Martin Harper's blog

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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
  • A big day in the long struggle to protect the laws that protect nature

    Following Friday's conference in Brussels, I am delighted to welcome my colleague, Kate Jennings, who has spearheaded the UK contribution to the campaign to defend the EU Nature Directives.  Below, she offers her reflections on a memorable day in the heart of the European Union.


    Over 2 years after the European Commission announced its intention to subject the European Birds and Habitats Directives (AKA the ‘Nature Directives’) to a ‘Fitness Check’ review as part of their Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme (REFIT)…

    …19 months after the European Commission published its plans for that review..

    …12 months after Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission pre-empted the findings of that review by instructing Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella to seek to merge and modernise those laws…

    …11 months after a consortium of consultants working for the Commission started to compile evidence to inform the review…

    …6 months after an unprecedented 100 UK NGOs joined forces with at least 100 more from across the EU to submit evidence and to campaign against this threat to the laws that protect nature…

    …4 months after a record-breaking 550,000 individuals and organisations responded to a European Commission consultation on the future of these laws (over 520,000 of whom called for the laws to be protected, including over 100,000 from the UK).

    … and 1 month after nine EU member states (Germany, Croatia, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Spain) wrote to Commissioner Vella to oppose any amendment or merger of the Directives because of the negative impact this would have on action for nature and on certainty for business…

     …. On Friday in a cold and wet Brussels, over 400 stakeholders representing Governments, businesses and NGOs from across the EU gathered to discuss the draft findings of the Fitness Check of the Nature Directives. I was there, along with Mike Clarke (who spoke in his role as a member of BirdLife’s Global Council) and other RSPB colleagues who have been working (almost literally) round the clock on this issue for the last few months, and with other members of the UK NGO ‘Joint Links’ coalition, including BugLife, Friends of the Earth and WWF-UK.

    Attendees were greeted by an energetic crowd of oversized wildlife – including banner-waving bumblebees, and a frog and a flamingo handing out ‘Keep calm and implement the laws’ badges! They, along with their other furry friends - were there to present Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella with a little reminder of the scale of public support for the Nature Directives – as demonstrated by those over 520,000 individuals and organisations who called for the laws to be protected during the public consultation.

    The purpose of the day was to present the draft findings of the review – which Martin and Mike have previously described in this blog here and here. In short it found that the Nature Directives are fit for purpose, and any problems with them are a consequence of poor implementation and enforcement.  They make a ‘major contribution to the EU’s biodiversity target’, but complementary action – especially in key policy areas such as agriculture – is essential to halt the loss of biodiversity.  

    The interesting thing was to see how stakeholders in general – and Member State Governments in particular – would respond.

    Not everything that we heard was encouraging (or compatible with the evidence presented!) – but the overwhelming majority of those who spoke reinforced the key messages that the Directives are fit for purpose, and that what nature needs is a focus on their full and proper implementation, married with action to target other policies (especially those on agriculture) which all too often run counter to our best efforts to defend nature.

    The German Government – a staunch defender of the Nature Directives – took to the conference stage alongside representatives of the European Parliament’s Environment Council, the Committee of the Regions, IUCN, the European Landowners Association and FACE (the European Hunter’s Federation) and the Estonian and Slovakian Governments (amongst others), all reiterating that the Directives are fit for purpose, but that greater emphasis to improve implementation is required. On stage, Mandy King of the UK’s Department for Energy and Climate Change spoke of their evidence to the review, which found that while major developers do incur costs to comply with these laws, those costs are proportionate to the risks such developments pose to the environment, and that where issues arise, these are to do with how the laws are implemented, rather than the laws themselves. From the floor, Andy Limbrick of Energy UK spoke of the importance of protecting these laws to provide a stable regulatory framework for the energy industry, and Stanley Johnson, former Conservative MEP and founding father of the Habitats Directive, also took to the floor to defend the law he wrote over 20 years ago.

    However, one of the most significant speeches of the day came from Dr Hans Hoogeveen – Director General for Agriculture and Nature Management at the Netherlands Ministry of Economic Affairs and Vice-Minister for Agriculture. The Dutch Government has long been at the heart of attempts to weaken the Nature Directives – and early in the day Dutch Government representatives seemed to be holding this line – calling repeatedly for greater ‘flexibility’ in the laws. However, in the afternoon came an apparent U-turn, when Dr Hoogeveen stated that ‘'the Nature Directives should not be changed - that is position of the Netherlands Government”.

    And the UK Government? Well – while Defra Minister Rory Stewart did not attend, it was good to see Defra officials. along with representatives of the Scottish and Welsh governments in attendance on the day. To date, there is no official UK Government position on the review of the Nature Directives, attributed to a desire not to pre-empt the finding of the evidence based review, and there’s still time for you to call on the UK Government to Defend Nature;

    We can only hope that on the basis of that evidence – and indeed on the evidence of the Government’s own 2012 review which concluded that ‘in the large majority of cases the implementation of the Directives is working well, allowing both development of key infrastructure and ensuring that a high level of environmental protection is maintained’ – the UK Government will soon be standing shoulder to shoulder with the ever-growing number of Member States who are taking a stand to protect the laws that protect nature..

  • Looking forward

    In the run to every Christmas, big moments seem to come thick and fast.  This year is no different.  Here's a flavour of what to expect over the next couple of weeks...

