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.