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...
The UK National Ecosystem Assessment is out today. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – it’s a staggeringly impressive piece of work. So please read it – there’s even an excellent one page summary on page 5 – so no excuses.
My view is that it fundamentally challenges the way we currently make economic decisions.
Well done to Hilary Benn for commissioning the work when he was Secretary of State and well done to Caroline Spelman and Oliver Letwin for launching it. And praise also to the 500 scientists (some from the RSPB) who did the hard graft in pulling it together under the chairmanship of Prof Bob Watson and Steve Albon.
It makes a compelling case for a step change in the way we value our environment – and it proves that if we carry on with the ‘business as usual’ approach we are selling ourselves, and our children, short.
photo credit: Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)
Wildlife and natural landscapes are not just something nice for us to look at – they bring many benefits to society and these must be taken into account when we are making decisions that affect them.
The traditional view of economic growth is based on chasing GDP, but in fact, as the NEA implies, we will all end up richer and happier if we begin to take into account the true value of nature. Nature is good for us – plain and simple. It gives us clean air and water, it helps our crops to grow and it is vital for our mental and physical wellbeing. To ignore these benefits is crazy.
Figures which illustrate the economic value of nature include the service bees provide in pollinating crops - estimated to be worth £430m - and the £2.6m brought to the local economy by tourists visiting the Galloway Red Kite Trail over the last five years. The NEA also cites the benefits of inland wetlands to water quality which are worth £1.5bn.
Of course no-one can put a pounds and pence value on everything in nature - the song of a skylark hovering over a field, the sight of a salmon leaping upstream to its spawning grounds or a walk through a wildflower meadow buzzing with insects. But equally we cannot ignore the importance of looking after nature when we are striving for economic growth.
The NEA confirms what we have been saying for a long time, that as a society we have consistently under-valued and over-exploited our natural resources. That needs to change.
The Government has shown it is open to a new way of thinking by launching this fascinating report, but now it needs to follow through on its good intentions by imbedding this fresh approach to valuing nature in its decisions on development, transport, agriculture and energy. This starts next week with the launch of the Natural Environment White Paper, but it must also influence the draft National Planning Policy Framework and the Treasury’s own green book which governs how and when Government should intervene.
Ultimately, it would be great if this report did for protection of the natural environment what the Stern report did for climate change – by convincing people that it pays to take action today rather than do nothing and deal with the consequences in the future.
Caroline Spelman has made a video for us, encouraging us all to read the Government’s shiny new Natural Environment White Paper. It’s only a couple of minutes long and it looks as if our intrepid Secretary of State endured a rather blustery day on the North York Moors on the day it was filmed.
It’s almost three months to the day since Mrs Spelman helped us to launch our Stepping Up for Nature campaign. Has Mrs Spelman stepped up? Well, the NEWP suggests that she is keen to do so, but her real challenge will be to encourage her Cabinet colleagues, especially Eric Pickles at CLG, to deliver on Defra’s ambitions. Or, at the very least, to make sure that Defra’s efforts to safeguard wildlife and the environment aren’t derailed by other departments.
Thanks to Mrs Spelman for recording this message for us, and for risking a bad hair day on our behalf! I know how it feels – every day is a bad hair day for me...
PS Here's a little piece that I did for Farming Today.
I have broken with tradition today and have invited a guest blogger, our Youth and Education PR Officer, Caroline Offord, to talk about our exciting Every Child Outdoors activities:
“Having access to discover, learn and play outdoors was an essential part of my childhood. I spent hours playing outside, pretending the tree at the end of our garden was The Magic Faraway Tree and would whisk me off to strange new worlds or that the circle of toadstools was a fairy ring and if I sat still and watched closely, one day I’d see them.
I never did see the fairies and apart from muddy knees and grass stains, I was never transported to faraway lands. But I always appreciated the wildlife around me a little bit more from having had the chance to explore and play outside.
