The RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts have just woken up to the fact that this government isn’t doing much for the environment – and doesn’t intend to – and that it is the job of NGOs to put pressure on decision makers to do the right thing. The best time to put on the pressure is before the decisions are taken because afterwards is too late.
After Defra apparently stepped forward (who knows what is the real story?) to accept cuts of 30% in the latest spending review, this was criticised by the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts as follows:
Dr Mike Clarke, the RSPB’s chief executive, said: ‘The Westminster Government is keen to talk about “difficult choices” but it seems increasingly clear that abandoning its obligation to ensure the UK is habitable is not very difficult for them at all. Five years ago DEFRA was at the front of the queue and took the joint largest cuts while other departments were still negotiating. When once again DEFRA is heavily cut ahead of other departments, talk of “difficult choices” is hard to take seriously. This seems to us to be a truly perverse decision. A lack of resource is already damaging the UK Government’s ability to meet basic statutory obligations. These obligations aren’t ‘nice to haves’ – a healthy natural environment underpins our prosperity. Investing in environmental protection is an essential part of any plan for a better future.‘.
Stephen Trotter, The Wildlife Trusts’ Director, England, said: ‘Even before yesterday’s announcement, the Government was only investing a tiny proportion of our national income in environmental stewardship and the restoration of wildlife habitats – its already far below the levels that we need. 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. When everything we depend on comes from the natural world this makes no sense for the economy and it makes no sense for the health and wellbeing of our society.
The UK has been running up a massive environmental deficit over recent decades and which future generations will have to pay off. These cuts are a false economy and will undermine and jeopardise the future growth and development of the economy. I fear this is a missed opportunity for Government to start paying off the environmental debt that we’re leaving to our children and grand children. We are now faced with the extremely worrying prospect that Government no longer has the ecological literacy or functionality that society needs if we are to build a genuinely sustainable future.‘.
I think the NGOs could have played a much better game over the last few years. They needed to use their large memberships, and in the case of the RSPB a now-growing membership, to exert pressure on decision-makers. Only by creating a fear of the consequences of doing the wrong thing, consequences like losing votes, can most governments be nudged towards doing the right thing. There has been too little nudging.
It’s not an easy position for the NGOs to be in. The climate for environmental progress has been poor for the last five years. No-one said it would be easy – in fact, it was blindingly obvious that it was going to be difficult. But the NGOs have treated Defra, and a succession of hopeless ministers, as though they are their friends, rather than either antipathetic to nature (Paterson) or simply hopeless (Truss).
The fluffy gauntlet thrown down by the wildlife NGOs a very few weeks ago is now lying on the ground ignored.
What price now, Rory Stewart’s and Liz Truss’s promises of ‘the best environment in the world’?
So where now?
The NGOs should start to shun Defra processes. Why spend huge amounts of staff time on talking to a department that cannot do much, and does even less, doesn’t listen and is quite likely not to exist in a few years time? Every working group should have, at most, one wildlife representative on it, ideally from Wildlife and Countryside Link, who reports back to all the NGOs. There should be a public statement that the wildlife conservation community have no confidence in this government’s ability or even intention to do a good job for the environment. No government minister should be offered a platform at an NGO event (although a place in the stocks should always be available).
The NGOs should take all opportunities to work with all opposition parties to forge environmental policies for the next general election that are well thought through and can be supported. The opposition parties should see that the environment is an area which the Conservatives have abandoned and where there are votes to be won.
The NGOs need to turn back to us, their supporters, and engage us in putting pressure on decision makers. This has really fallen into disrepair over the last few years. The power, such as it is, of the wildlife NGOs comes from three things: the quality of their staff, the resources that they largely get from us the public, and the klout that they get with decision-makers through the size of their memberships.
The wildlife NGOs have acted over the last few years as though the crisis in their world was where their money might come from, rather than one of the disappearing biodiversity. It is time to mobilise us so that we can make a difference for wildlife. That is the NGO role when governments don’t listen.