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.
I promised here to say more the future of England’s statutory agencies.
Sorry that it has taken a while for me to return to this topic – I have been distracted by the EU Budget and my trip to Brussels where we were celebrating the success of our EU funded wildlife friendly farming project. Local communities working with farmers to help recover farmland wildlife. The importance of incentives to help farmers do more for wildlife came through loud and clear. I hope that Heads of State take note before the EU Budget talks recommence in January.
Back to the agencies. Natural England, Environment Agency and we now hear Joint Nature Conservation Committee are being reviewed. I have no problem with this, provided that the results help the government do more for the natural environment.
On Tuesday, Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson repeated the laudable ambition that this would be the first generation to pass on the natural environment in a better state to the next. Good - this remains the right ambition.
The agencies have a critical role to play in helping the Government meet its commitments in the Natural Environment White Paper and the Water White Paper, and the Triennial Review must enhance their ability to do so.
But this review is taking place against a backdrop of floods, ash die-back and real threats to the future of funding to support wildlife-friendly farming.
At a time of crisis, the benefits of any reorganisation must outweigh the inevitable cost and disruption that a merger would create.
With this in mind, the RSPB, with others have issued to Defra some tests against which we will assess the proposals and outcomes of this review:
1) Is there an independent champion of the natural environment, with a clear focus on its restoration and protection? [Is there a body whose primary purpose is to think, speak and act for nature?]2) Are the Agencies free to inform evidence-based policy and aid its implementation, based on sound science? [Can they gather and use the most up to date information about the state of nature to inform policy?]3) Do the Agencies have the necessary resources, capacity and technical expertise to protect and enhance the natural environment? [Do they have what they need to do their job?]4) Can the Agencies provide effective, co-ordinated place-based delivery of conservation objectives, alongside non-governmental organisations? [Can they work with others to help wildlife recover across landscapes?]5) Can the Agencies effectively carry out their regulatory functions? [Are they able to uphold the law?]
Next week (taking time out for the Chancellor's autumn statement), I’ll focus on each of these tests and try to bring to life what they mean in practice.
In the meantime, do you agree with these tests? Are there others you would add?
It would be great to hear your views.
Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, was on pugnacious form at a parliamentary reception hosted by Joan Walley MP yesterday. He was responding to Link’s assessment of the coalition Government’s track record on the environment.
It was good to see him engaging in discussion on issues as diverse as including invasive species, planning reform, bees and badgers. It is through lively debate that you achieve better public policy outcomes.
Perhaps the most colourful part of the session was about threats to funding to tackle the farmland wildlife crisis.
He resented the amber assessment awarded by Link (the classic ‘could do better’) for the Government’s performance on reform of the Common Agriculture Policy. He vehemently restated his commitment to ensure public money is only given in return for public goods which is why he is in favour of protecting funding for wildlife friendly farming (under the so-called Pillar II).
Image copyright Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
This is great! We want to see our Secretary of State fighting for this bit of the EU Budget.
He was perhaps slightly less convincing that, when the inevitable EU Budget horse-trading recommences in January, the Prime Minister would protect Pillar II spending with as much vigour as the other UK Government red lines (overall size of budget and the UK rebate).
Mr Paterson is travelling to Brussels today to continue the debate with the other 26 EU agriculture ministers. It is reassuring to know that he’ll be making all the right noises about CAP reform.
He won’t be alone.
Conservationists, farmers, volunteers and industry experts are also gathering in Brussels to take part in a conference on wildlife friendly farming. I’m chairing the event which is designed to celebrate the success of an RSPB project which has supported farmers who want to help farmland wildlife recover.
Through the project, which was funded by the EU LIFE+ Programme, we’ve engaged, enthused and advised thousands farmers across the UK on how to deliver top quality habitat management for the benefit of farmland wildlife as part of a profitable farming business. The conference aims to show how similar activities could work in other countries across Europe.
We and, I trust, the Secretary of State will be saying the same thing – don’t cut the life from the countryside – reform the CAP but protect funding for wildlife friendly farming.
A recent poll of the British public suggests that the coalition Government is falling short of its commitment to be the greenest Government ever. Only 17% agreed that the Government is the greenest ever, whereas 55% disagreed and 27% did not know.
The poll was commissioned by Wildlife and Countryside Link, which includes 39 NGOs - including the RSPB. It was produced to provide an insight into public attitudes to run alongside the publication of Link’s annual Nature Check assessment of the Government’s progress against its own commitments. Link has given a red, amber or green rating to each of the Governments wildlife or natural environment pledges. This is the second such report and the Government may take heart from a slight improvement in the assessments from last year, but the overall message is that there is still huge room for improvement. The report does not include commitments relating to climate change which was subject of a previous assessment by the Green Alliance.
The only two commitments to get a good progress (green) rating were on international issues, opposing commercial whaling and pressing for a ban on ivory sales. Commitments where Link believes the Government has failed (red) include: to improve flood defences and halt unnecessary building in the floodplain; to introduce a science led badger control policy; and designate a network of Marine Conservation Zones. In a few areas the Government has responded positively to public concern e.g. on forestry policy and planning reforms and these get moderate progress (amber) assessments compared to red last year. The Link poll and the report suggest that the government is lagging behind public opinion on the importance of the environment.
Well, what should the Government do to improve its ratings in the future and to live up to its Greenest Ever aspirations? I think we need leadership from the top. David Cameron has to recognise that protection of the environment is part of a smart economy and that the green economy is working. In tackling what he likens to an 'economic war' , he has to ensure that the environment does not suffer collateral damage. The Link poll provides a useful insight on public opinion here. Only 6% of people feel strongly that the natural environment is less important than economic growth and 81% believe that the natural environment and wildlife should be protected at all costs.
I also believe that we need to treat the loss of biodiversity as a crisis. The new(ish) Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, deserves credit for the speed with which he responded to the Ash die back crisis, mobilising an emergency response and convening, for the first time I can remember, a Cobra committtee meeting to tackle a threat to a native species. We now know that this genie is out of the bottle but this is not the Secretary of State’s fault. We now need the same determination and commitment to address the decline of farmland wildlife, to prevent species extinctions and set up a properly protected marine site network. The most immediate issue of these is the need to protect and strengthen support for wildlife friendly farming.
A good pub question would be which government was the greenest ever? Well, although I cannot give a first hand assessment I suspect that Clement Attlee’s post war Government will be difficult to beat. It took one of the most far sighted and green steps possible by passing the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. With the economy and the country on its knees they realised the importance of establishing nature reserves, ensuring access and preserving natural beauty for the well being of people. Incidentally, it was this act that established the forerunner of Natural England.
I believe that nature needs such an enlightened and long term view now, just as much as it did then.
What do you think this government needs to do to become the greenest ever? Which government to do you think they would have to beat?