The Autumn Statement: how did nature fare?

Yesterday the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement revealed government plans for further cuts in public spending. Another period of austerity awaits the British public. While today’s newspaper headlines will focus on the keynote measures – changes in stamp duty and NHS spending for instance – here at the BES we are most interested in how the ecological sciences will, or will not as the case may be, benefit from this latest review of government spending.

In delivering his budget, Chancellor George Osborne reaffirmed that reducing the deficit is central to the government’s long-term economic plans. In addition to £10 billion of ‘efficiency’ savings being planned over the course of the next parliament, public spending will fall from £5,650 per head in 2009-10 to £3,880 in 2019-20.

Government departments have already had their budgets dramatically reduced since the coalition government came into power. Defra has borne much of the brunt of previous cuts, with the department agreeing to a reported saving of £661 million between 2010 and 2014-15. This came on top of an additional £162 million of efficiency savings. The RSPB estimates that Defra will have seen cuts of approximately 50% in real terms since 2009-10. Consequently, they are concerned that a further reduction in their budget might compromise their ability to deliver on statutory responsibilities, such as the delivery of the National Pollinator Strategy and the implementation of the Natural Environment White Paper.

Notable by its absence in the Autumn Statement was any mention of natural capital and a ‘green economy’. Wildlife and environmental groups are increasingly calling for political parties to recognise the valuable contribution that nature makes to our country’s finances, whether that is via ecosystem services, savings in health care costs, or the creation of green jobs in the renewables and clean energy sectors. The value of nature was the central-theme of discussion at the Natural Capital Initiative’s recent ‘Valuing our Life Support Systems’ event, which brought together economists, accountants and academics to facilitate cross-disciplinary dialogue on how best to ensure natural capital is embedded in policy. However, the Chancellor’s silence on this issue suggests that government does not yet consider investment in nature as a valuable contribution to economic progress or a vote winner in next year’s general election. With newly released Biodiversity Indicators showing a mixed picture of the state of the UK’s fauna and flora and potential cuts in the budgets for both Defra and Natural England, the campaign to ensure that nature and the environment is considered across all areas of policy is at a critical moment.

The Autumn Statement also mentioned the government’s new long-term programme of investment in flood defences, as part of the National Infrastructure Plan. £2.3 billion of existing funds will be distributed across 1,400 flood defence schemes over the next 6 years to protect some 300,000 homes. Business contributions to flood defence schemes are also to become tax deductible so as to encourage private sector investment in the programme. This announcement follows stark warnings of the adverse impact that the increase in weather extremes from climate change will have on the UK economy. However, the Chartered Institution of Water & Environmental Management (CIWEM) stated that “the Autumn Statement from the government does nothing to address the real and sustained levels of funding that will be required if we are to meet the challenges of climate change and the major flooding we see on an almost annual basis.” In particular, CIWEM are concerned that the temporary increase in funding for flood risk management after the winter floods of 2013/14 has not been sustained.

The issues raised by CIWEM were supported by a report published by the National Audit Office which concluded that the limited resources of the Environmental Agency and Defra and current spending levels are insufficient to meet the maintenance of existing flood defences. Critics might therefore argue that the government are channelling spending into major headline projects rather than committing to a long-term flood management plan. In the latest Ecological Issues publication – ‘The Impact of Extreme Events on Freshwater Ecosystems’ – the BES argued that increasing the country’s resilience to weather extremes can be achieved by making use of the natural ability of ecosystems to endure extreme events. Ensuring that policy-makers think long-term when tackling climate change impacts represents a challenge with which ecologists will have to increasingly engage over the coming parliaments.

However, one announcement in the Autumn Statement that could have a direct positive impact on the ecological sciences was the creation of a student loan system for postgraduate master’s degrees; loans worth up to £10,000 will be available from 2016-17. The proposals are expected to bring an extra 10,000 students into postgraduate study and have been broadly welcomed as a step in the right direction to ensure that students are not priced out of further study. Hopefully this measure will improve young ecologists’ access to postgraduate training and facilitate the increased uptake of ecology master’s degrees by students irrespective of their financial background.

The Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir Mark Walport, recently described how rigorous scientific evidence has a vital role to play in government policy. With the Autumn Statement having a focus on economic growth and presenting a mixed bag for those with environmental interest, perhaps the most pertinent challenge for ecologists now is to clearly communicate how nature plays a vital role in any viable long-term economic plan.