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
  • Social research is good for you - most of the time

    I was very fortunate to spend Monday at Minsmere.  Someone within the RSPB had the fine idea of encouraging Board Directors to 'volunteer' for the day.  My prize was to contribute to some social science research designed to help us improve the experience of visitors to our nature reserves.  So while Environment Secretary Rt Hon Liz Truss MP was giving her conference speech (see transcript below) and while Karmenu Vella was being grilled by MEPs to assess his suitability for appointment as Environment Commissioner (more on this later in the week), I was standing around with a clip-board trying to find someone to talk to.

    With Cetti's warblers for company, I was pleasantly surprised that people didn't mind being asked a few questions about why they were out and about.  Not surprisingly, apart from a very well behaved school group, the vast majority of those I saw were those with time on their hands - mainly retired folk having a wonderful day in a beautiful place.  "Everyone knows Minsmere is the best reserve in the country" said one, "that's why I am here".  I know 209 RSPB site managers who might disagree, but it was good to see the reserve busy even in mid-week.

    My companion for the day courtesy of David Tipling rspb-images.com

    The RSPB has often dabbled in the dark arts of social science especially to help us understand what our members want and how we can inspire more support.  I say dark arts, simply because I was trained as a natural scientist and I was rarely exposed to social science.  

    Yet, it was only this year that we employed our first social scientist.  We did this in response to the independent review of our science which had been led by Professor Sir John Lawton.  In his conclusions, he was clear that we needed to embrace social science to improve our understanding of people's behaviour and to demonstrate how nature is important to human wellbeing.  It made sense to me.  We say we want to influence change in policy, legislation, attitudes and behaviour.  We know that you cannot rely on the power of ecological evidence alone to win an argument or effect change.  If it was that simple, then there would have been no badger cull, farmers would all be including skylark plots in their arable fields and the Ministry of Defence probably wouldn't be proposing to build houses on the nation's finest nightingale site.

    Maybe we don't need the research.  Last night at a fringe meeting hosted by the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts, Liz Truss said that "we all depend on nature whether we are from urban or rual backgrounds".  We need nature for food, for shelter, for energy and yes for inspiration.   There is growing evidence of the importance of contact with nature for both our mental and physical health and, next week, we expect the Institute of Health Equity at University College London will publish a summary of this evidence.  The more we understand the importance of nature to us as humans, the less likely we are to so easily trade it away and the greater chance that we shall invest to protect it.

    So, we are exploring how social science can help us and I hope, over time, it adds an extra string to our bow.  For me, while I felt better having spent a day at Minsmere listening to Cetti's warblers, I may not be allowed to get hold of a clipboard again - one unlucky interviewee whacked his head on a sign probably trying to escape from me.  I think I should stick to the day job...

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    Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP speech to Conservation Party Conference 2014

    Conference.

    I have to confess that I was both delighted and surprised…

    ….. when the Prime Minister offered me this role.

    I was delighted…because I love the countryside.

    I represent one of the most productive agricultural areas of the country in the fine

    county of Norfolk….

    …..and I am infatuated with British food.

    But I was also surprised to be appointed because I have so much in common with

    ..... Ed Miliband.

    We both grew up in left-wing households.

    We both have parents who are academics.

    His father talked about Marx and Trotsky over the dinner table.

    My mother took me on protests.

    I went on marches.

    I made banners.

    I went to peace camps.

    For me, it wasn’t ballet or My Little Pony.

    Instead, it was saving the planet…..and the CND.

    The most useful thing I learned…..was how to make myself heard in a crowd.

    Which I still make plenty of use of today.

    But while Ed stayed with the predictable Left Wing Establishment.

    I, Conference, became a rebel.

    I became a CONSERVATIVE.

    And I rebelled for 3 reasons.
    Because I believe that you can shape your own destiny.

    Because I believe people should succeed on merit.

    And as a practical Yorkshire girl….

    I believe in not just talking

    ……. But in getting things done….

    And, when it comes to the Environment, the Labour Party have always been good at

    talking.

    While we’ve been really good at doing.

    It was a Conservative who pointed out that CFCs were damaging the ozone layer.

    It was a Conservative who championed international efforts to ban them.

    It was a Conservative who signed the Treaty phasing out their use.