We’ve all heard the stories of unhealthy, inactive children attached to their computers and mobile phones. Children today – and many adults too – have less contact with the natural environment than any previous generation, this is despite all the evidence about the positive impacts contact with nature brings to a child’s education, health and wellbeing.
If a child hasn’t ever got their hands mucky, climbed a tree, discovered the darkness of a cave or felt sand between their toes, how can we expect them to care enough to protect wildlife?
Recent research by the RSPB found that there is overwhelming support for getting every child outdoors, with 92 per cent of the public agreeing that experiences of nature are still important to children today.
More than four out of five people also agreed that schools should play a role in providing them to all children.
We believe that every child should have access to nature and tomorrow (Friday), the RSPB, the Field Studies Council and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust will respond to this demand by opening the doors to all their teaching sites and centres.
The RSPB President, Kate Humble, has given her support to the event. See how she got on at our Ynys-hir Nature Reserve with children from Warren Farm Primary School in our video:
School children have invited their local MP to come along and share an outdoor learning experience with them at our field teaching sites as part of a UK-wide initiative to get every child outdoors.
We hope these MPs will get their hands dirty and their feet mucky and see first-hand the enormous benefits to be gained from regular contact with nature for children and become champions for learning outside the classroom.
We were encouraged by the recent commitments made by Government in their Natural Environment White Paper to remove unnecessary rules and barriers to learning in the natural environment.
The RSPB is calling for three things: more room in the curriculum for this type of education, for teachers to be trained to feel confident and competent to teach outside the classroom, and for there to be a clear message from government that this kind of education is a vital part of children’s development.
We know that all children, given the right opportunity, love nature and being outdoors. It is vital they are given the opportunity, whether through their family or their school to benefit from real life “hands on” experiences where they can see, hear, touch and explore the world around them.
And, maybe one day, they’ll be luckier than me at spying those fairies!”
Thanks, Caroline! I’m looking forward to taking part in this. Tomorrow I’ll be at our Rainham reserve, where I’ll be joined by two local MPs, Jackie Price-Doyle and John Cruddas. I’ll tell you all about it, as I’m sure I’ll get my hands dirty...
In my early twenties, I had the pleasure of dressing up as a rhino for a fundraising event. My reward? Small talk and a hug from the supermodel, Helena Christenson. I was volunteering at the time with a small charity dedicated to raising funds for conservation projects around the world. Given this experience, you can see why I have always been a fan of volunteering.
Today is the start of national volunteering week in what has been dubbed by the UN as the international year of volunteering. Tomorrow, I am speaking at an event at the Hay Literary Festival on the Big Society and volunteering. I am sure that folk will want to explore the following question: as the State gets smaller (through economic necessity and political preference), can and should we expect more people to step up and do more to deliver the things that society wants and needs?
The RSPB, like many NGOs, is rooted in volunteering. Last year nearly 17,000 people contributed collectively just under a million hours of their time. This is equivalent to an extra 536 full time staff working for the RSPB. These brilliant people have helped us to manage our nature reserves, support bird surveys and raise money for us. But there are more people out there prepared to make a difference. More than 600,000 people gave up an hour of their time last January to record the birds they saw in their garden as part of Big Garden Bird Watch and nearly 750,000 of our members have now supported at least one of our campaigns.
So the RSPB believes that people can and do make a difference through gifts of their time. But, on its own, this will never be enough to save the planet. We and our supporters will never (if only!) be able to get our hands on some the levers of that drive change. We cannot change policy, we cannot legislate and we are limited in our ability to raise funds to provide incentives. Yes, in these uncertain times, we can and should step up to do more, but we need the State (even if it is considerably smaller) to remain active – to be prepared to intervene and do the things that only governments can do.
This may seem out of step with current tide of political thinking, but it was Rt Hon John Gummer who inspired this approach. And, sad though it is, simply hugging a supermodel to raise funds for rhino conservation will never be enough to save the rhino.