A recent tweet on Twitter from Mary Creagh MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for Defra, said that Defra Minister Richard Benyon had described the relationship between nature charities and Defra as ‘edgy’.

The ‘really quite admirable’ Mr Benyon did use that phrase,  in a debate, when expressing his pleasure at having his report card scored by a group of NGOs as reported earlier on this blog.  How nice or nasty to be to politicians is a tricky thing for NGOs to get right.

Politicians are very sensitive (very very sensitive) about any sort of criticism and we British are all so polite that we don’t like to upset people.  No NGO would like to see Mr Benyon’s lip quivering because he’d been criticised by them.

But in fact, the nature NGOs are incredibly polite to, and understanding of, Defra. They always have been – or at least have been for many years – and maybe they always will be.  They tend to see Defra as being ‘their’ Department, with ‘their’ Ministers and they work collaboratively with the Department as much as they can.

And there is an element of vested interest involved.  Defra can influence, through EA and NE and their own budgets, the flows of money to NGOs and they can favour some NGOs over others in terms of access and publicity too.  There are many ways that government Departments can show favour to one NGO over another and make life easier or more difficult for any NGO and so everyone watches what they say – perhaps too much?

And it feels like Defra hasn’t got many friends in government and really needs a bit of a cuddle.  Defra gets bullied in the playground by the big boys – Osborne, Pickles and (bollocks) Maude, and the big boys wouldn’t behave like that if the leader of the gang, David Cameron, were solidly behind the Defra team. Even the other green Department, DECC, is rumoured to retain ambitions to swallow up Defra.

If anything, I believe there is a lack of edginess from the NGOs.  They are too nice to Defra and to Government as a whole.  Although that is too simplistic a way of putting it.  The existing NGOs are all playing their roles well but there is something missing – the edgy voice for nature.

There isn’t a voice saying  ‘This is hopeless. It’s not good enough at all.’  We don’t need all the existing nature NGOs to say that, but somebody should, because it’s true.  And it’s difficult for existing voices to say those things because they don’t want to upset Defra for a whole variety of reasons.

Nature in the UK is getting a raw deal from us – and government (current and previous in Westminster, and devolved parliaments elsewhere)  has to carry much of the responsibility for that.  More needs to be done to; make fishing sustainable so that nature in our seas thrives;  make farming more sustainable so that nature in the countryside thrives; ensure important sites  are protected so that threatened species are conserved; fast-track species recovery actions including reintroductions so that wildlife expands and increases; and back habitat creation projects to put nature back in our lives.  Somebody has to say it and say it in a convincing way so that it creates the impetus for government to move and to be influenced by its friendly NGO partners.

That strong voice no longer comes, publicly at least, from organisations such as NE since this government chose to silence them and other independent voices such as the RCEP and SDC. Nature does abhor a vacuum and there is a lack of an outspoken voice for nature.

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10 Replies to “Edgy?”

  1. Here's a thought: The critique of Government doesn't isn't just the responsibility of NGOs, is it? There is a larger body of opinion that should influence politics and policy. The chiefs amongst these, in our culture of mass communication, are the media.

    So what of the media's role as independent critics of the Government's environmental performance? Are they fulfilling this? By which I mean are journalists and editors fulfilling this role themselves -rather than printing stories given to them by...erm...NGOs (against which they almost always print a counterview anyway, in the interests of "balance").

    Perhaps you could look into this, as you seem only to place responsibility for pressurising Government into the hands of NGOs and (sort of) agencies. Who else should be playing their part?

    I know you covered media in one of your recent newsblasts, but your assessment was very subjective. Why not revisit it and, this time, assess which newspapers and journalists are actually offering strong opinions. I think you'll probably find that the only paper to have offered strong environmental editorial comment of late has been the Telegraph, thanks to its campaigns on forestry and planning. The only columnists who offer strong political analysis are Lean (Telegraph again) and Clover (Sunday Times). Environment correspondents on other papers don't seem to be bagging many editorial column inches.

    But that's my subjective view. What's the truth? And am I right in thinking that the media have a bigger role to play than NGOs in influencing Governments. NGOs, of course, can influence media, but shouldn't the media by doing some of this without being prompted?

