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...
Nature is in trouble.
[I know this is not the most cheerful way to start a working week - but I had a difficult weekend - including a disappointing hour spent wildlife-watching in the garden for Make Your Nature Count. Where were my goldfinches?]
The statistics (particularly from the UN but also from Defra) tell us what we probably don't want to hear - species populations across the world have crashed (on average, by 40% over the past 40 years); habitats are fragmented; protected areas are not being managed as they should (or, as is the case in the marine environment, not even in place); rainforests are being lost at the alarming rate of 6 million hectares a year and our marine environment is being degraded by human activities.
We also know that the problems facing nature are set to get worse - with climate change compounding many of the 'traditional' threats of habitat destruction and overexploitation. The UK National Ecosystem Assessment confirmed as much last week.
This is why I am eagerly anticipating tomorrow's publication of the UK Government's Natural Environment White Paper. It should give us an indication of the UK Government's plans to bring to life its coalition agreement ambition to "protect wildlife ... and restore biodiversity" (and thereby meet its EU and international obligations). We expect it to cover England, the UK Overseas Territories and the contribution that the UK plans to make to global conservation efforts.
We have great hopes for this document and have invested much time and effort in offering our best ideas to government. I outlined some of our thinking in an article in the Guardian last week.
We'll be judging the document against seven tests. I'll tell you tomorrow how well we think they have done. Am hopeful that, after I've read the White Paper, I'll have cheered up a bit. We'll see.
Here are the tests...
1. Recognition that we have a moral obligation to conserve wildlife
2. Clear leadership, a plan for success and a commitment to track progress toward measurable outcomes
3. A commitment to make the most of existing legislation and meet existing targets for protecting our finest wildlife sites and recovering threatened species
4. The introduction of new ways of working which allow more people to do more for wildlife close to where they live
5. A convincing funding strategy for the natural environment
6. Proof of shared responsibility across government
7. Demonstration that govenment is prepared to intervene to tackle longstanding environmental problems by committing to end the use of peat in horticulture.
With a heatwave predicted for this weekend, I’m planning to spend most of it outside in my small, and rather imperfectly formed, Cambridgeshire garden. As well as being the perfect weather for barbecues and paddling pools, it’s also the ideal opportunity to take part in this year’s Make Your Nature Count survey. It’s a good way to keep the kids occupied for an hour as well, so why not take the opportunity to kick back with a glass of wine and see what else is out enjoying the sunshine?
The survey is really important, as it provides us with a snapshot of the wildlife that’s thriving in our gardens, as well as identifying any familiar garden species that aren’t doing so well. Blackbirds and woodpigeons were in 92% of our gardens during last year’s survey. Will they be top of the list again? We need as many people as possible to take part and tell us.
And Make Your Nature Count isn’t just about birds. This year, we’re particularly keen to find out whether the long spell of dry weather has had an impact on creatures associated with water, such as frogs, newts and toads. So if a frog sneaks into your paddling pool, or a toad creeps into your compost heap, let us know!
Come on, it only takes an hour. And, if you’re really too busy this weekend, doing the shopping, or watching the Derby, you still have plenty of time to take part, as the survey runs until 12 June.
Survey forms and full details can be found here. I’ll let you know next week whether anything unusual wanders into my little patch of East Anglia.
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.
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.