A message to European Heads of State: don't cut the life from our countryside

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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

A message to European Heads of State: don't cut the life from our countryside

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Over the past 40 years Europe has lost 300 million birds and in just the past 15 years we have lost 70% of European grassland butterflies.  Farmland wildlife remains in crisis.  Following proposals released yesterday, the situation will get a lot worse unless leaders show an enlightened approach to EU Budget discussions next week.

Yesterday, new figures were released on the proposed EU Budget for 2014-2020 and they make for frightening reading.

These figures aren’t the agreed budget but they will form the basis of discussion, and potential agreement, when EU leaders gather in Brussels next week (22-23 November). What has been proposed by the President of the EU Council is an out an out attack on the bits of EU expenditure which deliver real value for money.  And they could have devastating consequences for wildlife across Europe and in the UK.  To be fair, cuts are being applied to virtually every area of EU spend and at a time of economic austerity and creaking treasuries across the EU cuts are virtually inevitable. But cutting across the board, with no apparent interest in how well, or badly that money is being spent is not just careless, it’s wildly irresponsible.

I’m most concerned about the cuts that are being proposed to the Common Agricultural Policy’s Rural Development Pillar (also known as Pillar 2).  This Pillar isn’t perfect but it is based on sound principles and is home to some of the best examples of value for money found anywhere in Europe.  This is exemplified by  well-designed agri-environment schemes, like Higher Level Stewardship in England.  This provides a lifeline for species such as turtle dove and cirl bunting as well as supporting farmers to deliver environmental public goods which the market doesn’t reward.

As I have written herehere and here, rural development money is a lifeline for wildlife and a vital income stream to farmers. These facts make it all the more incomprehensible that the Council President is proposing that Rural Development funds should be slashed by an unbelievable 9.1%. And it’s worth remembering that this cut is in addition to the real terms cut of around 8% contained within the European Commission’s original budget proposal from last year.

You’d think this was bad enough but no, it gets worse...

Controversial (actually scrap that, let’s just call them indefensible) proposals to allow Member States to ‘reverse modulate’ (that is shift money from Rural Development into Pillar 1 subsidies (direct payments) have been extended from a relatively small group of countries to everyone, and the rate increased from 5% to 15%. This means that the proposed 9.1% cut could leap to over 20%. 

All this is taking place at a time when our natural environment needs more investment, not less.  If we lose funding for wildlife friendly farming, we know that the vast majority of farmers will stop doing the things that wildlife needs.  And this would mean the Government's ambition to be the first generation to pass on the natural environment in a better state to the next will be shattered.

Some might argue that the proposed ‘greening’ of Pillar I payments will make up the environmental shortfall but this simply isn’t the case: rural development schemes are designed in a way that delivers much more than Pillar I approaches can – primarily  because Pillar I has to be simple and relatively broad brush. Greening can help create a strong baseline of delivery if done well (and it’s a big if at the moment) but it can’t do the really special stuff that Rural Development can.

The EU Budget is under enormous pressure, in fact the odds for it being cut that are probably so short you wouldn’t waste the bus fare to the bookies. But EU leaders have to demonstrate that there are bits of the budget that simply must not be cut, in fact all the arguments are that they should be increased.

Rural Development is one such example and the proposals to cut it must be rejected. If these savings have to be applied elsewhere then there they must fall on areas of EU expenditure that cannot demonstrate value for money and do not help our farmers to become more resilient, more market orientated or rewarded for protecting and improving the environment. When it comes to the CAP, we know where savings can be made, and it isn’t Rural Development.

You can help us protect Rural Development funding by emailing David Cameron in advance of his meeting next week – our PM may have been ‘given a mandate’ by Parliament to cut the budget but there are some bits of the budget that need to be spared the knife.  

  • Martin,my comment was not meant as a criticism that the RSPB should not get that money.Obviously what I meant was the RSPB as a major benefactor was not going to campaign for major benefactors to get very small amount of subsidy.

    Doubt you would tell me RSPB will campaign for all large benefactors to get small amounts of subsidies.

  • Sooty - the UK Government has, for many years argued for a phase out of direct support to farmrs while continuing to support public money being used for wildlife-friendly farming.  The current Secrtary of State has recently reinforced this view.  We have been consistent in arguing for the creation of single environmental land management fund, but the Commission has decided to opt for alternative measures.  Yes we receive a significant chunk of money (both through a Single Farm Payment and through agri-environment schemes).  We would argue, however, that this is good use of public money as it benefits wildlife on over 140,000 hectares - managed as nature reserves for people and wildlife.

  • Peter,think there is very little chance of RSPB campaigning for cuts to larger receivers of subsidies as they are probably one of those who benefit most as being a large landowner they probably get two and a half million pounds a year,probably more chance of a revolution getting the result.

  • I agree with you entirely re Rural Development Pillar;  it is/was the Pillar where the most interesting EU CAP "spend" was occurring. Plainly "Big Agriculture" has won in Brussels; the only way to counteract this is "openness" and target the 20% who receive most of the direct payments.

    I urge/beg RSPB/WWF to throw its resources at such a campaign; we need "openness" and accountability on this large budget. Who is receiving what across the EU?

    You are the only guys in town nowadays with the resources to mount this.

  • I often think conservationists are their own worst enemies.Lots of them have over the years given the impression and indeed many are still doing so,that farmers are getting too many subsidies and they resent it.In my opinion of course the EU thinks well we can give the UK less subsidies in that case and get away with it.

    Conservationists,you are probably reaping what you have sown.

    I did not know what to think but the FACTS seem very different about UK farm subsidies as in the negotiations about the money budget for the next seven years the EU said that they could go some way towards David Camerons ideal of no monetary increase because UK FARMERS DID NOT GET MUCH COMPARED TO OTHER COUNTRY'S.

    Surely a case of conservationists shooting themselves in the foot,all this moaning about farmers getting large subsidies is not only inaccurate it seems,proven by the EU commissions own words but if conservationists had kept quiet about subsidies and UK had a larger share then I very much doubt the EU could have stopped some of that extra money being shifted to wildlife friendly schemes.

    The really ironic part of all this has to be UK tax payers paying into the EU and the EU giving the lions share of our money in subsidies to all other EU country's farmers and UK farmers not even getting their share.

  • Although a supporter of the EU I have to admit sometimes it streches my support to near breaking point and this is a case in point. How can these faceless bureaucrats be so short sighted in proposing such drastic reductions in Pillar 2/Rural Development. It looks like they will make yet another wrong decision, one of so many over recent years. I have e-mailed David Cameron as suggested.