Liz Truss has apparently already agreed to a 32% cut to the Defra budget for the 4 years from 2016-17 onwards. This impressive feat allows her to sit on the panel which resides over the imposition of cuts on other, unprotected departments. Truss is an acolyte of the Chancellor, whose ideological mission seems to be to dismantle as much of the public sector as he can before anyone can stop him. Farmers Guardian has already suggested some areas which could be affected by this cut.
Looking back at a previous post, I see that Defra had already taken a £32% cut from 2010 to 2015. By 2020 Defra’s non capital budget will be down to £1.2609 billion, a reduction of £500m a year spending from the current financial year and effectively halving Defra’s expenditure from 2010 (£2.46bn) to 2020.
This level of spending cut is catastrophic under any terms. Natural England, which is by no means the largest public body funded by Defra, will see further severe cuts to its workforce. It’s unlikely we will see any further moves to protect wildlife by notifying them Sites of Special Scientific Interest – indeed as Mark Avery has written, The Gate Zero project appears to be a new mechanism to prevent SSSIs from being put forward for protection. Given the controversy surrounding recent (ahem grassland) notifications, such as Lodge Hill, Rampisham Down and Benty Grange, this is not entirely surprising. Lodge Hill was apparently discussed at Cabinet level and it seems entirely plausible that Osborne would have been thumping the cabinet table demanding that someone rid him of these pestilent ecologists, given his tirade against wildlife “placing ridiculous costs on development”.
Funding to support the management of SSSIs resides within the Agri-environment budget, now known as, in yet another example of “back to the future”, Countryside Stewardship. This comes from the EU and is therefore exempt from the current and coming cuts. Of course if Britain leaves the EU (or more accurately if England leaves the EU, since brexit could trigger a wave of devolution/dissolution), the funding for agri-environment will disappear. Will the Treasury replace it with domestic expenditure? Dream on. Natural England is also the agency which oversees protection of wildlife through the European Birds and Habitats Directives. The cuts could well prevent NE from protecting the sites, habitats and species on the Directives, leading to punishment from the European Court.
Of course Natural England does many other things beyond SSSIs – but if it cannot fulfil its function of protecting England’s very best wildlife, then it doesnt augur well for its other functions, especially non-statutory ones.
Does anyone care? Would anyone mourn Natural England’s passing? Outside of the rarified world of conservation organisations and their more active supporters, it would appear not. Compare the impending loss of Natural England with moves to reduce Environment Agency spending on flood control, let alone the brouhaha around the proposed sale of a lot of very boring Forestry Commission forestry plantations, mostly frequented by dog walkers.
The simple sad truth is that there is no mandate for nature in England. Until many more people care about nature in their own lives, nature in their own communities, nature will be seen as expendible, and agencies like Natural England will quietly step into the Tumbrels, to await the Guillotine.