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.
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...
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.
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.