The Government’s Conflicted State on Biodiversity

I just wrote this for former Labour biodiversity minister Barry Gardiner MP’s IPOAK website – I don’t know when he’ll post it but you can read it here now.

The new England Biodiversity Strategy “Biodiversity 2020” and the conflict at the heart of the Coalition

When the All Party Parliamentary Group on Biodiversity met on the 10th November, I was asked to talk for three minutes on either the England Biodiversity Strategy or the National Ecosystem Assessment. Having been fairly closely involved, from the NGO side, with the development of the EBS, but not the NEA, it seemed obvious to talk about the EBS. Thinking about what I would say, I quickly came to the conclusion that there was a conflict or indeed a conflicted state, at the heart of the Government, when it comes to Biodiversity in general, and the EBS in particular.

I’m thinking of “conflicted” in the psychological sense, not that I’m a psychologist. Here’s a definition I found on the web “A psychic struggle, often unconscious, resulting from the opposition or simultaneous functioning of mutually exclusive impulses, desires, or tendencies.” I think that sums it up pretty well. But where’s the evidence?

The Lawton Review – Making Space for Nature.

Professor Lawton’s review, commissioned by the previous Labour Government, and welcomed by the Coalition, concluded, to no surprise, that nature was in deep trouble in England – and now we’re all familiar with the mantra of more,  bigger, better managed, more connected, more money and so on. And Richard Benyon the Biodiversity Minister added “quicker” to the list at the APPG, emphasising how keen he is to get on with the job in hand.

But Lawton’s approach is dependent on state action, to encourage, cajole and educate yes, to provide incentives and support yes, but also where necessary to step in and require action, impose regulations, protect wildlife by law. One particular law that we have been arguing needs to be much better implemented is the little known EIA (Agriculture) Regulations. This is the only legal mechanism available to protect priority habitats outside protected areas (SSSIs) from damage due to intensive agriculture. Bearing in mind about half of all priority habitat occurs outside SSSIs – it’s a pretty important mechanism. Unfortunately it’s hopelessly ineffective and very difficult to use by Natural England – and Defra has made NE’s job even more difficult by adding in extra hurdles for them to overcome before they can use it. The result is that priority habitat and sites for priority species continue to be damaged by intensive agriculture.

But this very much not what the Government see as their role – they are all for slashing red tape – they have set up a Red Tape Challenge – regulation is a burden to be excised in their philosophy. Voluntary Initiatives are the way forward, from the Campaign for the Farmed Environment, to Earned Recognition for farmers.  People are to be trusted to do the right thing on the environment.

As Bob Watson Defra chief scientist said at the APPG – “not a single environmental issue was ever addressed without the right grouping of regulation, financial incentive and behaviour change – to think that it can be done through behaviour change alone is unbelievably naïve.” Keep saying it in Defra Bob!

 

Landscape Scale Approaches and Competing Land-uses

A central plank in the Making Space for Nature manifesto is a move to landscape-scale conservation (LSC) and what are now being called Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs). LSC terminology changes faster than Harlequin ladybird’s are spreading, so NIAs may be called something else next year.  The approach is simply to achieve sympathetic management across large areas of landscapes in order that wildlife can thrive where it occurs, and recolonise areas from where it has disappeared.  12 NIAs will be selected by competition and the winners, covering between 10,000 and 50,000ha each, will then hopefully achieve just that. The Government are right behind it – NIAs are lauded in the Natural Environment White Paper  and Biodiversity 2020. Note that England has 9M ha of agricultural land so NIAswill cover between 1.3% and 6.6%.

Unfortunately the Government are also right behind some other things that might just be happening on the same pieces of land: Sustainable intensification is the current buzz-phrase for increased food production – it’s not entirely clear whether this means increased food production while increasing biodiversity, or just minimising environmental impacts, or not worrying too much about the environment at all. It depends who you listen to, and the audience they are addressing.  NFU President Peter Kendall certainly doesn’t see any need to worry about farmland biodiversity, but does see a productivity crisis here and now.

Then there’s the National Planning Policy Framework, that gem that will relax the rules determining how much development can take place, well, anywhere really, but certainly on green field sites. Coupled with the very recent announcements about weakening the Habitats and Birds Directives and making Natural England a pro-development agency, and there’s quite a heady mix that could drive forward significant expansion of industrial and residential development in rural areas.

And we shouldn’t forget that there is also a big push, using public subsidies to produce biofuel and biomass. This is unlikely to be grown on top quality agricultural land, more likely on the marginal land, that’s still got some wildlife value. Climate Change minister Greg Barker stated recently “We are looking to increase UK biomass supplies … by developing other biomass resources, such as purpose-grown perennial energy crops on low-grade land unsuitable for food crops.”

England is small (smaller than New York State) and crowded. There are many different competing land-uses. Perhaps it’s time for a national land-use strategy. I put this idea to Richard Benyon – he was initially a bit sarcastic talking about five year plans, great leaps forward and tractor factories. But I think he did see the conflicted state the Government is in on this issue.  No guesses as to which land-use will lose out in the current free for all.

Big Society/Small Government

The Coalition implores us that they want to give power back to people, to local communities, and how important something called The Big Society is. This is all a bit patronising though, isn’t it? NGOs  are by necessity dependent on volunteers, were created by volunteers and have at their heart the ethos that people who care about something passionately enough will happily give up their time, energy and money to make a change. They really don’t need to be told how important it is for everyone to step up to the mark.  And as for “we’re all in this together”, don’t get me started.

