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
  • Why government should welcome loud voices for nature

    A few years ago, the RSPB produced a report outlining ten principles of sustainable development (here).  It might not have been the most exciting report we've ever produced but it provided a decent check-list to judge decision-making by governments across the UK.

    One of principles was that public participation was key to good decision-making. We argued that it was in government's interest to engage civil society, to hear the different views from different groups who held different views.  This principle is enshrined in UN's the Arhus Convention*.

    Charities and other NGOs have an important role to play, in channelling the views of the ‘person in the street’ to decision-makers, in participating in expert or technical groups and in monitoring the implementation of the legislation. They represent a broader public interest in the policy process.  From an environmental perspective, nature has no voice, so others like the RSPB of The Wildlife Trusts must speak up for it.

    I have, however, detected a little schizophrenia from government over the past week as to whether they are keen to hear from charities or would prefer them to be quiet.

    One the one hand, Defra seems to be going out of its way to seek the views of loads of different organisations as it develops both its 25 year plan for the natural environment and its response to the Cumbria floods.  

    On the other hand, news emerged over the weekend that Government was considering restricting the campaigning power of charities that receive government grants (see here).  The details seem hazy at this stage but the rhetoric is clear that public money should not be used for campaigning. 

    An aerial photo of the Thames - a landscape that is being transformed for people and wildlife through strong engagement of government, local people and charities (Rolf Williams

    In her impressive speech to the Institute for Government last week, Environment Secretary Liz Truss gave the clearest signal of what to expect from Defra's new strategy.  You can read it here.  I particularly liked the emphasis on improving engagement and direction from government locally. This has been lacking over the past few years and our experience tells us that transformational change only happens when local people rally around shared visions for their local landscapes while government remains actively engaged by lining up incentives and regulatory control. Defra will be piloting new approaches in three Cumbria catchment pilots and three other areas which they are calling pathfinder projects (for coastal, urban and large rural landscapes).  We and many others are looking forward to sharing our experience in these areas and want government to be successful at getting better outcomes for the natural environment.

    Yet, after this weekend's news about proposed new restrictions on campaigning, I am now not sure how keen government is to hear the views of civil society.   The Head of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Sir Stuart Etherington, came out fighting at the weekend and said,

    "The new rules attached to grant income would appear to prevent charities from suggesting improvements or efficiencies to civil servants or ministers, or even from raising concerns with MPs... Indeed, several government departments have developed ‘strategic partner’ grant programmes specifically to enable them to access the expertise of charities to inform their policy development and delivery for these reasons.  This is tantamount to making charities take a vow of silence and goes against the spirit of open policy-making that this government has hitherto championed. We call on ministers to reconsider this draconian move that could have significant consequences for the charity sector’s relationship with government. I trust government will consult further on this".

    Most of the challenges that the nation faces require full engagement from all parts of society and I am convinced that decision making is enhanced when the views of as many parts of civil society as possible are listened to.  The last thing government needs is an imposed "vow of silence" from charities and I hope that the Government listens to Sir Stuart Etherington, goes back and thinks again.

    *The Arhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters was agreed in 1998 and ratified by the UK in 2005.  You can read more about its provisions here.

  • Show the love this Valentine's Day

    In the run  up to Valentine's Day, the RSPB has once again joined forces with WWF, Oxfam, the National Trust, the Women’s Institute and many other partners from The Climate Coalition to encourage people to think differently about climate change and to inspire them to act.  We are asking people to‪ Show the Love by watching and sharing a new 5 minute film featuring a letter written by Michael Morpurgo and starring Jeremy Irons and Maxine Peake (see below).  

    As with last year's film (here), we want to challenge people to think about how climate change will affect the things that we love the most - and for many that will include wildlife.

    The 70% decline in the UK kittiwake population has been linked to climate change (Andy Hay,

    Our report on the Nature of Climate Change highlighted the growing body of scientific evidence on the effects climate change is already having on Europe's wildlife.  The case for action will only become more compelling as the IPCC impacts report said in 2014 "It is well-established that the geographical extent of the damage or loss, and the number of systems affected, will increase with the magnitude and rate of climate change".

    The twin global challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change require systemic changes to our economy.  This means decoupling growth in our prosperity from environmental harm and doing more to reflect the value of nature in decision-making.  

    Even though we have made progress, most recently with the Paris climate deal struck last year, there is no doubt that these are life-long challenges.  Yet, dealing with them is the only way that we can learn to live in harmony with nature - the vision that is captured by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

    While we will continue to make a difference through our own practical conservation work, we also want to find new ways to inspire people to change their own behaviour, while also influencing governments and business to make it easier for more people to do the right thing.

    Last weekend more than half a million people spent an hour watching birds in their garden and contributing data to the world's largest wildlife survey - Big Garden Birdwatch.  This week, I hope that people watch the video about climate change and sign up to show their love for the things affected by climate change.  

    Most importantly, I hope that these activities inspire people to act: to help give nature a home and to tackle climate change.  You can find out more about the RSPB's work on climate change here.

    Enjoy the film.

  • European Parliament opposes revision of Nature Directives

    This morning, MEPs in the European Parliament adopted (with an overwhelming majority) a report that reinforces the importance of the EU Nature Directives in halting biodiversity loss.

    Today’s news follows a series of announcements which suggest that any political appetite to weaken the directives has reduced but alas not entirely disappeared. 

    © European Union 2015 - European Parliament

    In October last year, the European Commission acknowledged that the EU’s 2020 biodiversity targets would be missed unless “implementation [of the EU Nature Directives] and enforcement efforts become considerably bolder and more ambitious”. 

    This message echoed that sent by half a million people who, last summer, shared their views through the Fitness Check consultation regarding the Directives.

    In November (see here), the draft Fitness Check report concluded 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.

    In December (see here), Environment Ministers from 28 Member States, including our own Minister, Rory Stewart, said they wanted to focus their efforts on improving implementation of the Directives to give us a chance of halting the loss of biodiversity.

    We now have a situation where the evidence says the Directives are fit for purpose, where elected politicians in both the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament support them and where civil society and many businesses want the spotlight to move to implementation and effective reform of Common Agriculture Policy – seen as a driver of loss. 

    Yet, in a speech yesterday, Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella seemed reluctant to accept that this consensus view had emerged and suggested legal reform was still possible.  Clearly, some vested interests are working very hard behind the scenes for EU nature protection to be weakened.

    For now, can I take this opportunity to thank all of you that have support our campaign to date.  While today’s vote is the latest example of the impact we have had, it is clear that the campaign to defend the laws that defend our nature has not yet been won.

    Please do keep an eye on the Defend Nature pages of our website for further opportunities to get involved.