biodiversity bureaucracy – biodivaucracy?

Yesterday instead of enjoying the wonderful late summer/early autumn sunshine I was stuck for 4 hours in the basement of a DECC building in Whitehall. This was the last England Biodiversity Group meeting under its current guise (what were we doing in DECC instead of Defra? apparently they had a room we could meet in, unlike Defra).

For a couple of years now, I’ve been going along representing Wildlife and Countryside Link whose job it is to bring together all those NGOs with an interest in wildlife and the err countryside; and animal welfare and the marine environment.

England Biodiversity Group may sound very grand, but it really isn’t, or I should say wasnt. It’s basically a talking shop, part of the biodiversity bureaucracy. – biodivacracy? it doesn’t sound good.I tried to use it to get  across Link’s concerns about why the BAP wasn’t working, usually to little or no avail.

Under the previous incarnation of the England Biodiversity Strategy, we had Biodiversity Integration Groups (BIGs), Strategy Implementation Groups (SIGs), Regional and Local biodiversity groups, UK habitat groups, taxon groups – sometimes it felt like there were more groups talking about biodiversity than there was actual biodiversity. Above all these sat the vaguely mysterious Biodiversity Programme Board (BPB) which only Defra and their agencies (and the occasional rep from another government department – but never the Treasury!) attended and where all the decisions were actually made.

In the previous incarnation there were Habitat Action Plan steering groups and Species Action Plan steering groups as well. These were abolished in 2008 – though some live on, like those old soldiers on desert islands who refused to concede defeat 40 years after the war is over. The BAP battlefield is indeed littered with the burnt out shells of abandoned BAP groups and initiatives, as one colleague put it.

That’s all been swept away now. A new dawn has broken in the world of English biodiversity conservation, or bureaucracy – with the publication of Biodiversity 2020 – the new strategy. The NGOs have pushed for a place on the programme board, and we have one. But so do NFU/CLA – presumably that’s for “balance” – in the same way the BBC feel obliged  – for balance’s sake – to quote an anti global warming pundit when they run a global warming story.

The BIGs and the SIGs are no more – replaced by a Terrestrial Biodiversity Group (TBG), a People Engagement Group (PEG), a Marine group and a biodiversity indicators group – more groups, more bureaucracy. England Biodiversity Group will morph into something else – well in reality just another talking shop I suspect. We are suggesting it should become a more independent feisty group providing scrutiny and challenge to the other groups, with an independent chair. I don’t imagine Defra like the sound of that and since it’s their decision, I imagine they will decide not to adopt our idea.

Natural England will lead the TBG and write a delivery plan, explaining how they are going to implement Biodiversity 2020 – get 90% of priority habitat into recovering condition, and create an extra 200,000ha of priority habitat by 2020. Ambitious targets indeed.

The two biggest problems with the previous incarnation of the BAP was that

1. national groups like EBG had poor links with local groups like LBAPs – this drove resentment and inefficiency. That hasn’t really been solved this time round, as funding for LBAPs dries up, leaving the network to shrivel away, replaced by Local Nature Partnerships (in some places) who will have a much broader remit, less time and money for biodiversity.

2. policy blockages such as CAP reform, planning etc weren’t effectively dealt with because Defra is one of the weedier departments in Whitehall so none of the big boys (eg CLG, Treasury) listened to them. So it’ll be interesting to see if anything changes there.

One of the new big ideas to come out of the Natural Environment White Paper and Biodiversity 2020 is  Nature Improvement Areas.  NIAs are yet another approach to Landscape Scale Conservation. Bids are being written as I type,  the deadline for getting them in to NE is tomorrow. The 12 winners will receive around £600,000 over 3 years. That’s around the same annual amount as a very large HLS agreement (eg RSPB get £300,000 a year for the Ouse Washes). The plan is that each NIA covers from 10,000 to 50,000ha and within each NIA, much extra work will happen to manage land better for its existing species and habitats, while lots of new priority habitat is created, either by restoring degraded areas or from scratch. Of course this isn’t cheap and the NIA partnerships will have to lever in a huge amount of money to make it happen – way beyond what HLS can provide. The HLF landscape partnerships funding pot is an obvious place for NIA’s to eye, but HLF look for broader benefits beyond just biodiversity, such as community engagement and landscape quality.

NIAs must be a good idea on many levels – the idea that an area of up to 50,000ha could be made much richer in biodiversity is a very appealing prospect – unless of course you happen to be a landowner there with very different ideas about how you want to manage your land eg maximising food production, or building lots of houses for example. I suspect the 12 winners will be in places where these 2 issues are not going to cause too much controversy – watch this space.

I do have a concern though – with NIA as the new conservation flavour of the month – there is a danger that they will suck in what meagre resources are available for conservation work in England – we’ve already seen strong signals that NIAs will get preferential take from the HLS pot; and NIA bidders who get through the first round are attending a workshop with HLF in November.

Given that together the maximum area they will cover is less than 5% of England, over 95% of our wildlife will still be living outside the NIAs.

Another big idea from the White Paper is Biodiversity Offsetting, which I have already blogged about as it’s relevant to the NPPF. I’m not going to say anymore about it at this point, other than to quote my old friend Ruth Davis

“How many badgers or hedgehogs do you save, to offset one dead otter? It’s madness.”

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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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