Shifting Baselines

This post isn’t about how our perceptions of environmental change get reset with each generation. It’s about Defra’s budget.

Today’s spending Review saw Chancellor Osborne perform some typical numerical tricks, as he sought to position himself nearer to the centre of the political ground, in the hope of reducing the damage to his reputation caused by the humiliating Lords defeat of his tax credit proposals. He may yet win back enough supporters to win the coming Tory leadership campaign.

Apparently Defra got away with a 15% cut instead of the forecast 30% cut in day to day spending up to 2020. This is supposed to give us a warm glow and feel relief that the cuts weren’t larger. Actually a 15% cut on top of a 32% cut since 2010 is still at least “life-altering”. But looking at the figures a bit harder makes them more confusing.

Back in June, we were told that Defra’s revenue budget was to be £1.76Bn for 15/16. This was then cut to £1.68Bn. Today’s Blue Book tells us that this years budget for Defra is actually £1.5 billion. So have they just sneaked through another £180 million cut on top of the £83M cut already announced? If so, then the cut from 2010/11 to 2015/16 is from £2.38 billion to £1.5 billion – a cut of 37%.  Compared to 09/10 the cut is nearly 40%.

defra table

Spending Review blue book p.104






It’s been pointed out to me (by @AdamJDutton the RSPB economist) that the £1.5Bn figure excludes “one-off and time-limited” spending. This could mean that some very significant projects have been cut, and we haven’t heard about them yet, or that these projects have not been cut, but have just disappeared from the budget. What is clear from table 1b of the spending review, is that the Defra administration budget is being cut by 28%, which is very close to the trailed 30% figure. As the Treasury puts it:

“Administration budgets limit expenditure on running costs of central government which do not directly support frontline public services, for example, business support services, the provision of policy advice, accommodation and office services.”

Anyone who works with Natural England or Environment Agency colleagues will know that all of these things have already gone, so it’s unclear where another 30% saving will accrue. Perhaps Natural England staff will have to pay for the benefit of working from home.

The other announcements were that spending on national parks, AONBs and the Public Forestry Estate, totalling £350M, were going to be ringfenced until 2020. I think this was mainly to give the Chancellor the opportunity to make a joke at former Defra Secretary of State Caroline Spelman’s expense, when Osborne said “we’re not going to make that mistake again” referring to the shambolic sell off of the Forestry Commission back in 2011, something he was apparently very enthusiastic about at the time. Whatever the reason, there will be some big sighs of relief in National Parks, AONB teams and Forestry Commission offices today.

This means that the cuts will fall disproportionately largely on the agencies within the Defra family that are not withing the ringfence, namely Natural England and the Environment Agency. A 26% cut in “administrative budgets” across Defra agencies has already been announced.

Having said all that it’s worth noting that, of the four departments which had agreed an overall 30% cut by 2020, Defra appears to have escaped with the smallest cut. Transport has a 37% cut in resource spending, and CLG a 29% cut in resource spending. The Treasury has agreed a 24% cut with itself.

Elsewhere, there is a further loosening of planning constraints in the greenbelt and £4Bn will be raised by selling off public land for housing, including £1 billion from the disposal of Ministry of Defence Land. Whether this includes Lodge Hill or not is not stated.

This sell-off will apparently provide space to build 160,000 new homes, which at 30 homes/ha equates to about 5000ha of land sold off. Once again these figures seem quite unbelievable, as raising £4Bn from 5000ha implies an income of £800,000 per hectare sold off. Can anyone tell me where my maths has gone awry?

There is also an intriguing little one-liner regarding house building on small sites (p.41) :

“backing SME house builders, including by amending planning policy to support small sites (my italics), extending the £1 billion Builders’ Finance Fund to 2020-21, and halving the length of the planning guarantee for minor developments”.

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.
This entry was posted in cuts, Defra, Natural England and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Shifting Baselines

  1. robseago says:

    Thanks Miles for some pointers as to what has come to light today.

    Will NE or EA survive?

  2. It’s important to remind readers that both AONB’s and National Parks also depend for part of their funding on contributions from local government. So the so-called ring fencing does not mean that they are sitting pretty. Indeed with cuts in the settlement to local government and the pressure on their budgets from social care and education it’s unlikely that AONB’s or National Parks will have the same budget in 5 years time that they have now.

  3. John Stone says:

    When the media slavishly refuses to hold Conservative Governments to account it’s hardly surprising they quote whatever numbers they like, however outlandish.

  4. Pingback: More golden balls from Defra: You are spoiling us, Rural Ambassador! | a new nature blog

  5. Pingback: Brexit will save us from the Obama Flatworm, claims #OPatz. | a new nature blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.