November, 2011

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t
  • The tension at the heart of government

    In the space of just three hours yesterday, the tension at the heart of government was revealed warts and all.

    First, I chaired a highly entertaining and informative marine question time with the Biodiversity Minister, Richard Benyon.  We wanted to put him on the spot over his plans for delivering a network of marine protected areas.  Ever positive and full of passion, Richard impressed the assembled audience of RSPB supporters as well as those who watched online (yes, we've tumbled into the twenty-first century by airing this as a webcast). 

    Richard recognised that the timetable was slipping and that more needed to be done to protect more than 20% of our seas. He also acknowledged that we would not give up until there was a network of sites to protect the feeding and roosting areas for seabirds. 

    Is Defra moving fast enough? No.  Do they have a convincing business plan? Not yet. Can Richard Benyon deliver?  With support, yes and this is why we gave him this little momento of the event - an image of a common tern made up of the 50,000 signatories to our latest marine petition. 

    Within an hour of this event, my bubble of optimism was burst by the Chancellor's Autumn Economic Statement.  Mr Osborne did not pull any punches.  He bemoaned the burden of ‘endless social and environmental goals’ on industry and described the Habitats Regulations as a ‘ridiculous cost on British business’, claiming that they amounted to ‘gold plating’ on European legislation. Defra is now set to carry out a review of the regulations.

    The Chancellor’s attack on vital environmental regulation is below the belt and shows how short sighted his policy for growth is.  These regulations have been in place for 17 years and they have not been a brake on development. Many large scale projects have gone ahead in that time and this legislation has ensured that they have not trashed some of the most important wildlife sites in Europe.

    The Davidson report carried out under the previous Government in 2006 looked at the claim that the Habitats Regulations had goldplated European legislation, and it found there was no case to answer.

    Clearly the chancellor believes that he can bring about a quick fix of the economy by allowing unrestrained growth to trample over our precious natural environment. 

    He also failed to rule out the development of an airport in the Thames Estuary saying the Government would look at all options for a new airport hub, except a third runway at Heathrow.  This signals a u-turn as the Coalition Agreement had ruled out new runways in the south-east. The Thames Airport would be an act of environmental vandalism and would further undermine the Government’s commitment to a low carbon future.

    The Treasury’s plan is a simple one – let’s build our way out of recession.

    For me, this marks the biggest backward step in environmental and planning policy for a generation.  It simply serves as a short term economic sticking plaster on a problem which requires a long term plan for effective, sustainable growth.

    If only Mr Osborne would come and talk to RSPB supporters.  They'd put him right.

    What did you think of the Chancellor's Economic Statement?  Would you like to be Biodiversity Minister in these austere times?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • In praise of the Habitats Regulations

    In 1994, John Major's Conservative Government brought in the Habitats Regulations to implement the European Habitats and Species Directive – a beautiful piece of legislation. Yes, that’s right, I did just describe a piece of legislation as beautiful.

    The Habitats Regulations are something to be proud of - they have been helping to protect English wildlife and wild spaces of European importance for seventeen years.  That is why alarm bells are ringing about the expected announcement today that they are to be reviewed.

    What the Directive, and the regulations that followed, means is that major developments like ports, airports and housing estates have to pass a series of tests before they cannot be allowed to damage the very best wildlife sites.   Tests of genuinely sustainable development. 

    These Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas (designated under the earlier Birds Directive) cover over a million hectares in England – magical places like Chesil Beach, Lindisfarne, the Thames Estuary, the New Forest, Salisbury Plain and the North Norfolk Coast. These are the cream of the crop when it comes to wildlife habitats – some of the most important in Europe.  Developers have learned to live with (if not exactly love) these regulations and those that have taken the time to understand them manage to cope perfectly well.

    As part of the Chancellor's economic statement later today we expect that the Government will unveil its plans to look at these regulations. If this is a cleaning up exercise, then yes, there probably are some areas that could be improved.  But, if it is a wholesale review, then that would be a shock and could have disastrous consequences unless handled with care.  

