Three traps for ministers to avoid while tackling the ash die-back crisis

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Three traps for ministers to avoid while tackling the ash die-back crisis

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Following the Secretary of State's announcement on Friday, it is clear that Chalara fraxinea is here to stay.  We, and our ash trees, are somehow going to have to learn to live with it.  This is why we welcomed the government action plan designed to deal with the spread of ash die-back in UK woodlands. 

We were pleased that Defra said that as part of the containment plan "mature trees will not currently be removed, as they are valuable to wildlife, take longer to die and can help us learn more about genetic strains that might be resistant to the disease. Infection does not occur directly from tree to tree."

This crisis is the last thing woodland wildlife needs at the moment - one in six woodland flowers is threatened with extinction, our woodland butterflies have halved since the 1990s and many of our woodland birds have declined by 70% or more.  I am hopeful that this crisis will put a spotlight on the wider needs of woodland wildlife.

And there are signs that Defra will use this opportunity to take some smart decisions about improved biosecurity.  Last week, Mr Paterson spoke with envy at the tough biosecurity arrangements that Australia has established.  We have long argued that it is essential that we change the way we move animals and plants around the country, and across international borders. Regulation must be put in place to ensure this does not happen again.

I have been pleased by the way that ministers have gripped this crisis in the past few days, but as we move forward there are a few traps which Defra will need to avoid:

First, undermining other environmental priorities by diverting money to address tougher biosecurity measures.

At a time when budgets are already stretched (remember that Defra's budget was cut by c30% as part of the 2010 Spending Review), we will urge Defra not to divert resources away from other vital environmental services provided by government agencies. Money must be found from central government coffers.  If the Chancellor can ring-fence £50 billion for infrastructure renewal (nearly 25 times the total Defra budget) I am sure that there are a few spare pennies to bolster the growing Defra agenda.  We will support the Secretary of State in making this case to colleagues round the Cabinet table.

Second, being distracted from other critical environmental debates.

As I explained on Friday, there are some crucial decisions to be taken in the coming weeks about how the EU will spend nearly 6 trillion Euros and how it plans to reform the Common Agriculture Policy.  Given that Heads of State are struggling to accept the current proposal for next year's budget, you might think that decisions about 2014-2020 period will also be on hold, but I'd rather not be complacent.  As Mr Paterson said at our event at this year's Party Conference, he intends to roll up his sleeve to fight for progressive CAP reform .  He will need all his diplomatic skill (and lots of time) to protect and grow the resources needed to support wildlife friendly farming - the principle funding measure he has to meet his biodiversity commitments.

Third, making knee-jerk reactions regarding the future of our statutory agencies.

I am not surprised that the crisis has re-opened the debate about the future of the Forestry Commission.  The Government is due to respond to the Independent Panel Report on Forestry in the new year but they are also currently reviewing Natural England and the Environment Agency.  There is much to learn from the current crisis and Ministers will need time (and clear heads) to address these before thinking about the right future structure for these agencies.  As I shall argue in tomorrow's blog, the key test for the any agency upheaval will be to ensure that any reformed agencies are better equipped to deal with the major challenges facing our natural world.

How would you advise ministers to avoid these traps and what others will they need to avoid?

It would be great to hear your views.

  • Hi Martin, on your first item I would argue that the money for tougher biosecurity should be found from the Government's fund for gerneral national emergencies which this ash die back and better biosecurity clearly is. As far as I know the Treasury maintains this fund. The money should not come from the annual Defra budget in this case.

    Regarding the second item, I fully agree.

    Regarding the third item, the professional way of lookung at the three oganisations is first and foremost to create a full and comprehensive definition of the role and responsibilities of each of them , and that includes reversing the loss of biodiversity by 2020, and then to price these roles and responsibilities in terms od capital facilities required and annual personnel required to staff the work properly. If overlaps or gaps then appear these can be priced in or our accordingly. A review can then be made to see whether any other cost savings can be made always ensuring that the roles, responsibilities and targets of each of the three organisations are not  compromised in anyway. The amateur way of doing this review is to come up with a budget out of the air first and then to try to fit each of these organisations into it. I am sure the Government would not adopt this latter approach or would they???