    And the name of that Conservative was Margaret Thatcher.

    The ozone layer is getting better and we’re now leading international efforts to

    tackle climate change.

    We have cleaned up almost 10,000 miles of river and improved our beaches.

    Numbers of important birds like the linnet and the goldfinch are on the rise.

    We are planting a million trees and over 20,000 acres of woodland.

    Our defences against flooding are being upgraded to make them more robust.

    We are spending £3.2 billion – half a billion more than the last government – better

    protecting 165,000 houses and 580,000 acres of farmland.

    We are constantly vigilant.

    All this means that families can enjoy clean rivers and beaches…

    …..and have peace of mind in their own homes….

    ….. while children get to know the sound of birdsong in our woods and meadows.

    This is not about targets or turbines.

    It’s about real improvements…..

    …….practical conservative environmentalism…

    ….. where a strong, healthy environment….

    …..is a core part of a strong, healthy economy. And our Long Term Economic Plan.

    And that is exactly what our farmers and food producers need.

    Just like our country…

    ….there once was a time that our food was in decline.

    We had an inferiority complex about our traditional dishes.

    We’d lost pride in our country…

    …..and we’d lost pride in our food.

    The amount of British Food we consumed and produced went down.

    The last Labour government…

    ….tied our farmers up in red tape….

    …… wasted £600 million on EU fines ….

    ……..and left us with the worst bovine TB problem in Europe.

    The fact is: Labour don’t care about the countryside.

    They think that we can’t grow enough of our own food.

    They think that we can just outsource it.

    Well they are wrong.

    Decline is not inevitable.

    Under this government, food and farming is one of our biggest success stories.

    It’s our largest manufacturing sector….

    …….bigger than aerospace and car production put together.

    Modern farming is not about shire horses and steam.

    It’s about systems and satellites.

    At every stage of the supply chain there is cutting edge technology….

    ….whether it’s GPS in tractors

    …..automated celery rigs

    …… or Sainsbury’s employing an army of coders.

    That’s probably why it’s one of the fastest growing areas for entrepreneurs.

    We’re helping producers compete by slashing red tape and opening up public

    procurement

    ….as well as nearly 600 new overseas markets – thanks to the hard work of my

    predecessors Owen Paterson and Caroline Spelman.

    Our exports have increased by more than £1 billion in the past four years.

    And the results are superb.

    We are growing wheat more competitively than the Canadian prairies.

    We’re producing more varieties of cheese than the French.

    And we are even selling tea to China.

    Yorkshire Tea.

    When it comes to British food and drink….

    ……we have never had it so good,

    As well as exporting our fantastic food abroad, I want to see more British food sold

    in Britain.

    Two-thirds of the apples and nine-tenths of the pears that we eat are imported.

    Not to mention two thirds of the cheese.

    And that is a disgrace.

    From the apple that dropped on Isaac Newton’s head to the orchards of nursery

    rhymes…

    …..this fruit has always been a part of Britain.

    I want our children to grow up enjoying the taste of British apples as well as

    … Cornish sardines, Norfolk turkey, Melton Mowbray pork pies, Wensleydale

    cheese, Herefordshire pears……. and….of course… black pudding.

    Under a Conservative majority government, I want Britain to lead the world in food,

    farming and the environment.

    In a fortnight I will be in Paris at the world’s largest food fair…

    ….bigging up British products.

    In December, I’ll be in Beijing negotiating new markets for pork.

    I am determined that our farmers and producers will have access to more markets

    both at home and abroad…

    …..generating jobs and security for millions.

    I am determined to press ahead restoring habitats,

    ….cleaning rivers

    ….and improving the quality of our atmosphere…..

    ….so that future generations can breathe clean air and enjoy the countryside.

    I am determined that our flood defences will be always be strong enough to protect

    us against the ravages of a changing climate.

    And I will not rest until the British apple is at the very top of the tree.

  • Where next for the Big Society?

    The title of the Conservative Party's 2010 Election Manifesto was "Invitation to join the Government of Great Britain".   The theme was of a "Big Society" where everyone played their part in making the country better.  As the Conservative Party gathers in Birmingham this week for their final party conference before the 2015 poll it is worth reflecting on their ambition for a "Big Society".