    ...on Wednesday, the Chancellor delivers the results of the Comprehensive Spending Review.  We'll keep an eye out for the detail of Defra's settlement hoping that core capacity remains to deliver its major environmental commitments

    ...on Sunday, people will take to the streets in 57 cities around the world calling for action to tackle climate change.  Taking place on the eve of the crucial talks in Paris, the world's media will fall on the London event.  Understandably, the planned march in the French capital has been cancelled but everyone is keen to ensure the London march is the biggest ever.  It is a great an opportunity to send a clear message that we stand united with the people of Paris in support of a global climate change deal  My son and I will be walking with RSPB supporters.  I hope to see there as well. Monday, the UN climate talks start and will continue until 11 December.  By then, we shall know how close collective commitment is to limit global temperature rises to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.  The Birdlife International contingent will focus on ensuring that adequate finance is in place to protect the world's tropical forests as part of the global deal. two weeks time, environment ministers across Europe will meet in Brussels to reflect on the review of the EU Nature Directives.  After Friday's conference (more on this tomorrow), we can expect this to the moment that the UK declares its hand and show their support for the directives.  A smart outcome would be for ministers to express their desire to focus on enforcing and implementing the legislation.  If you have not already done so, you can still send a message (here) to our Minister, Rory Stewart, encouraging him to stand up for the laws that defend our nature. 

    These are four big moments that will test our ability to act as stewards of this beautiful planet.  By Christmas, we'll know if we've done what nature needs or if the challenge has become even greater.

  • Is nature a small thing to you? Guest blog from Mike Clarke, RSPB Chief Executive

    On the day of a crucial conference in Brussels regarding the future of the EU Nature Directives, my boss, Mike Clarke, offers his perspective on how politicians should respond to the findings of review into their effectiveness...


    For much of this year, I’ve had the privilege of being at the cutting edge of our campaign to defend the Nature Directives. In the UK, in Brussels and in Berlin I’ve met with many people who make key policy decisions. I have had the opportunity to point out that nature does not respect frontiers, and the Nature Directives have a vital role to play in saving nature in the UK and across the continent.

    As you may have read here on Wednesday, hundreds of people from across Europe will meet today in Brussels to discuss the future of the Nature Directives. The Directives are the subject of a Fitness Check by the European Commission that is supposed to be an independent assessment of whether they are fit for purpose. However, from the start, it has been clear that some want to see these crucial laws weakened.

    This desire to weaken environmental laws is driven by an outmoded notion that the environment is a burden on the economy, rather than an asset. In the UK the perception that environmental laws “impose a ridiculous burden on business” led to the Habitats Regulations Review in England, which found that – in fact – they don’t. At European level the drive to deregulate has led to a new “better regulation” initiative, with the new EU institutions determined to be “big on the big things, but small on the small things”.

    For some nature is a small thing, despite the fact that it provides us with clean water, flood alleviation, carbon storage, pollination, mental and physical wellbeing and cherished landscapes. For me, nature is a very big thing, not just because I depend on it, but also because of it's beauty and for it's own sake. How do you judge the benefits to an individual, or indeed society, of hearing the first cuckoo of spring, of seeing porpoises leaping from the sea, or indeed of knowing, just knowing, that eagles, bears and wolves have returned to our continent?

    At the Conference today I have been asked to talk on the topic of efficiency. The Commission has asked “whether the costs involved in the implementation of the EU Nature Directives are reasonable in relation to the objectives pursued and the results achieved (benefits).”

    We know, and the Commission knows, that the annual costs of full implementation of the Natura 2000 network would be approximately EUR 5.8 billion per annum, while the Natura 2000 network has been estimated to deliver annual benefits of EUR 200-300 billion across the EU by supporting valuable ecosystem services.

    The RSPB has helped compile evidence showing that the benefits of the Directives greatly exceed the costs at EU, national and local scales. Indeed, studies in Scotland and England have found benefit to cost ratios of up to 12:1. RSPB research in press confirms that the Directives deliver not only biodiversity benefits, but also help to fulfil other international obligations, such on climate change.

    The review shows many examples of the Nature Directives working well - this has been hard earned. Charities like the RSPB have made a major financial and technical contribution to their implementation. We have worked side by side with businesses, from multi-national corporations to family farms.  The policy uncertainty - and business risk - that would come from opening up the legislation would lift the lid on a Pandora's Box.

    But the Nature Directives are not there just because nature is worth money. The Nature Directives exist because the European Union, and indeed the world under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, has recognised that protecting nature is also our moral responsibility. Nature is an asset that is corroding. Far from being gold-plated it is, in truth, being allowed to rust.

    The evidence from this review, and the UK Govt review before it, fails to demonstrate any strategic cost on other aspects of the public interest. So, why are the Nature Directives an irritant to some policy makers? In my view, it is because of backward-looking ideas and restricted thinking.

    We need a new way of working - we need to modernise our thinking. In many ways, the Nature Directives were ahead of their time. They are part of the effective functioning of a single market, and their design is as good example of smart regulation. 

    Nature is not a small thing, it’s a big thing. The Nature Directives can be more efficient through investment, smart implementation and consistent enforcement. They are a vital part of a future in which the next generation can have ambition, confidence and hope.