If you are watching the Budget tomorrow, you may want to pass the time and play Budget Bingo by creating a grid of catchphrases that you expect the Chancellor to use and then ticking them off one by one. You could include "northern powerhouse", "long-term economic plan", "all in this together" etc. Students would obviously turn this into a drinking game, but I don't advise that.
Instead, I suggest those interested in what the Budget means for nature should pay attention to three areas...
In his pre-election Budget, the Chancellor committed (here) to designating a marine protected area around Pitcairn Island - one of the 14 UK Overseas Territories. On the eve of his first budget since the election, we can only speculate which if any of the environmental manifesto commitments will be referenced in his speech: the proposed 25 year plan for biodiversity, the role of the Natural Capital Committee or perhaps the desire for a blue belt to deliver protection in the marine environment? Perhaps a better question to ask is will nature get mentioned at all? And if it is mentioned, will it be as an asset that should attract investment or as a constraint on economic growth?
2. The scale of public spending cuts
While the focus will be on welfare, we also expect to hear about the scale of cuts that non-protected government departments will need to make. Analysis published (here) by Green Alliance last week suggested that Decc's budget could halve and result in 90% reduction in staff with serious consequences for government's ability to meet its climate change commitments. Like Decc, Defra has a range of areas which it can’t cut such as flood risk management and the Rural payments Agency (for fear of EU sanction) which means that any cuts will fall disproportionately on other functions and agencies like Natural England. Any cuts would be on top of the 30% cut that Defra has received since 2010. This would inevitably affect government's ability to plan and deliver its nature conservation ambitions such as the outcomes for species, habitats and sites in the England biodiversity strategy.
3. The preparedness to scope innovative financing options
In its third report published before the election, the Natural Capital Committee (here) outlined seven options for securing new finance to protect and enhance natural capital...
"(i) Capital maintenance payments from public, not for profit and private sector assetowners;(ii) Rents from non-renewable resources (e.g. oil or shale gas);(iii) Compensation payments from developers;(iv) Greater use of economic instruments (e.g. taxes and charges);(v) Reforming and eliminating perverse subsidies;(vi) Potential new and innovative sources (e.g. plastic bag charge, crowd fundingschemes, Payment for Ecosystem Services);(vii) Taking advantage of match funding opportunities (e.g. the EU Life Programme)"
A Budget that was serious about investing nature and the free services that it gives people would explain how it would be exploring these seven options.
And a Budget that was serious about a move to low carbon economy would also provide clear signals to those investing in new green technologies. Investors don’t like the immeasurable risks associated with entirely novel industry. This is why the environment sector has consistently called for clear and consistent government policy to provide business certainty. This has been undermined recently by removing the onshore wind support prematurely and suggesting that the Green Investment Bank might be sold off. If the budget makes further similar moves such as removing the policy of increasing the use of green taxes it will further damage certainty for business and so our ability to leverage new – non-public - money for the environment.
Once the Chancellor sits down tomorrow, the Treasury publishes its proposals in full and that's when our economists start poring over the detail. Tomorrow, I'll let you know what gems they uncover.
Until then, eyes down...
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