As Defra ministers explore how to realise their ambition to restore nature in a generation through their 25 year plan, I trust they are thinking about the relative merits of the different tools they have at their disposal to make it easy for people to do the right thing: regulation, incentives, market based instruments and persuasion (resulting in voluntary action).

Money is, of course, tight and the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review is set to make things more challenging.  In addition, most market-based solutions are still at the testing phase.  So, the relative merits of regulation and voluntary action are again subject to debate.

This is why we have today have launched a new report (here) into the performance of voluntary approaches in achieving policy goals.  

We undertook this research, the largest assessment of its kind, for the simple reason that how the Government chooses to tackle threats to nature and encourage enhancement is central to its effectiveness.  What is the best way to reduce harmful activities like habitat destruction, water pollution, wildlife crime and the spread of non-native invasive species and what is the best way to encourage people to work together to restore wildlife at a landscape-scale?

Concerns about the costs of regulation to business have led both UK and EU policymakers to promote the use of voluntary alternatives to regulation in seeking to achieve environmental their policy objectives. Jndeed, in the UK, we now have a policy of using regulation only as a last resort.

Yet, up until now there has been no evidence to determine the implications of this fundamental policy shift for important environmental protections.

What are the findings from the RSPB research?

My colleague Donal McCarthy led the research to understand whether such approaches actually worked in practise.  He looked at schemes from around the world and in a variety of sectors to see whether there were lessons to be learned or best practice principles to uncover.  

The results are pretty stark...

...over 80% of schemes were found to perform poorly on at least one performance indicator.

...the majority of schemes set relatively unambitious targets or failed to achieve their key targets. 

... many were undermined by low rates of private sector participation and the resultant lack of a ‘level playing field’ for those participants that sought to improve their performance.

Most significantly, the research found nothing to support the claim that voluntary approaches can be an effective alternative to regulation. The research also failed to uncover significant difference in performances between countries or between different economic sectors.

What the research did uncover were two common features for success with voluntary approaches: they succeed when private interests are aligned with social interests or where there is a real and credible threat of regulation. 

Do voluntary approaches provide a cheaper alternative?

A main motivation driving the enthusiasm for voluntary approaches has been an assumption that they are cheaper to administer than regulatory alternatives. Clearly a consequence of voluntary approaches is that the costs of monitoring and enforcement are transferred from the public to the private sector. 

We found no compelling evidence to suggest, for the schemes that actually work, these costs are lessened.

What does this mean for Defra’s ambitions for nature?

For me, this research confirms the centrality of regulation, such as the EU Nature Directives, in guaranteeing effective Government action to achieve its ambitions to restore and enhance biodiversity.  And that would mean fully implementing measures such as Article 3 of the Birds Directive and Article 10 of the Habitats & Species Directive which mandate action in the wider countryside to benefit the populations of protected species.

It does not, however, mean we should abandon our efforts to find more cost effective means to delivering public policy.  We will continue to support the Government’s efforts to improve the efficiency of regulation and will, of course continue to support existing voluntary schemes designed to meet their objectives.

Over the years, the RSPB has developed an impressive track record when it comes to innovative alternatives to command and control approaches.  For example, we were very active partners in the SCaMP (Sustainable Catchment Management) scheme, set up to change regulations to allow for different approaches to water quality management. 

With significant investment from United Utilities, and with agri-environment scheme funding from Natural England, SCaMP in Bowland delivered 7,000 ha of improved moorland and blanket bog management, new areas of upland native woodland, and wetland management

We’ve also been keen advocates of market based solutions, in preference to regulation, such as cap and trade schemes like the EU Emissions Trading Scheme and we were pioneering voices in the green tax debates – about using the fiscal system to encourage behavioural change, not just raise revenue. 

Currently we are pursuing innovative ‘payment for ecosystem services’ schemes, looking into the usefulness of ‘conservation covenants’ and working on new ideas to compensate for biodiversity loss through the planning system. 

We will remain innovators and seek new solutions but, where regulation is the most effective and efficient toll to adopt, we shall say so and expect governments to follow suit.  In that way, they will be doing what nature needs and what works for people.