Biodiversity Challenge, an NGO document published 20 years ago yesterday, was a challenge to government. It set out a way of thinking about nature conservation: set objectives, plan the best way to meet them, and then do it!
The idea of being clear, and ambitious, about what we wanted to achieve was a bit novel.
Here’s an example of a habitat target. This was for lowland heathland:
Maintain and improve by management all existing lowland heathland (57,000ha) and produce conditions during the next 10 years to begin the process of heathland re-establishment on a further 6,000ha in Dorset, Hampshire, Surrey, Devon Suffolk and Norfolk. The aims of re-establishment should be: to increase total heathland area; to increase the heathland patch size; to infill and reduce the edge/area ratio; and to link heathland patches.
That still doesn’t look bad to me!
And here’s an example of a species target. This was for Altella lucida (a spider):
Maintain populations at only known UK site, in Dorset.
That seems pretty clear, at least.
What the partners involved in this work (six ‘author organisations’ and another dozen endorsing organisations) aimed to do was to provide a united front to government on what success would look like in nature conservation, but also to spell out the things that needed to be done to achieve success. Those are still the elements of any successful plan – define what you want to achieve, work out the best way to achieve it, and then get on with it.
The publication of Biodiversity Challenge (and its second edition in 1995) helped bring wildlife NGOs together at a time when they needed a common voice. The number of endorsing organisations rose from 12 to 33 for the second edition. Government, in the last years of the last Conservative government, listened to us and this way of thinking was adopted to some extent by government and the statutory sector – somewhat unwillingly. A few civil servants, and John Gummer (now Lord Deben) helped ensure that progress was made and that NGOs and government were working to essentially the same agenda. Progress was maintained when Labour came into power in 1997, with Michael Meacher, being an enthusiastic ministerial ally.
So where did it all go wrong?
It didn’t all go wrong – there are some lasting legacies of this approach, but the success of the approach was also part of the reason for its failure. Here are some reflections on what went wrong:
- The approach of setting targets and planning action, in the hands of government, became an end in itself. Huge amounts of time were spent in writing plans, consulting on plans and then shelving plans that were never implemented. Everybody got very fed up with this and nature conservation became a chore rather than a joy!
- The initial success of the ideas depended on a few people championing the approach inside government and from the NGO community. Those people put a lot of effort into this at the beginning but some moved on, some lost interest, and some were promoted into areas where they couldn’t spend as much time on this. I’m a strong believer that human relationships, of trust, inspiration and collaboration, determine the success or failure of any complex human activity. This activity went on for a long time and lost some of its key players.
- Not everyone was signed up, inside or outside the NGO movement, and the detractors niggled away at the process (as was their right).
- The approach was never perfect – what is? – but it did sweep people along because it was novel for a few years. When it lost its novelty, some lost their enthusiasm and jumped on different bandwagons.
- Devolution in Wales and Scotland didn’t help the process (from 1999 onwards, but actually having an impact even before that). I’m all for devolution, but one of its impacts in the early years was that anything that came from the UK had to be poked hard and redesigned in the devolved administrations. There no longer was a UK Biodiversity Plan – there were versions in different parts of the UK (which sometimes didn’t join up at all at the borders!). In this case, devolution led to duplication and a slowing down of progress everywhere. This was just unfortunate timing.
But it certainly didn’t all go wrong. Nature conservation is still different as a result of Biodiversity Challenge. Here are my claims on that count;
- Some NGOs ‘found’ each other during the production of Biodiversity Challenge – the close working relationship between the RSPB and Butterfly Conservation and Plantlife developed most strongly during those years.
- Some individuals ‘found each other’ too. Without naming names, there are some of my colleagues in nature conservation who will always be able to get my attention, and an offer of support from me (and I know that I can count on them too) because of joint working through those times. With so many nature conservation organisations in existence, it helps if people know and trust each other.
- The idea of judging the success of nature conservation action by how much nature there is in the world is hardly rocket science – but it is better established as a result of Biodiversity Challenge. Every time Defra or the NFU talk about the high coverage of ELS in English farmland someone will say – but what about the skylarks? bumblebees? badgers? or shepherd’s needle? The farmland bird index, to a great extent, grew out of the process of setting targets and measuring progress (or lack of it).
- Money did flow into nature conservation for a while. A government/NGO partnership (we are so far away from that these days!) meant that funding was available from industry, government itself and grant-giving bodies as all could see that this was a combined effort. We have lost that position.
- Some NGOs grew in stature as a result of their practical and pragmatic working with government. I think that applied to the RSPB but not just to the RSPB. NGOs won the respect of decision-makers for our determination, clarity of thought and ability to work collaboratively.
It certainly wasn’t a golden age – although I wonder whether there has been a five-year period when as much progress has been made as was made between 1993 and 1998 – but it was great fun. And you do need fun in your life!
I wonder whether there are lessons for the way that NGOs work together these days – I’ll come back to that tomorrow evening. I have written a rather birdy blog for tomorrow morning.
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