The Super Year of 2020 isn’t quite panning out as anticipated.  First the floods and now coronavirus is dominating the headlines.

Despite growing and understandable fears about the impact of the epidemic, the UK Government must find time to retain its focus on backing up its promises to restore nature in a generation. 

This means ensuring the package of Brexit laws (for Environment, Agriculture and Fisheries) passing through the Westminster Parliament are as environmentally tight as they need to be.

But is also means that the UK Government must find the resources to back its pledge to make the UK the ‘cleanest, greenest country on Earth’.  That starts this week, when on Wednesday the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, delivers his first Budget.

Here are two tests to assess whether the UK Government is being true to its environmental promises.

First, it must address existing funding shortfalls, and reverse the budget cuts that have stymied conservation efforts.  Excluding increases specifically to address Brexit, Defra’s budget has been cut by 40% since 2009.  This has led to annual expenditure on biodiversity declining from a peak of £692 million in 2013/14 to its current level of £456 million (see the graph below taken from the Office for National Statistics annual report).   And it is worth recalling that our exit from the European Union means that we are likely to lose up to £428 million of environmental grant funding annually.   Currently we estimate the government needs to provide or stimulate spend of £3 billion per year to restore and enhance nature.

The serious under-investment in conservation action has had a real impact on the status of habitats and species on the ground.  According to the government’s figures, there has been a net decrease in the area of SSSIs in favourable condition in England; down from 44% in 2003 to 38.9% in March 2019. The 2019 State of Nature Report echoes this bleak picture, with 15% of species assessed at risk of extinction from Great Britain, declines in species’ abundance and occupancy, and the UK being likely to meet only five of 20 Aichi targets adopted under the Convention on Biological Diversity. If we are to meet our biodiversity objectives, government spending on conservation action must increase.  The proposed shift of farming incentives towards environmental protection signalled in the Agriculture Bill is essential, but we anticipate replacement funding is necessary to halt ongoing declines. 

And this also applies to our statutory agencies who need to capacity to do the job they are given.  It is madness that politicians accept the fundamental role of protecting our finest wildlife sites as the foundation of nature conservation, yet Natural England does not even have the resources to monitor SSSIs let alone ensure they are effectively managed.

Second, spending must be in line with existing policy commitments, for example those set out the 25 Year Environment Plan and Environment Bill.  While we expect to see welcome headline announcements about a new nature for climate fund (£640 million promised in the election manifesto), a new fund to support global biodiversity conservation efforts (eg £500 million Blue Planet Fund announced in the manifesto), and funding to tackle flooding, will the Chancellor commit the long-term funding needed to deliver the additional restoration commitments?  For example, the 25 Year Environment Plan sets goals of “restoring 75% of our one million hectares of terrestrial and freshwater protected sites to favourable condition” and “creating 500,000 hectares of new habitat”.

The anticipated nature for climate fund could help go some way to meeting these objectives but its imperative funding is targeted at interventions that also genuinely deliver improvements for biodiversity.  The RSPB’s mapping of nature and carbon-rich habitats has highlighted the importance of our uplands and our coasts.  While much of the political attention has thus far been on tree-planting schemes (which clearly need to be the right trees int he right place, managed in the right way), peatland restoration and saltmarsh creation can deliver significant climate benefits due to carbon storage, flood alleviation as well helping threatened wildlife.  

So these are to the two tests: reverse declines in public spending on nature and back up strong political commitments to restore nature in a generation with adequate resourcing.

One final point is to ensure that the UK Government sounds consistent and coherent on the environment.  Too often, governments lean one way on the economy and then lean another when wishing to show off their environmental credentials.  There is a fear that the Chancellor may announce a new “Red Tape Challenge” which his predecessor signalled at the autumn 2019 Conservative Party Conference.  At a time when the eyes of the world will be on the UK Government as hosts of the 26th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, scheduled to take place in Glasgow in November this year, it would not look good for the UK Government to wage war on regulation and do anything that jeopardises environmental standards.

Action on the environment requires good regulation and sound investment to penalise environmentally damaging activity and encourage people to do the right thing.  I trust that this message will be reinforced by the Chancellor this week.