Defra programmes and policies: an update

Over the past year, there have been a range of new initiatives from Defra to protect and enhance the natural environment, ranging from biodiversity offsetting to reviewing their public bodies. The all-party parliamentary group on Conservation and Wildlife met on Wednesday to discuss these with Richard Benyon MP, Minister for the Natural Environment and Fisheries. The Minister was able to clarify Defra’s position on a number of issues and put them into a wider context, stressing the continued need for cross-government collaboration for the natural environment.

Wide-ranging topics were brought up by speakers at the meeting. Many were very timely, given the recent Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Conference of the Parties in Bangkok, and the ongoing CAP reform. CITES and wildlife crime were brought up throughout the meeting and members thanked the Minister for the UK Government’s contribution to the recent success of greater protection for a number of shark species against the finning trade. This was a huge victory, but the Minister highlighted that there were many smaller successes as well. A positive ecological effect will result from stricter regulation on the use of every species of rosewood and mahogany trees from Madagascar for timber.

The protection of UK species through Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) has been a topical issue recently, with government announcing the initial creation of 31 new protected areas from a proposed 127. The Minister was keen to stress that he, unlike others, is not fussed about the numbers, but the ecological coherence that the network provides overall. The main issues behind the selection of the sites were scientific evidence and ability to enforce regulations. A public consultation on these zones and the specific protection they need is open until the end of March.

The importance of biodiversity and conservation was also highlighted when a representative of RSPB asked the Minister to outline Defra’s role in maintaining the natural environment in the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs). There are 14 UKOTs across the world, with many possessing huge amounts of biodiversity. Alongside the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Defra have developed a new fund for biodiversity and climate-related work in Overseas Territories. The Overseas Territories Environment and Climate Fund brings together two previous funding streams for closer cross-government working. The Minister touched upon the successes that NGOs and other bodies such as the BES have helped them work towards, and the continued work that needs to be done in this area.

On a more local level, the roles of Local Nature Partnerships (LNPs) and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), and how they can work better together, were discussed. Local Nature Partnerships (LNPs) were developed from the 2011 Natural Environment White Paper, where it was announced that ‘effective action to benefit nature, people and the economy locally happens when the right people come together in partnership’. Currently, there are 48 LNPs across England, with the ambition of helping local areas to manage the natural environment effectively and provide input to local decision-making. Local Enterprise Partnerships are locally-owned partnerships between local authorities and businesses that try to drive economic growth and the creation of local jobs. The Minister agreed with the representative of the Wildlife and Countryside Link that these two programmes should be working together, and perhaps there is not enough close working at the moment.

Other national issue brought up was the triennial review of Natural England and the Environmental Agency. A representative from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) highlighted the need to critically review the costs and savings of any outcome of the review. Both CPRE and the BES contributed to the review’s consultation response through the Wildlife and Countryside Link, and focused on the potential costs of the exercise, and the potential detrimental effects of a merger. The preliminary conclusions of this review should be available in the next few months.

The issues of planning and protection of the natural environment were raised through both biodiversity offsetting and HS2. Biodiversity offsetting was announced in the Natural Environment White Paper as a potential method of delivering planning policy for compensating for biodiversity losses. A pilot scheme in six areas began in 2012, and will run for two years. The Minister highlighted how these will be used as bases of evidence for informing policy decisions. The chair of the APPG on Conservation and Wildlife, Angela Smith MP, spoke about the potential damage that HS2 could have in her constituency, as the proposed route cuts through three areas of ancient woodland. When asked what Defra’s role is regarding the trickier aspects of the route, such as this, the Minister answered that there would undoubtedly be damage with such a large infrastructure project, but work would be carried out to limit and mitigate this. He highlighted that such large projects require a voice across the whole of government for the natural environment.

Importantly, the Minister outlined the priorities and major responsibilities of DEFRA, which are to:
• Support and develop British farming and encourage sustainable food production
• Enhance the environment and biodiversity to improve quality of life
• Support a strong and sustainable green economy, including thriving rural communities, resilient to climate change
• Prepare for and manage the risk from animal and plant disease
• Prepare for and manage the risk from flood and other environmental emergencies.

These encompassed all issues discussed at the meeting fitted into these, highlighting that interested groups and government share a broad like-minded approach in protection and enhancement of the natural environment.

It was clear throughout that the Minister was keen to make best use of scientific evidence for decision-making. When questioned about the levels of protection required by polar bears, he stated that the bears most at risk need to be identified, and research into how hunting affects their populations needs to be carried out to make an informed decision. In addition, the reasoning behind the low numbers of Marine Conservation Zones was reiterated – the evidence provided did not justify their creation.