It’s a great pleasure to publish a Guest Blog today written by Pete Johnstone: the topic if Austerity and the Environment:
News that the Government will be cutting Defra’s budget again this year comes as no surprise. There will of course be further cuts in the coming years which will mean less funding for the environment in England. Putting the Agri –environmental funding and the re-energised (or is it re-booted?) England coast path aside there hasn’t been any substantial Defra funding going into countryside access or nature conservation for some years now.
This is nothing new to the environmental voluntary sector as they have seen the writing on the wall. An added pressure is the the government haste to transfer state owned assets into the charity sector. The emergence in 2012 of the Canal and River Trust from the old British Waterways Board and the more recent break-up of English Heritage into Historic England and the English Heritage Trust has shown that the Government’s role for safeguarding our heritage, one that has been painstakingly built up over the last 60 years is now fast declining and being handed over in an ever increasing rate, albeit with a dowry in some cases, to the charity sector for them to manage.
Of course It may well be that central government or their agencies should not be managing historic buildings as visitor attractions nor canals for holiday makers in the first place and it was just a quirk of fate and history that led them to take on these responsibilities as at the time there was on other body to do the work.
Well maybe government had got too big and it is really time now to slim down and focus on governing the country and that the management and upkeep of waterways, old buildings, art, historic landscapes, national nature reserves and even forests are non-governmental activities which should be for others to look after?
If that is the direction we are heading then I do believe that there needs to be some broader government thinking and public consensus on how this so called divestment is going to take place, managed and be funded, not just in the short term but longer term too. Otherwise we face the uncertainty of our heritage, our inheritance, being whittled away and passed down to the charity sector to manage in piecemeal fashion with no coherent long term strategy.
And, if the established voluntary sector says ‘no’ to taking on properties, land and staff because it will not be adequately funded by government for that task then, as is the case now, the old guard charities will be by passed and new charities established to take on the new functions. The follow on scenario is that we will see the continued rise in the number of charities and yet more pressure on grant giving bodies, such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, trusts and foundations and the general public. If the pressure to raise funds gets to boiling point (it’s at simmering point now) then it is likely that grant giving bodies will tighten their priorities even further and the general public, who are generally very sympathetic donors to charities and their causes, will be inundated in funding requests and will either lose interest or worse still, turn against the not-for-profits in anger.
Is there and answer? Well there could be. In 1994 John Major’s Conservative government created the National Lottery which to date has contributed a whopping £33 billion pounds to a range of good causes including the built and natural heritage. Two years later in 1996 the same Conservative government established the Landfill Communities Fund (LCF) as the first environmental tax in the UK which was introduced to increase the cost of landfill and therefore help reduce waste. Since its introduction the LCF has contributed £1.27 billion to environmental projects including public parks, biodiversity and public access projects, many of which would just not have happened without the LCF contribution. ¹
So can the present day Conservative government be forward thinking enough to follow on from these two seminal ventures created in the 1990s to tackle the current the problem of who should be responsible for the long term management of our state owned natural assets? And if the answer is yes then what would the answer look like? One practical charity led example is from Nesta, ³ who are running an innovative initiative to explore and test out new ways of managing and funding local authority owned parks with their Rethinking Parks Programme.
The uncoordinated disposal of state owned heritage is too big an issue for charities to sort out for themselves and it needs government resolve to seek a solution. A proper public debate and a Royal Commission ² to investigate the value of our state owned national and built assets and to lay out possible options of future management and funding is, to my mind, the best way forward. This process has to be done in an open and transparent way and one that clearly thinks through the long term solutions. Yes, it might take several years for the Commission to report back but if we don’t have this debate now then I fear we will face a future of increasing management cuts to state owned national forests, nature reserves and landscapes to a point that they will be termed ‘nationally renowned’ in name only.
Pete Johnstone is the owner of PJ.elements, a consultancy with a focus on assisting social enterprises and charities with project management and community and environmental funding advice such as via crowdfunding. Pete is a Chartered Environmentalist and is an enthusiastic supporter of re-connecting people with the natural environment.
Notes and References
- Following the Autumn Statement of 2014 the government are currently undertaking to reform the LCF. The consultation closed in June 2015. The outcome is not yet known.
- UK Parliament: A Royal Commission is a selected group of people appointed by the Government to investigate a matter of important public concern and to make recommendations on any actions to be taken.
- Nesta is an innovation charity with the purpose to help people and organisations bring great idea to life. Their Rethinking Parks Programme is working with 11 parks teams to counter reduced public investment in parks management.