all too often presented as wonderful exceptions - they shouldn't be: link the less than 1,000 hectares of Ham Wall/ Avalon Marshes, for example, with the 100,000 ha of new wetland recommended by the natural Capital Committee and imagine the incredible environments that could be created for all of us, as well as insuring against the rising bill for flooding. Are houses such a threat were they built with conservation in mind, as in your partnership with Barrats - and even better if they came with the 200,000 has of new woodlands close to people recommended by the NCC... and so on.

  • As you say Martin the whole issue sends shudders down one and it seems unreasonable that the same Depatments, like Defra, should keep being targeted for the largest cuts to their budgets. I think you have pretty well summed up in your five points Martin, what is needed to protect government;'s capacity to restore nature.

    It might be worth seeing if there is any interelation between budget cuts and the sale of land. In other words will the revenue from the sale of land be credited towards budget cuts? The other point is do the Departments from which the biggest budget cuts are required have land to sell?

    I doubt that when Government Departments are evaluating what land they should sell that they will take into consideration its wildlife value. So mixed up in all this I am sure there will be some land of high wildlife value. There therefore needs to be some checking mechanism which gives the conservation bodies the right to comment on the proposed land sales before they proceed and if necessary the right to purchase the best parcels of land. This is a totally reasonable request as it is, after all, YOUR AND MY LAND, the government proposes to sell.