    As I have blogged before, the mood music coming from the Treasury and other bits of government is a cause for concern for the environment: environmental regulation has been put under the spotlight as part of the Government’s Red Tape Challenge, while the National Planning Policy Framework clearly placed economic growth above the needs of the environment.  In his conference speech George Osborne bemoaned ‘a decade of environmental laws and regulations' before adding, ‘we’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business’.

    Some people think that protecting the economy and protecting the environment, whether on land or at sea, are mutually exclusive concepts. We don’t. And neither did the Conservative Government which introduced the Habitats Regulations.

    Over the past decade and a half they have ensured major developments can take place without destroying wildlife habitats. This is the very essence of good planning policy, good economic policy and good environmental policy.

    So yes, this is a beautiful piece of legislation and, if we must review the Habitat Regulations, then my plea to government is, please take extreme care. 

    I shall post details of the review as soon as it is published.

  • Where’s the Green gone George ?

    Last  Wednesday, Caroline Spelman, at the launch of the Government’s new Ecosystems Taskforce stated emphatically that the natural environment underpins global economic performance.  She had good reason to sound authoritative – she has the weight of evidence from some of the most monumental pieces of research ever compiled in recent times, to back her up.  The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2004), the Stern Review (2006), The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (2010) and the UK NEA (2011) all reach that same, ineluctable, conclusion.  

    So, does the Coalition, with the ambition to be the greenest government ever, accept this?  Well, on the one hand, we can conclude it does.  David Cameron himself recognises that GDP is not an appropriate metric to gauge improvements in wellbeing and deserves great credit in commissioning research into developing a wellbeing indicator.  Defra, the Treasury and the Office of National Statistics also recognise the centrality of nature to economic welfare through the creation of Natural Capital Committee.  We could on that basis conclude the Government understand.

    However, the Government’s growth strategy, the strategy that really determines nature’s fate, tells a completely different story.  The Plan for Growth is introducing a slate of anti- environmental measures which essentially imply that the Coalition believes that the environment can be sacrificed for the short term imperative of jobs and growth.  We see this with the ‘red tape challenge,’ cuts to solar subsidies and the travesty of the planning reforms.

    One outstanding irony of this myopia comes from the Government’s recognition of the need to reduce the deficit. Financial liberalisation meant we could all live beyond our means, happily burdening future generations with the private and national debts we have incurred through excessive consumption.  This is clearly not fair and we applaud the Government for its attempts to rectify that.  But we have exactly the same problem with the natural environment.  All the evidence we have demonstrates how we are running down the natural capital which should rightfully be the inheritance of future generations, but the Government is neglecting to apply its own logic to this crucial area.   Instead of building up our natural capital – a fundamental component of the wealth of our children, the government justifies accelerating its depletion for the sake of its short term, unsustainable growth strategy.

    I fully accept that jobs and sustainable growth should be the focus of Government intervention right now.  We believe there is a way to deliver sound, sensible stimuli to the UK economy through green economy thinking, through a Green Investment Bank with real borrowing powers and sensible levels of initial public capitalisation to effect the wrenching transition we need to set ourselves on a low carbon trajectory; through fiscal policy that stimulates growth and investment in green industries, such as the government’s Green Deal; though regulatory certainty for industry, through investing in the knowledge economy and in smart technology, for example, the Government’s renewable energy commitments, which DECC estimates will support £1.7 billion investment and 9,500 new jobs in 2011/12.

    The reality is that the onslaught against planning, regulation and the environment in the name of growth is based on a fallacy. No economic textbook fingers environmental protection as a key hindrance to economic productivity.  On the other hand, the economics literature is replete with evidence on the importance of environmental protection to our wellbeing and economic performance. These facts have broad recognition from across the political spectrum.  The coterie of advisers around the Chancellor are in danger of becoming the environmental equivalents of the climate sceptics.  Unlike them though, they are not shouting from the sidelines, they have within their power the capacity to undermine prosperity for generations to come.   

    So we shall wait with interest to see which Green Government gets represented in the Chancellor’s autumn statement.  Will it be the pro green Dr Jekyll, with smart growth prescriptions or will it still be an anti-green Mr Hyde introducing further deregulatory, anti environmental measures?

    We'll see what tomorrow brings.