My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
Today President Barroso sits down with his college of Commissioners from the 27 Member States to decide how to spend roughly trillion euros of EU tax payers money between 2014-2020.
The sensible thing surely is to ensure that this money is spent on things that the EU has said that it wants to achieve and from which EU citizens will benefit – such as reversing biodiversity loss and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Given that the EU has set Member States a whole series of environmental targets – which we applaud – it follows, doesn’t it, that EU spending should reflect these priorities?
The current seven-year EU budget totals around €975 billion, or €139 billion per year. However, only around 10% of this amount is directly spent on climate measures, energy and resource efficiency and nature conservation.
Through the BirdLife International partnership, we have joined forces with other NGOs to call for smarter spending and intelligent investment.
Smarter spending would see at least 35% of the EU budget being used to tackle climate change and at least 15% being allocated to action to restore and protect biodiversity and ecosystem services.
Intelligent investment would see 50% of the EU budget allocated to those in sectors that underpin a green economy (i.e. renewable energies, energy efficiency, nature protection, agri-environment schemes etc..).
To illustrate the mismatch between ambition and spend, look at our friend, the Common Agriculture Policy. Currently only 5% of the CAP supports the environment (through incentives for wildlife friendly farming under Axis 2 of Pillar 2 – I know there is a lot of jargon). We would like to this to grow significantly – although rumours which have emerged over the past week have helped to lower our expectations.
Equally, the only pot of money dedicated to nature conservation - the aptly named LIFE programme - currently constitutes just 0.2% of the EU Budget. Given the emerging consensus (through things like the National Ecosystem Assessment) that investment in a healthy natural environment makes economic sense, it does not seem excessive for the LIFE programme to grow to 1% of the EU budget – with maybe €750 million dedicated to supporting the conservation of species and habitats of international importance.
Citizens across Europe appear to want change. A Eurobarometer poll from May 2011 shows that 89% of EU citizens agree that “EU funding should be allocated more to support environmentally friendly activities and developments”. What’s more, the Commission’s public consultation on the single EU fund for the environment LIFE+ from 2011 shows that 86% of respondents think there is a need for a specific EU financial instrument for environment and climate action and 55% want to see it increased.
With such strength of public support, surely this collective of Commissioners cannot fail to find smarter ways to spend a trillion? We’ll probably know the scale of their ambition by Thursday lunchtime.
Whitehall departments are funny beasts. They are part of one government but equally have their own agenda. Cooperative when they want to and selfish when they need to be - a bit like species vying for survival in the natural world.
Here's an example.
This morning, the Natural White Paper will be published by Defra. It will (I expect) outline ambitious commitments about improving the natural environment. Like all White Papers, it has been agreed and, theoretically at least, jointly owned by all government departments. I am excited by it as it will give an indication of how goverment plans to step up for nature.
In the meantime, a government-led amendment (championed by the Department for Communities and Local Government) will be read out as part of the Localism Bill in the House of Lords. This amendment threatens to undermine much of what this government wants to achieve in the Natural Environment White Paper.
This little amendment, clause 124, is so significant that it effectively undermines the plan-led system that sustainable development, and government's ambitions for the natural environment, are dependent upon.
It would allow local authorities to take ‘local financial considerations’ as an equal material consideration to the any other planning issue when deciding whether or not to approve an application. In essence, it undermines all that the planning system was set up to achieve in terms of mediating between competing needs.
But it isn’t only the prospective impacts on wildlife that are concerning us, for the clause also effectively excludes local communities from what will often be the deciding factor in planning applications. This jars with existing political ideology which is seeking to encourage more to engage more strongly with planning decisions through their own neighbourhood schemes.
Many people are up in arms about this. Organisations ranging from the RTPI to CPRE are questioning the motivations of this amendment. We sincerely hope that peers will today start to raise their concerns during the second reading of the Bill in the House of Lords. We want the government to remove the clause so that the Localism Bill doesn’t destroy public confidence in the planning system.
I have a feeling that this won't be the first case of other government departments failing to respect the ambitions of the Natural Environment White Paper - but I would love to be proved wrong!
Bring on the White Paper...
Yesterday, I was lucky enough to be asked to give evidence to the Efra Select Committee on the Natural Environment White Paper. Lucky because I was representing 36 members of Wildlife and Countryside Link and their 8 million supporters. And lucky because I was sharing the panel with Pavan Sukhdev , the leading light in environmental economics and the driving force behind a seminal report published last year called the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity - or TEEB for short. He is a hugely impressive man and it was good to hear him explain how to capture the value of nature and invest in protecting a healthy natural environment.
My fellow witnesses were equally impressive, but perhaps not quite so well known - Peter Unwin from Defra, Ellie Robinson from the National Trust, Chris Knight from PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Andrew Clarke from the National Farmers' Union. Yes, the benches were quite crowded.
The Committee, under the careful chairing of Anne McIntosh MP, probed well and encouraged a good debate. It was a departure from the normal, slightly confrontational format but it seemed to work well.
And yes, consensus did largely break out. There are many things to welcome in the NEWP: it has great ambition, sets an excellent framework for action over the next few years and includes some great initiatives, but the funding and delivery tools do not yet look sufficient.
We talked through these issues at length. And if at any time thoughts wandered, it was only over to Brussels where we were waiting to hear the announcement about the EU Budget.
My closing point was about our support for so-called Local Nature Partnerships which are designed to encourage local people to come together to take action for wildlife. I explained our worry that the timetable to apply for government funds to support these partnerships was too tight and would prevent the formation of new, creative coalitions necessary to deliver great things for nature. So, I was delighted when Peter Unwin announced that, yes, ministers agreed that timing was tight and so the deadline for applications would be extended until September. It is nice to know that Ministers do listen!
Finally, I encouraged the Committee to invite Peter or perhaps the Secretary of State to appear in a year's time to hear progress on implementation. Am confident of great things being achieved, but the Committee has an important scrutiny role to play and if we are not on track then it is right that the UK Government is encouraged to explain what it is going to do about it.
And that is the power and responsibility of the Select Committees.