The RSPB is lucky enough to employ three economists.  And they like nothing better than trawling through autumn and spring budget statements.  The fun begins after the Chancellor sits down as that is when the detail is published online.

Here are a five things that the team has picked out...

...Public spending outlook remains dire.  Since 2010, government departments have seen their budgets cut by an average of approximately 10%, although substantially bigger cuts have been seen by some departments (including Defra). Departmental spending will continue to fall in 2014-15 and 2015-16 as previously announced, meaning that by 2015-16, Defra will have seen cuts of close to 40% in real terms since 2009-10. Unless the Government of the day resorts to tax increases, further cuts will be required for at least more two years.  To help deliver further reductions, the government plans to continue to pursue “an ambitious package of efficiency and reform” in the next Parliament, seeking a further £10 billion of 'efficiency' savings by 2017-18 (see here).   Some have described these forthcoming cuts as 'apocalyptic'.  While many will accept that it has been possible to find efficiency savings without affecting front line delivery, it is difficult to see how organisations like Natural England will be able to fulfil their statutory responsible if they face further deep cuts in their spending.  

...The government has said that it will set ambitious targets for the release of public sector land between 2015 and 2020 with capacity for up to 150,000 homes.  The slight problem is that some of this land is of high environmental value.  In a recent response to a parliamentary question, Environment Minister George Eustace confirmed that the Ministry of Defence alone manages 71,74.5 hectares of land notified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.  Now, one might think that this SSSI land would be safe from development given the safeguards in the National Planning Policy Framework and the legal duty (through the NERC Act 2006) on public bodies to have regard to biodiversity yet, the Ministry of Defence, in cahoots with Medway Council, was happy to see its SSSI land at Lodge Hill put forward for housing development.  We shall be seeking extra safeguards to ensure that public land of SSSI value is not traded away so easily.

..trailed before the speech, the government has published its new “long-term” programme of investment in flood defences, re-announcing  £2.3 billion of capital funding to over 1,400 flood defence schemes over the next 6 years. It can be found here. To further encourage private sector investment in this programme, the government will legislate to ensure that business contributions to flood defence schemes are tax deductible.  Given growing expectation of more extreme weather, it is understandable that some, such as the NAO, have argued that money for flood risk management is at a 'bare minimum'.  Equally, I question whether any political party has yet gripped the need for a longer term more transformational approach to flood risk management.   We have recently released a report called  "Floods on Focus"  (here).  This is a collection of essays reflecting on the experience of the 2014 floods.  In one of the essays, Jap Flikwert advocates the approach that the Dutch adopt - a transformational shift to long-term resilience through a programme called Room for the Rivers. This programme is planned for and delivered over decades.  It is this sort of long-term thinking that we need from our politicians.

...£15 billion is being committed between 2015-16 and 2020-21 to continue the transformation of the Strategic Road Network.  We have been aware of many of these schemes for some time but we are still some way off getting to grips with detailed plans.  There does seem to be a  general recognition that damaging environmental impacts on key wildlife and natural heritage areas, including several national parks (South Downs, Peak District, Broads) should be avoided.  This is, of course, good news.  In bringing forward detailed proposals, the impacts on key wildlife and natural heritage areas must be fully considered from the outset and avoided through careful routing and design. That said, we do remain concerned over potential impacts on the South Pennine Moors SPA/SAC from the proposed Trans-Pennine route.  I have a feeling that these proposals will keep our conservation officers busy for months to come.  And, of course, the wider picture is that new roads lead to more traffic and more greenhouse gas emissions - we want to see the Government invest in low carbon transport instead.  Alas, it appears that between 1997 and 2013 the cost of motoring fell by 9% and the cost of domestic flights fell by 43%. In contrast, the cost of bus and coach travel rose by 28% and the cost or rail travel rose by 22%.

...a failure to acknowledge the role that nature plays in underpinning our economy.  This came as no surprise.  But we desperately need more political focus to tackle our ecological deficit.  Tomorrow, the Office for National Statistics will publish its latest set of biodiversity indicators.  It will be clear that the Government is not on track to meet its international commitments to recover threatened species and protect our finest wildlife sites.  The Chancellor has, today, offered nothing to help meet these commitments and the prospect of further cuts to Natural England does little to give confidence that we can back on track any time soon.  Over the coming months, we need to give politicians the incentive (through voter pressure) and to find the tools (through innovative finance and policy solutions) to act for nature.

As Nick Molho, the Executive Director of the Aldersgate Group (here) has said, "There is no shortage of evidence showing that coherent and ambitious action on the environment makes economic sense…put simply, the value of nature is too important in its own right, and for our economy and people's lives for it to be used as a political football”.

What did you think of today's autumn statement?

It would be great to hear your views.

  • The papers yesterday reported that Danny Alexander was getting a bit confused about whether this was new money or old money (like Gordon Brown, top marks for recycling old announcements !) so his special advise helped him out - with a scribbled comment in the margin 'No, its Monopoly money !' which, of course it is, as this Government will spend virtually none of it.

  • Just to add a ray of economic brightness, hopefully. That is the fall in the price of crude oil world wide. While this will not help global warming it should help to render biofuels much less financially attractive and perhaps contibute to their demise if the oil price stays low for long enough. Of course this is a world economic factor and has nothing to do with Mr Osborne.

  • I thought the autumn statement, like the weather at the moment here in the south east, awful. It was also very depressing as well as short sighted.I think the two factors I found in it of most concern were firstly, the huge amount of debt that has not been reduced and secondly (as fully expected of Mr Osborne) no mention of safeguarding the environment whatsoever. I am sorry to say that I think it is realistic to expect more financial attacks on Defra and especially on Natural England. It seems to be an unwritten law that the current politicians financially attack those areas where they think doing so won't cost them  many votes.There is little or no consideration from them of what is the RIGHT thing to do.

    The other depressing factor is that while I think we all understand that public money is very tight and will remain so, there is nevertheless a lot that this Government could do to help the Natural World without having to spend any significant money. This applies especially on the legal front. Examples include the licensing of driven grouse moors, the declaration of more and larger marine conservation zones, the better safeguarding of SSSIs and there are many other examples. However the Goverment seems to steadfastly refuse to help Nature on any of these fronts.

    MOD land has much important wildlife on it and its release or sale for private use should be subjected to proper discussion and consideration in this respect prior or to any relase of it. However we hear nothing of that from Mr Osborne or of any other environmental safeguards alongside of what they propose.  

    Overall I have to give the Autumn Statement 0/10.