Last week, the latest UK Biodiversity Indicators were published. Did you see the government press release about them? Did you hear Defra ministers quizzed about them on every news bulletin through the day? Is this the first you have heard of them?
I’m fond of these indicators for two main reasons. First, government ought to publish statistics on what is actually happening and be held to account for what they have failed to achieve and praised for what they have achieved. Second, I, and many others, spent a lot of time back in the 1990s (yes, really!) persuading a Labour Government to adopt these indicators (or a set very similar to them) and so their very existence is a small source of pleasure for me.
But when they were launched, the idea was that they would form sustainability indicators which would be prominent measures of government progress to be compared with economic measures such as GDP, inflation, employment, manufacturing output etc. That hasn’t really happened has it? It did for a while, I remember Elliot Morley, as a Minister of State, doing several press conferences on the day that these statistics were released and being put on the spot by journalists from all the national dailies about why farmland birds were doing so badly despite being an indicator of sustainability and these results being given real prominence in the media.
I remember (and I’ve told this story before but you won’t remember it) back in the mists of time, when we didn’t know that Ed Balls could dance, and when he was Chancellor Gordon Brown’s Special Advisor in the Treasury, being at a meeting when Ed was asked why on earth the government had a measure about how birds were doing – who cares? Ed’s answer was perfect (for those of us who had been bending government’s collective ears on this matter for years) and was two-fold along these lines. First, people do care about wildlife – don’t you know that wildlife conservation groups have more than six million members and that the RSPB has over a million – that’s more than all the political parties in the UK put together? But second, a countryside whose wildlife is declining cannot be being managed sustainably and we need to look at those figures hard and do something to turn them around. Result!
When the Conservative-led (or misled) coalition government came in (in 2010) they immediately down-graded these measures in importance and now they can be published with precious little scrutiny or comment. That is, in itself, one of the strongest biodiversity trends over this period; a big rise in government nonchalance about the state of nature on their watch.
So, today, I will post a series of blogs about the indicators and what they mean. Several of the indicators will crop up more than once in this short series of blogs as we go through the day, but let us start with that farmland bird indicator – how is it doing after all these years?
Not exactly a graph that signals great achievement, is it? If Therese Coffey works as assiduously and successfully in her new Cabinet post (Department of Work and Pensions) and has the same impact on her new brief as she and her predecessors have on farmland bird numbers we can expect the results to be all over the media.
And it’s not just birds that are doing badly on farmland;
And here’s another one;
And yet, we are spending lots of money rewarding farmers for what they are doing for the environment:
Nothing could demonstrate much more starkly that, in what is called the wider countryside, the combined efforts of farmers, landowners and government policy have failed to turn around the decline in biodiversity and that our money has been a poor investment. How I wish that Therese Coffey and George Eustice had been grilled on the Today programme and every subsequent news programme through the day about why their government had failed, how they justified their salaries and what their successors should do to correct their failure. But the media don’t have the wit to spot an environmental story which isn’t a filler between ‘real’ news these days.
More later today – and it’s not all bad news (just mostly bad news).