    1. CaperKylie - excellent comment thank you. Of course the media do have a part to play - often led by NGOs. If the NGOs don't say anything interesting, or important, then the chances are that the media won't print it or broadcast it. As those subscribed (it doesn't cost anything) to my monthly newsblast do know, the media are not uniformly good on the environment an wildlife in particular and I agree with you that Messrs Lean and Clover are commentators worth reading. Great comment, thank you.

  2. So why does everyone assume Government has all the answers ? Isn't it time we started having our own ideas, taking our owns actions a bit more ? To be fair, bodies like RSPB are doing wonderful, imaginative things - but they don't seem to recognise they could spin them up into something much bigger: I've made the point before that we have all the methods in place - and some great demonstrations already on the ground - to really 'green the geenbelt' in places like the Thames Gateway - but apparently not the will or vision to see the big picture, the potential to do things differently. A failure brought into very sharp focus by the Government's disastrous ideas on planning - but did we, the environmentalists, provide a real alternative ?

    I'm convinced we are at one of those 'break points' in history where the whole way things are done is changing. The opportunity for conservation is to break out from its sectoral niche into a big environmental approach that takes ecosystem services way beyond nature conservation into flooding, water supply, energy and quality of life. I see big opportunities to not only save the planet but save money as well - aligning the currently conflicting ways we manage the countryside, with intensive agriculture heavily funded to de-grade a wide range of other environmental values, could save maybe £1 bilion a year - and completely transform (positively !) the prospects for nature.

    But, for all the reasons you outline, I'm not quite sure where the drive, leadership and imagination is going to come from. Today's conservation leaders have never faced the imminent prospect of extinction that pursued the Forestry Commission from 1988 to 2011 - I can tell you its a powerful stimulus to abandon the safety of comfotable old ways and strike out for new horizons ! And we've seen the results this year, a shock, I have to admit, even to me, and one which the NGOs still seem to be struggling to come to terms with.

  3. Could the conservation movement do with a thinktank?

    For NGOs to work effectively they need to be positively engaging with government as government has the ultimate power to achieve the aims of conservation NGOs. From a practical point of view it's much better to be working with government than against it. However, that will always mean that conservation NGOs are unable to speak as forcibly or as bluntly as they (and their members) might like.

    Similarly government conservation bodies (Natural England etc), however independent they seem on paper, are always going to be semi-subservient to the government of the day as their position relies completely on the government’s good favour.

    So conservation is left with a vacuum as no organisation can speak with authority on the conservation issues of the day without damaging other conservation interests within their organisation.

    As I see it, a potential solution could be the creation of a completely independent conservation policy think tank. An organisation that's aim is purely to produce evidence-based policy papers which could cause hard-hitting debate within the political classes (and the wider public) about conservation issues. And, because such a body would not be involved with any other interests; such as running nature reserves or running species recovery programmes, it has no reason to be subservient to government and therefore, has no reason to water down or compromise on its conclusions.

    For such a body to be effective it would need to be totally independent of current conservation NGOs and funded by its own means. I imagine the annual running costs would be somewhere in the order of £100,000 p.a. to have an office with 3 or 4 staff and a dozen aspiring policy interns - surely there's enough powerful people sympathetic to conservation to raise the annual running costs for such a body!

  4. Does the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) (http://www.ieep.eu/about-us/about-ieep/) fit the bill of an independent conservation policy think-tank?

    My impression, however, is that IEEP is well-respected, and quite effective, in mainland Europe but that, despite having had a London base since 1980, they have had little or no profile (and impact?) within the UK.

    1. David - I think IEEP is an excellent and influential organisation but its influence is mostly exercised behind closed doors rather than in the glare of publicity. It's like nature itself - there are many niches and they will all tend to be filled.

  5. This vital and fascinating debate on NGOs’ role touches on the huge changes in society going on before our very eyes.

    So I agree with Roderick Leslie above: “I’m convinced we are at one of those ‘break points’ in history where the whole way things are done is changing.”

    The changes are not always easy to grasp but I think NGOs are up for this debate - and not just in the broad environment sector.

    Much of the wider voluntary + community sector also sees how far institutions and government of all colours lag behind in meeting societal need and showing genuine ‘leadership’.

    By ‘leadership’, I mean acting on the host of inter-related economic, social and environmental areas which, if dealt with sustained interest by our leaders - might start resulting in something akin to sustainable development.

    There is some great thinking going on within government. There are good people too. But their ambitions rarely surface as government of all colours tends to be, if you like, too conservative about the environment.

