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 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.
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.
I found some this week. This may have had something to do with the evening I spent sampling whiskies at our Scottish Staff Conference. The evening was hosted by our partners, Famous Grouse. In 2008 they launched a new blend called Black Grouse. And since then, sales have helped generate about £300,000 for black grouse conservation on RSPB reserves in Scotland (Corrimony and Inversnaid), Northern England (Geltsdale) and in Wales (Vyrnwy). This is species that it is in desperate trouble. The population is down to 5,000 lekking (displaying) males – a fifth of the number in the 1970s.We need more of these partnerships. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the scale of the challenge facing our environment is too big for any one organisation. So we have to work smarter with others. And, now it appears that our nation’s happiness will be back under the microscope of the UK Government and Office of National Statistics (ONS). Further to an earlier blog, the next stage of the ONS consultation on the “National Wellbeing Measure” has been launched. The public consultation for this process is open to all and running until the 23rd January 2012. It’s a relatively quick online questionnaire, so please take some time to have a read and add your thoughts.The good news is that the ONS has acknowledged the impact that nature has on our happiness. ‘The Natural Environment’ forms one of the 10 sections of the overall measure, in amongst other issues such as ‘Health’, ‘Relationships’, and ‘Personal Finances’. For many of us, this is motherhood and apple pie. We need nature to keep us functioning. I’d go further – my own physical and mental well being is dependent on contact with nature. Just ask my wife.We are quite keen to keep this process alive. The prize is great – a measure of progress that is more than just about material wealth.How does nature improve your quality of life? How do you think this can be measured? How should the government advertise, promote and use the National Wellbeing Measure? The ONS and I would be glad to receive your comments.
Today sees the publication of The state of the UK’s birds 2011. As ever, this aims to serve as a one-stop shop for the latest news on our bird populations.
This year’s report has a particular focus on our waterbirds and the sites they use, noting that this year is the 40th anniversary of the Ramsar convention. Amongst the highlights, we report on:
• The return and spread of the crane as a breeding bird in the UK• The fortunes of our rarer breeding waterbirds, most of which are thriving• Mixed fortunes for our breeding seabirds, with some – Arctic skua, herring gull and kittiwake amongst them – declining sharply• How in recent years many of our wintering waterbirds have begun to show population declines following decades of recovery or increase. For many, a shift in range in response to climate change is the most likely cause, but for others there may be genuine population-level declines• How the removal of rats from Henderson Island in the South Pacific, one of the UK’s Overseas Territories, is great news for that island’s breeding seabirds. Of course, the report remains a one-stop shop for all the latest results from bird monitoring in the UK
• Both farmland and woodland indicators fell to their lowest ever levels in the UK, driven by further declines in habitat specialists such as turtle doves, grey partridges and corn buntings (farmland) and willow tits, lesser spotted woodpeckers and lesser redpolls (woodland)• We give an update on the status of birds on the UK's Biodiversity Action Plan priority species list• New surveys of hen harriers and capercaillie reveal national populations have declined recently• After a mammoth effort by more than 16,000 observers, fieldwork for the Bird Atlas 2007-11 is complete and the results are awaited eagerly.
Do have a good read and let me have any comments/questions/answers...