Government spending cuts are creating an environmental deficit – we need to think about how we value nature , says Matt Gaw
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This Government has been very keen to talk up its “difficult choices”.
But after George Osborne’s latest announcements, it seems when it comes to abandoning a commitment to a healthy natural world, the decision is in fact quite easy.
Speaking last week the chancellor announced that the Treasury and departments for environment, transport and local government and communities have agreed to average annual cuts of 8% in their operating costs, a total of 30% over the next four years.
Considering the department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) was hit by substantial cuts to its operating costs last time around (capital spending was reduced by 34%), this means Defra now has the dubious honour of suffering the biggest cuts over the last two parliaments.
According to economists from the RSPB, who unsurprisingly were left deeply perplexed by yet more proposals to slash and burn, the budget of Defra has been whittled down by 57% since the Conservatives – who famously pledged to be the greenest Government ever – took up the reins of power.
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The RSPB’s chief executive Dr Mike Clarke described the cuts, which come at a time when 60% of the UK’s wildlife is declining, as “perverse” and suggested the move will translate into fewer people being able to advise farmers on managing land with wildlife in mind, make legal commitments to cleaning up rivers or regulate air quality.
“A lack of resource is already damaging the UK Government’s ability to meet basic statutory obligations,” he added.
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Stephen Trotter, The Wildlife Trusts’ director, spoke of the creation of an “environmental deficit” and claimed that even before the latest cuts “the Government was only investing a tiny proportion of our national income in environmental stewardship and the restoration of wildlife habitats – it’s already far below the levels that we need.” He added: “It will now be reduced to such low levels that there are real question marks over whether the Government can continue to deliver its most basic functions and responsibilities for the natural environment.”
Indeed, days before the full results of the spending review are made public on November 25, conservationists and angling organisations launched a judicial review to challenge “a government failure” to protect rivers and wetlands from agricultural pollution.
In short, it seems highly likely the cuts will translate into even less staff for Defra-sponsored bodies such as the Environment Agency, something that will make important things like the regular inspection of waterways even harder.
But let’s pause and go back a step. Because surely the question here is why does the Government appear to have it in for Defra? What possible reason could there be to make the protection and conservation of the natural world so impossibly hard?
The obvious answer, in fact it seems to me the only answer, is that those in power still don’t understand the importance of nature. The natural world is seen purely as “nice to have”; a luxury item that we cannot always afford.
But of course, rather than being something to get in the way of economic development or something to be plundered for resources, nature is actually fundamental to our health, wellbeing and therefore our economy.
Indeed this week, senior decision-makers, expert practitioners and policy-specialists from across the UK’s major wildlife and countryside organisations will meet in Edinburgh to discuss how nature’s value must be incorporated into mainstream economics.
Through the concept of natural capital, an economic-sounding idea that our wildlife and wild spaces are worth something in cold hard cash, they will attempt to bridge the gap that has led to our forests being destroyed, our oceans depleted and thousands of species of animals and plants extinct.
Of course, this approach is not without its critics. There are fears that nature, once harnessed to the economy, could be reduced to just a price, making it easier for developers (or governments) to pay for or justify its removal or degradation.
And, I admit, the pinning of our hopes for the conservation and protection of the natural world to the machine that has done more to destroy it, does seem strange to say the least.
But it must be remembered that this is not about using economic value as an alternative to the intrinsic value of nature – it is about recognising that it can and does have additional value. It is about saying to those in power that cutting the funding to Defra could not only be causing terrible harm to places of beauty, but it is also undermining the economy.