    Although derided by some, I always felt relaxed about the concept.  After all, I worked in a sector which was used to working with volunteers, businesses, statutory agencies, local and central government - indeed the 1994 Biodiversity Action Plan was established with such a partnership in mind.  Yet, promoting the "Big Society" concept at a time of deficit reduction and public spending cuts created the feeling that the State was reneging on its side of the bargain leaving civil society to pick up the pieces.  It felt that there was little consideration of how the State could support civil society in assuming responsibility for delivering various services and this is what jarred.

    Yet, as a concept, I think it is still worth exploring and politicians should continue to be curious about the role the State can play in making things better and in catalysing change by others.

    As I have written previously, a government should be responsible for setting ambition (for example for recovering threatened species and protecting sites), for establishing and enforcing laws that help achieve these objectives (for example protecting and managing our finest wildlife sites - SSSIs) and for creating strong institutions (such as an Office of Environmental Responsibility to mirror the Office of Budget Responsibility) to help make this happen and help report on progress. A government needs to ensure that decisions that may effect nature are based on the best available information which is why support for volunteer-led surveys like the Breeding Bird Survey is so crucial. And, it should help to ensure conservation takes place on the ground.  It doesn't need to do everything - there are others that are often better placed - but they must play their role well.

    This country is not short of people prepared to do things from which the community can benefit. My father's churches were always run by an army of volunteers, my boy's rugby club would not function without an army of Dads committed every Sunday morning for eight months of the year for ten years (I am three years in to my sentence) and the RSPB could not do what is does without the million hours worth of time given for free by our dedicated volunteers.

    But, if the State wants to prevent species like the hen harrier from becoming extinct, it will need to do more to help the police tackle wildlife crime; if it wants to prevent our finest wildlife sites from being destroyed through inappropriate housing developments, then it needs to step in (Lodge Hill would be a good place to start); and if it wants to see more landscape scale conservation to make space for nature then it will need to continue to provide support to help committed people develop a shared vision for an area and then find the resources to deliver that vision.

    The State cannot be passive.   Politicians should obsess about how they not only prevent bad things, but also make it easy for people to do the right thing. I first heard this phrase used by John Gummer MP at a Conservative conference nearly a decade ago and I hope that there will be some, this week, that continue to obsess about how to achieve this for nature.

    I shall not be  in Birmingham this week but my boss Mike Clarke will join our parliamentary team urging the party to come up with a package of proposals (such as new Nature and Wellbeing Bill and licensing driven grouse shooting) to match its ambition to be the first generation to pass on the natural environment in a better state to next.  Instead, I'm off for a day's 'volunteering' at Minsmere.  More on that tomorrow...

  • What they say

    Sometime before the 1997 election I remember listening to Michael Meacher MP, the then shadow Environment Minister, say "I have spent the last 18 years waking up wondering what I would say that day.  I look forward to waking up and thinking what I will do today."

    Dropping in to various events at the Labour Party conference in Manchester this week, I have, inevitably, heard a lot of talking.  I imagine that Labour politicians are all looking forward to the day (for them, preferably, 8 May 2015) when the wake up and can do things.  

    What they say is, however, important as this becomes the platform on which they will fight the General Election and if elected, it will be their actions on which they will be judged.  Some have been clearer than others about their intentions.

    Here are some nuggets...

    ...Shadow Environment Secretary Maria Eagle MP said in two separate speeches: "People want the recovery of our natural environment rather than its non-stop degradation and decline" and "We need a step change in nature conservation".  How?  We say through a Nature and Wellbeing Act.

    ...Shadow Environment Minister Angela Smith MP said "I want to see an environmentally responsible shooting industry".  How? We say through licensing grouse shooting.

    ...Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband MP said "There is no more important issue for me when I think about my children's generation than tackling global Climate Change”. How? Here, the Leader does have some commitments.  He talked about decarbonising electricity supplies by 2030, creating one million new green jobs part and introducing an ambitious new energy efficiency programme.  

    This is good stuff.  Shame he said nothing on nature, perhaps he was waiting for his shadow Defra team to firm up their plans.