    (That is a non-party political reference to the irony that the terms ‘conserve’ and ‘environment’ often end up meaning opposing things when dealt with by the dead hand of government of any party).

    But it's easy to see why ideas and ambitions to 'do the right thing' struggle to make the sizable shifts required.

    First, our political 'leaders' are just not used to thinking in this way. Then much of the media excels at stifling new thinking. Both champion short termism.

    All of which makes it easy for politicians to use the current economic crisis to prescribe the same economic remedy which has been largely responsible for the economic, social and environmental state we're in.

    For example, at a stroke Chancellor George Osborne wrote off decades’ worth of learning about the real crisis we face (It's the environment, Stupid) when he told the 2012 Conservative Party conference: "We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business".

    What vision. Sadly, like his predecessors, the current Chancellor epitomises how backward our 'leaders' tend to be in failing to connect environmental decline to failing economies.

    Faced with such learned ‘leadership’ what are NGOs to do? What is anyone to do?

    This year, for our part at Wildlife and Countryside Link - many of whose members some commentators claim shy from the issues - we have been considering our role and how to raise our game.

    We’d have had to do this regardless of the party in government. But if the answers were simple we'd have come up with them by now so we’ll be doing more on this.

    Meanwhile, we have not been silent as shown below.

    The broad environment / conservation movement has come of age and the issues are now mainstream.

    Being mainstream may mean a greater slice of public discourse and media coverage. It also risks the issues being institutionalised in government.

    In that sense mainstream debate no more guarantees the necessary change any more than almost endless debate on, say, education and health.

    Both of these issues attracts more airtime and expenditure than 'the environment' but has this lead to a drastic improvement in outcomes?

    Link's ‘Nature Check’ report referred to by Richard Benyon MP in his ‘edgy’ speech offers Ministers help without pulling any punches: http://www.wcl.org.uk/nature-check.asp

    Pending the arrival of the messianic new ‘voice for nature’ being invoked by Peter Marren and others, ‘Nature Check’ and other work by Link members is a responsible holding to account of Government on its own terms.

    We need to keep this up AND explore new ways to be strong voices for nature.

    1. Paul - many thanks for your comment. I totallly agree,a nd said, that we need to keep up what the current NGOs are doing in a responsible and cooperative way with government and explore new ways to be strong voices for nature. I guess it's fair to ask you where FoE is on this subject? Many would say their vopice is sadly lacking in UK nature conservation.

  6. Hi Mark,

    Your question is timely.

    Friends of the Earth now has a full time person working on biodiversity, natural environment and ecosystem services - -it's me (oh dear, what have I done?).

    I need to recruit a modest sized team and find a proper name for the work (see end).

    What has changed?

    From my team's work campaigning locally and regionally in England I've been acutely aware that our work on transport, waste or land use (etc, etc) was implicitly, not explicity, about protecting and extending nature.

    We worked with other 'green' groups but in ways which did not seek to duplicate good work where their expertise was well established.

    Also, Friends of the Earth's good and rightful decade-long focus on climate change has achieved great things. And it needs to continue.

    But the focus has meant there has been little time to deal with the UK and global issues of nature.

    Not that we've done nothing. Recent work has been on international forests (REDD), palm oil and soy (our 'Fix the Food Chain' campaign).

    But these have not necessarily come across to others as being about the natural world.

    My work as chair of Wildlife and Countryside Link was coincindental to my main role heading up Friends of the Earth England. By which I mean, I did it because I wanted to, thought I could fit it in alongside my other roles (!) and it interested me even though I am not a biodiversity boffin.

    Above all I thought that Wildlife and Countryside Link and its members needed to raise its / their game becasuse:

    1. The imperative i.e. It's the environment, Stupid

    2. The lack of political attention i.e. the dead hand of government Versus speaking truth to power as per my Link Direction Statement: http://www.wcl.org.uk/docs/2010/Link_Direction_Statement_Jan10.pdf

    3. Because action for nature has to go hand in hand with action for climate


    4. Society does not owe NGOs a living - we need to be relevant, vital and able to 'push the envelope' even when things seem tough

    So my voluntary role at Link and my work role at Friends of the Earth are now aligned.

    So watch this space, and offers of help are welcome.

    For starters, I need a better campaign name than what I've been given: 'Nature and Ecosystem Security'.
    Now there's a challenge.



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