From the TUC

Cuts Watch #205: Conservation Agencies and Nature Reserves

15 Aug 2010, by in Cuts Watch

It looks as though cuts in the Comprehensive Spending Review will hit the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs particularly hard, threatening key conservation agencies and the public stake in nature reserves. Dozens of conservation charities and campaigns have united to write to DEFRA to demand “Don’t cut the Countryside”!

Stories in yesterday’s Guardian and Telegraph reported that cuts of 40% are ‘expected’ (*) at DEFRA. Possible targets might include:

  • Cutting support for British Waterways;
  • Privatising the Met Office (which might have the advantage, from some perspectives, of subjecting them to commercial and shareholder pressures that might make them less keen to present the facts on climate change);
  • Privatising parts of the Forestry Commission;
  • Cuts in the Environment Agency’s river protection and monitoring of water, air and soil quality;
  • Further cuts at Natural England, leading to 400 jobs being lost year and 400 next year;
  • Abandoning plans to create a network of marine conservation zones, working with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, which identifies Special Areas of Conservation to protect habitats and species and Special Protection Areas to protect wild birds.
  • The sale of Natural England’s minority and majority stakes in 224 National Nature Reserves – “As well as managing some of our most pristine habitats, our rarest species and our most significant geology, most Reserves now offer great opportunities to the public as well as schools and specialist audiences to experience England’s natural heritage.” (The Guardian story discloses that the government has asked large conservation groups, such as the Woodland Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to take over the NNRs, but they have said that their income from membership and government grants was falling – possibly the story of the Big Society in a nutshell.)

On 14 May, when he visited the Department for Energy and Climate Change the P.M. announced that he wanted the coalition to be the “the greenest government ever.” He told officials:

“There is a fourth minister in this department who cares passionately about this agenda and that is me, the prime minister, right. I mean that from the bottom of my heart.”

Conservation charities and campaigns are now so worried about the likely impact of cuts that 25 of them have come together to write to the government, warning them that cuts could have “profound and perhaps irreversible consequences for wildlife, landscapes and people”.

This initiative follows on from the creation, last month, of a Don’t Cut the Countryside! campaign, warning of an “austerity countryside”:

“There may be a temptation to see conservation as an easy win, but in reality they need to think very hard before making cuts that could have profound and perhaps irreversible consequences for England’s wildlife, landscapes and people.”

The RSPB, one of the signatories of the letter, is running a campaign called Some Cuts Never Heal, urging supporters to e-mail the Chancellor or sign a Letter to the Future.

Living With Environmental Change, a coalition of organisations funding, undertaking and using environmental research, has warned that the cuts being discussed could “leave the UK exposed to legal action and potentially the loss of funding from the European commission for breaching its duties under EU birds and habitats directives, which require ministers to protect vulnerable species such as dolphins and sea birds.” This would be particularly embarrassing in 2010 – designated by the UN as the International Year of Biodiversity.

(*) That word “expected” is a bit of a warning sign. You may remember the news at the start of July that the Treasury had asked departments to prepare two sets of cuts – one to save 25 per cent, the other to save 40 per cent. People with nasty suspicious minds may think it not impossible that mandarins at DEFRA might calculate that there’s so much concern about cuts at Work and Pensions and Education that those Departments’ suffering might be relieved at the cost of bigger cuts at DEFRA. Officials who feared that might want to get their retaliation in early – as I’ve mentioned before, its quite possible that Defence is already doing this – by leaking the 40 per cent list as what is ‘expected’.

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