The Biodiversity Partnership was formed in 1993 when 6 conservation NGOs came together to form Biodiversity Challenge, in response to the frankly lacklustre and “business as usual” UK response to the 1992 Rio Summit, laughably called the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. For the past 20 years the NGOs have been at the heart of the Biodiversity Partnership, cajoling, lobbying for more action and money, doing real conservation work, recovering threatened species from near extinction.  The making of the latest incarnation of the England Biodiversity Strategy felt a bit odd – the partnership approach to producing the Strategy which had been evident on previous strategies had gone, the NGOs were out in the cold, banging on the door. The Partnership has been weakened, although it is certainly true that some of our proposals were taken on board, both in the strategy and in the governance arrangements. But the default position for the Coalition on environmental issues seems to be “talk to the hand.” This was absolutely evident with the Forestry and NNR sell-off fiasco’s and more recently the NPPF controversy.

Another conflicted state – The Coalition loves volunteers who go and do things like planting trees, but doesn’t want to listen to them when they’ve got something to say.

Localism

This one’s a bit tricky because in truth the Biodiversity Community is conflicted here too. One of the main reasons the previous incarnations of the England Biodiversity Strategy did not succeed is because effectively there were two process operating independently of each other – the national BAP and the local BAPs. Localism favours the local BAP approach, except the funding has been pulled for the local BAPs so they don’t really exist as a network now.  But a local approach to delivering national, European or global responsibilities just does not work. Everyone conserves skylarks and bluebells.

The Ecosystem Approach

The National Ecosystem Assessment is undoubtedly a valuable tool for decision makers to use.  There are inherent dangers with the approach though, mostly in terms of its abuse. It risks supporting a view of nature as merely a commodity to be monetised. Secretary of State Spelman has used the phrase “biodiversity that is valuable to us”, implying there is biodiversity which has no value to people, and is therefore either valueless or of lower value. Giving biodiversity a monetary value is also risky because its value can then be weighed in the balance in a simplistic way, using cost benefit analysis. The extreme end of this spectrum is the Chancellors position that the environment is a brake on development, a cost that must be minimised or removed.

The conflict here is between different ways of valuing; the danger that existence value, which cannot be monetised, is therefore ignored; and where monetary values can be ascribed, those values are insufficient to prevent biodiversity being sacrificed on the altar of economic growth.

Conclusion

One commentator at the APPG meeting suggested that there was no conflict in the Government, it was all a cynical ploy, and the Greenest Government Ever was a sham.  I don’t believe this – I think there are both Ministers and Civil Servants who do believe passionately in the environment and the need for environmental protection. But they are losing ground rapidly now and need all the help that can be mustered.

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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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8 Responses to The Government’s Conflicted State on Biodiversity

  1. nirgunapa says:

    The 10 years of local action through the Local Biodiversity Partnerships has been bought to a shuddering halt in England. This was the famed ‘Big Society’ in action involving numerous local naturalist groups, NGO’s, local government and the statutory sector working in partnership. The emerging Local Nature Partnerships will have, like NE, to embrace the version of sustainable development that this government promulgates and will be weakened by it. The dangling of cash incentives to set up LNP’s also means that coverage will be patchy as areas that fail to attract funding may chose not to run LNP’s. In stark contrast the situation in Wales is much stronger with LBAP’s and their partnerships still active and meaningful. So the picture is more complicated across the whole UK.

  2. Paul Beevers says:

    The government doesn’t get “biodiversity” nor “volunteers” or their contribution because it can’t see a short term profit being generated let alone the benefits to all living things including humanity. One can’t help wondering why we even go along with the government giving millions of public money to farmers when the outcomes are so apparently poor. Conservation groups and volunteers with like minded farmers (instead of industrial subsidy seekers) might well be able to deliver far better environmentally sustainable produce, habitats and wildlife for less cost. But can we make the case?

  3. milesking says:

    Thanks Paul. I think the Defra ministerial team do get biodiversity – some of them understand the voluntary ethos as well. My local MP Oliver Letwin, Minister in the Cabinet Office definitely understands both. But as always the environment dept is one of the weakest in Whitehall and despite getting apparent cross Government buy-in to the White Paper and Biodiversity Strategy – well that was last year, this is now. Party politics is a short term business and that’s why the environment will always go to the bottom of the pile.

  4. Dean Morrison says:

    Excellent Blog Miles, very informative about what’s actually happening in the ‘Greenest Government ever’. Osborne is basically importing right-wing dogma from the States, where the Envirnoment Protection Agency has been under attack for years by industry lobbyists who have politicians in their pocket. In terms of free market ideology all regulation is bad and a brake on the economy, and conservation should be left to private individuals who can put a price on nature, and are willing to pay it. This is unsurprising from the Tories, they’re being true to their politics of self-interest, even if they deceived the public in the process. What is shocking is the way the Liberals, who on the face of it did have some green credentials are sitting on the sidelines and collaborating in the process of dismantling environmental protection. In my opinion if you want Green Policies, you need to vote for a genuinely Green Party, not one that has simply changed its branding.

  5. Mark Prina says:

    Thank you for the blog. I was surprised this year by finding myself a member of the APPG on Biodiversity. How effective will it prove? A friend wrote this to me: “A potentially mind-sapping, bottomless pit – venture over the lip for a quick look with great caution, I might suggest”. From what I’ve experienced so far I can only benefit, but what about the future for our wildlife? I am determined to be positive. I am currently wading through the NPPF. I am truly appalled by this sloppy and cynical document – then again, perhaps it really is just a bad joke?. It must be re-drafted urgently and not by the same incompetent ‘inner circle’. Danny Stevens has invited comments – how to remain succinct and not burden him with too much to wade through? It will be interesting to see the flavour of our new year report.

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