Checking the Progress of Government on the Natural Environment

The Government could try harder on the natural environment. That was the conclusion of ‘Nature Check 2012’, an overview of the Government’s progress against the commitments made in the Coalition Agreement, launched by Wildlife and Countryside Link, and endorsed by the BES, on Wednesday. The BES Policy Team attended the parliamentary launch of the document, which saw Owen Paterson MP, Secretary of State for the Environment, visibly frustrated that the NGO community had awarded so few plaudits to the Government for their work on the natural environment over the course of this year.

Introducing Nature Check, Dr Elaine King, Director of Link, said that the Secretary of State ‘may be disappointed’ by the conclusions of the report as no new green ratings had been awarded to Government. As in 2011, the Government received green ratings, meaning good progress has been made, on two commitments. There were 14 amber ratings, demonstrating moderate progress, and four red ratings, showing where the Government is failing to deliver. Failing policies identified by Link include an ongoing lack of commitment to the marine environment, the lack of a scientific basis for the policy on bovine tuberculosis and badger culling and a promised ban on wild animals in circuses.

The Secretary of State, in responding to Nature Check, delivered an impassioned speech in which he started by stating that the countryside is ‘ my home, my work and my life’, stressing his strong personal connection to this agenda. His role at Defra, he said, was to boost growth in the rural economy whilst continuing to improve the countryside. The value of the natural environment must be placed at the heart of decision-making, with industry and environment groups working together to ensure that economic growth and a healthy natural environment could develop hand-in-hand. He said that he was overseeing a ‘radical restructure’ of Defra to deliver a ‘laser-like focus on growing our rural economy, improving our environment and dealing with plant and animal diseases.’

The Secretary of State disputed Link’s findings in a number of areas. He criticised Link, and the NGOs that comprise it, for taking a ‘glass half empty’ perspective. The National Planning Policy Framework, for example, represents a strong outcome for nature and biodiversity from 2012, he suggested. The Minister stated that new protections are being brought in for circus animals from January 2013, which will be followed by an outright ban in due course, rather than in ‘years’, implied by Link. He stated that he would make ‘no apology’ for taking time to get action on the marine environment right and that the Government was taking an ambitious approach to marine planning.

Perhaps the two most contentious areas, on which the Minister and the NGOs present disagreed, were reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the policy of shooting badgers to curb tuberculosis in cattle. On bovine TB, the Minister insisted that the policy had been developed on the basis of scientific evidence, stating that Link and others simply ‘did not like’ the policy. However he did agree to engage with the International Fund for Animal Welfare and other Link members on the policy outside of the meeting.

David Baldock, Institute for European Environmental Policy, questioned the Minister over EU budget negotiations concerning the CAP. A Pillar 2 proposal put forward by the President of the EU Council, Herman Van Rompuy, has been to cut the budget for pillar 2 by 15 percent on current levels. With cuts proposed to the LIFE budget too, the environment faces a substantial hit, with the UK Government not arguing that cuts to the environment are a ‘red line’ at negotiations.

In response, the Minister insisted that he would make a very strong case at a meeting in Brussels this week for support for Pillar 2, the part of the CAP budget that funds rural development, including Entry and Higher-Level Stewardship schemes in the UK. Pillar 2 funds have been instrumental to delivering nature conservation in this country since their introduction. He did not support the ‘greening’ of Pillar 1, which provides direct payments to farmers to subsidise agricultural income, describing this as ‘woolly’ and ‘greenwash’. He suggested instead that he would try to push through at EU-level the UK Government position that ‘Pillar 2 should form a larger proportion of a smaller CAP budget’.

Dr Mark Avery, an independent commentator and consultant, pressed the Minister to justify the environmental benefits that have been seen from Entry-Level Stewardship (ELS) schemes. The ‘success’ of ELS can’t be communicated to policy-makers in Europe, Mark suggested, as it has not delivered for the environment in the UK. In fact, Mark stated, ‘we have lost more farmland birds that any country in Europe, so it isn’t workng’. The Minister was insistent that he would communicate to his European counterparts that ELS works, has standards and can be used as a basis for making payments to farmers.

The exchange between the Minister and the NGOs was on the whole a constructive one. One member of the audience spoke for others when he emphasised that the ratings in Nature Check were not a reflection on the Minister’s personal record on the environment, but rather of the Government’s progress as a whole across the year. Those in the room commended the Minister’s recent leadership in tackling the outbreak of Chalara fraxinea, causing ash dieback.

Dr King, in her opening remarks, called on the Government to provide renewed political leadership on the environment, recognising the inseparable connection between the economy and the natural world. In addition she called for policy decisions to be based on good evidence, and stressed the need to ensure that the statutory agencies are well resourced and so able to provide science-based advice. Nature Check in 2013 will certainly once again be an extremely useful mechanism by which to hold the Government to account on these points and on its environmental commitments.