Spending Cuts Week – what does it mean for the environment?

And so Axe Wednesday has passed, what more do we know about the impacts on the environment?

Defra has one of the largest cuts overall of all Government Departments at 8% a year over the next 4 years ( I make that a 32% cut), and has to make 33% admin savings during that time. This does not really sit very well with the “Greenest Government Ever” strapline, in my view.

HLS SAVED

HLS has been saved, thanks to “don’t cut the countryside”, a campaign by the environmental NGOs,  which got the message across, that HLS is the most effective environmental scheme we have ever had in England, to pay landowners to manage their land to benefit the biodiversity it supports, the landscapes they live in, the ecosystem services they provide, their historical heritage, and the access the public benefits from in so many ways. Defra claim that  HLS funding will increase by 80% by 2013/14 – what that actually means is unknown at the moment, given that the associated budgets are being heavily cut back. How can Natural England physically process all those extra claims with a substantially reduced staff, and only half the offices it currently has? Natural England has already notified its staff and some applicants (including us) that there will be no new HLS agreements going live between now and 1st April next year.

SELLING OFF THE CROWN JEWELS?

The National Nature Reserve sell-off is apparently still on the cards, according to Mike McCarthy in the Indy

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/defra-nature-reserves-set-to-go-private-and-kew-suffers-2112192.html

I know some of our colleagues in other NGOs have been discussing with Defra about taking on those currently owned by Natural England. I have some misgivings about this approach. Natural England had the resources and the expertise to manage these sites, resources and expertise that has built up over the last 50 years, a continuous thread running through all the bodies starting with the Nature Conservancy, through NCC, English Nature and now NE.

Mike didn’t get the figures quite right in his article: 2/3 of the England’s NNRs are managed by NE, but quite a lot less than that are actually owned by NE, the remainder being leased through Nature Reserve Agreements. If anyone out there has the actual figure for NNRs owned by Natural England please let me know.

Let’s say for arguments sake that half of England’s National Nature Reserves, “the jewels in the crown” as I believe NE have called them only recently, were sold or given to NGOs. Where would funding come from to continue the high quality management to which they have been accustomed? Well theoretically NGOs can apply to HLS for funding, which of course Natural England couldn’t. But given that HLS is competitive, if NNRs received HLS funding (and they would of course all score very highly at least for their biodiversity interest, their public access, their landscape, their ecosystem services and indeed their historical heritge – HLS is after all a multi-objective scheme) that would mean that some deserving farmer somewhere else in the country had his application rejected because a NNR had trumped them.

From the Treasury’s perspective this is fine, as currently NNR management through NE is 100% Treasury funded, and of course HLS being a European scheme, is 60% EU funded. Savings for the treasury ensue. kerching. There’s a moral argument too. These really are England’s Crown Jewels  – many chosen over 60 years ago at the dawn of modern nature conservation, already recognised as places which must be protected at all costs. Should the Government really be selling them off, or giving them away? Those NGOs who are willing to take on these NNRs will need to show they can manage them to at least as high a standard as Natural England, and show they can pull in funding from many different sources to support their protection, and ideally expansion, perhaps at the core of a series of NNR-focussed Landscape Scale Conservation projects. This would go a long way to assuage the concerns of those who fear this is a cost cutting exercise, and will lead to a decline in the status of these treasured places.

The sell-off isn’t just about NNRs by the way. The Forestry Commission is now in the sights of the Treasury – there will be an announcement before Christmas on proposals for the future of the FC and its massive landholdings, including many nationally important and even more locally important sites: some are even very important grasslands! And although the MoD escaped relatively lightly from the cuts, deep within the Defence Review are mentions of assets surplus to requirements. It is a happy accident of history that land owned by the MoD and used for military training inclues some of our finest landscapes and wildlife-rich grasslands, with of course Salisbury Plain Training Area and Porton Down, and Stanford Training Area in the Brecklands as exemplars of this high quality. It is precisely because they were protected for military training that they escaped what Oliver Rackham calls “The Locust years”, of the 50s to 70s, when so much of England’s landscapes were swept clean of their people, wildlife and heritage. So I will be keeping a close eye on proposals for yet another sell off of state-owned land, including more of our Crown Jewels.

Now I have sign off as today I will hopefully put my submission together for the Natural Environment White Paper consultation. It’s a green paper – why didnt they call it a green paper? Presumably because they didnt want to give the impression it was going to be too environmentally friendly.

Oh and by the way in case you haven’t seen it, you’ll always get a thorough and reasonable view from Mark Avery (and his retinue) at

http://networkedblogs.com/9u9sB

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About grasslandstrust

The Grasslands Trust is the only national UK charity that focuses entirely on saving grasslands that are valuable because they are rich in wildlife, history, or for other reasons.
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