    Meanwhile, over in New York, the Prime Minister was also talking.  He was one of many who made strong speeches on climate change at the UN Summit.  He was able to say what he has done at home and want he wants.  I've pasted a transcript of his speech below - you can be the judge of his record on climate change.

    These statements follow the largest ever mobilisation on climate change when on Sunday 675,000 people took part in 2,700 events all round the world - orchestrated by the phenomenal (and still new) campaigning machine Avaaz.

    The reason Mr Cameron is in New York, is that he is joining other world leaders, to revitalise negotiations on a global climate deal. Thanks to the marches and the growing size and breadth of those calling for climate action, they could not have had a clearer public mandate for bold leadership.

    I hope that what we are witnessing is the beginning of a realisation in the political world that urgent and serious climate action is not only good for the climate and the economy, but for politics too. People care about far more than GDP – we care about wildlife, our environment, and the state of the planet that we will hand over to our children too – and we expect our politicians to too.  

    What they say is important, but ultimately, it is what they do that counts.

    What did you think about the words from the Labour Party? And what did you think about Mr Cameron's speech?

    It would be great to hear your views.

    ------------------------------------------

    What Mr Cameron said in New York...

    Climate change is one of the most serious threats facing our world. And it is not just a threat to the environment. It is also a threat to our national security, to global security, to poverty eradication and to economic prosperity.

    And we must agree a global deal in Paris next year. We simply cannot put this off any longer.

    And I pay tribute to Secretary General Ban for bringing everyone together here today and for putting real focus on this issue.

    Now my country, the United Kingdom, is playing its part.

    In fact, it was Margaret Thatcher who was one of the first world leaders to demand action on climate change, right here at the United Nations twenty-five years ago.

    Now since then, the UK has cut greenhouse gas emissions by one quarter. We have created the world’s first Climate Change Act. And as Prime Minister, I pledged that the government I lead would be the greenest government ever. And I believe we've kept that promise.

    We've more than doubled our capacity in renewable electricity in the last four years alone. 

    We now have enough solar to power almost a million UK homes. 

    We have the world’s leading financial centre in carbon trading. 

    And we have established the world’s first green investment bank. 

    We’ve invested £1 billion--$1.5 billion--in Carbon Capture and Storage. And we've said no to any new coal without Carbon Capture and Storage. 

    We are investing in all forms of lower carbon energy including shale gas and nuclear, with the first new nuclear plant coming on stream for a generation.

    Now, as a result of all that we are doing, we are on track to cut emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. 

    And we are playing our role internationally as well, providing nearly £4 billion of climate finance over five years as part of our commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of our Gross National Income on aid. And we are one of the only countries in the advanced world to do that and to meet our promises.

    We now need the whole world though to step up to deliver a new, ambitious, global deal which keeps the 2 degree goal within reach. 

    I'll be pushing European Union leaders to come to Paris with an offer to cut emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2030.

    We know from Copenhagen that we are not just going to turn up in Paris and reach a deal. We need to work hard now to raise the level of ambition and to work through the difficult issues.

    To achieve a deal we need all countries, all countries to make commitments to reduce emissions. 

    Our agreement has to be legally binding, with proper rules and targets to hold each other to account.

    We must provide support to those who need it, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable.

    It is completely unrealistic to expect developing countries to forgo the high carbon route to growth that so many Western countries enjoyed, unless we support them to achieve green growth. 
    Now, if we get this right there need not be a trade-off between economic growth and reducing carbon emissions.

    We need to give business the certainty it needs to invest in low carbon. 

    That means fighting against the economically and environmentally perverse fossil fuel subsidies which distort free markets and rip off taxpayers.

    It means championing green free trade, slashing tariffs on things like solar panels.

    And it means giving business the flexibility to pick the right technologies for their needs.

    In short we need a framework built on green growth not green tape.

    As political leaders we have a duty to think long-term. 

    When offered clear scientific advice, we should listen to it.

    When faced with risks, we should insure against them.

    And when presented with an opportunity to safeguard the long-term future of our planet and our people, we should seize it.

    So I would implore everyone to seize this opportunity over the coming
    year. Countries like the United Kingdom have taken the steps necessary. We've legislated. We've acted. We've invested. And I urge other countries to take the steps that they need to as well so we can
    reach this historic deal.

    Thank you.