Biodiversity Challenge 4: Broken Dreams


meetings meetings meetings

((c) By Agriculture And Stock Department, Publicity Branch via Wikimedia Commons)

Todays blog completes my series this week of blogs looking at what Biodiversity Challenge achieved, looking back with the benefit of hindsight 20 years on.  Biodiversity Challenge achieved a lot but also ultimately failed to achieve what it set out to do. This is no great criticism as the aims of Challenge were incredibly ambitious. Setting out a new way of doing nature conservation is one thing, actually successfully doing it is quite another.

One of the biggest failures of Challenge was the assumption that a national top down approach to targets and priorities would be accepted by everyone. David Goode then head of the London Ecology Unit and urban conservation pioneer, clearly resented the idea of local biodiversity action being driven by top down national targets. He persuaded the Dept of the Environment that Local Biodiversity Groups were the best way to deliver the BAP on the ground (especially in urban areas which did not have much of the priority speces or habitats that the Challenge approach identified).

Thus the great schism was created in about 1996 and to this day this schism has not been closed. For many years, LBAPs went their own way, deciding their own priorities, either at odds with or in line with national UK BAP targets. This led to absurdities such as LBAPs not including targets for shortlisted BAP priority species in them, because the LBAP groups were unaware that their area supported these priority but obscure species, while every LBAP seemed to have a plan for Barn Owls or Great Crested Newts.

As a member of the top-down target driven cadre known as Biodiversity Challenge, I was unsympathetic to the local perspective. WIth hindsight I can see why the LBAPs came into existence and can well imagine how it must have felt back then to be told what should be done locally, by some ivory-tower inhabiting wonks.

Devolution was not kind to the BAP process, killing the overarching UK biodiversity group, just at the time when it was starting to operate quite well. The country groups never attained the degree of political leverage the UKBG had done, especially England Biodiversity Group, which suffered from its parent dept the new Defra having both the UK and England remit, and thereby ignoring the England bit. And the jelly blanket of bureaucracy inevitably started to slither over the BAP process.

The original dream of Challenge, achieving fundamental policy reform across sectors was just a dream. Even when MAFF/DoE were enthusiastic about the BAP (95-99 or thereabouts), very few other government departments were at all interested, with the exception of the MoD who saw the opportunity to get kudos for the responsibility of looking after such as large amount of SSSI land. No-one else in Whitehall was remotely interested in joining this game (were the Treasury even aware of the BAP back then?), which meant there was little or no chance of achieving wholesale changes in the culture and practice of Government in its relationship with nature.

After much resistance from the statutory agencies, English Nature finally adopted the BAP enthusiastically and this led to what could be one of the best things to come out of the BAP – the 2003 public service agreement target to get 90% of SSSIs into favourable or recovering condition by 2010. OK English Nature then Natural England had to fudge the results to achieve the target, but nevertheless a great deal of time money and effort was spent improving SSSIs for wildlife during those 8 years. Sadly the rest of the priority habitat outside SSSIs (about 40%) continued to be lost or lose quality during that time.

Ultimately though the dreams of Challenge were strangled by the inexorable decline into bureaucracy that killed the dream and the BAP process.


About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
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4 Responses to Biodiversity Challenge 4: Broken Dreams

  1. nirgunapa says:

    As the author of a Local Biodiversity Action Plan (LBAP) and, with my colleague Deborah Beeson, having run a Biodiversity Partnership for 8 years I don’t think we ever felt any resentment about the top down biodiversity targets and Natural England and CCW did much to facilitate this process. However. in the bureaucracy, many local species and priorities were overlooked, such as the Silurian Moth, and as an LBAP we wanted to capture those and also to use the LBAP as a way to engage the public at a time when people were uncomfortable with ‘biodiversity’ rather than nature or wildlife conservation.
    Ultimately, because of the lack of guidance and the relatively undeveloped stature of Local Record Centres at the time, the first round of LBAP’s were uncosted ecological wish lists. I did, at the behest of CCW, cost the Plan out a number of years later and it came to £5m over 5 years for one of the smallest county’s in Wales. But then we are back to putting a price on nature!

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks Colin. I met plenty of LBAP staff who did feel resentful about the top-down approach, for the very reasons you articulate. The LBAPs got off on the wrong foot, as you say, because they were operating independently of the national BAP process.

  2. Andre Farrar says:

    Only 20 years ago – but seems a different world. I had a minute input to the ‘top down’ BC from my regional seat in the RSPB’s North West England office – but LBAPping took up lots of my time. The NW Biodiversity Audit building on some great work in Lancashire. And then the rising hope of attaching the BAP process to the English regional agenda – my focus was the NW and East Midlands – progress seemed possible as Regional Economic Strategies did recognise (to varying degrees) the importance of the natural world. My prize for best integration goes to the North West (but then I’m probably biased). It all fell apart – and now we push the challenge up and even steeper hill as Local Economic Partnerships blink myopically at Local Nature Partnerships – I suspect lessons haven’t been learned.

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks very much Andre. The Regional Biodiversity Partnerships worked better than the LBAPs for sure – indeed I suspect that by this time the RBPs were doing more good than the national structures, influencing Regional policy for the economy and the Spatial Strategies. If I may also give a plug, it was the South West that produced the first regional audit back in 98, followed by a regional plan. And the Purbeck Local Biodiversity Plan was an excellent early model (again 98), that should have been adopted far more widely.

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