Defra fails nature – in the big things and the little things

If Defra were a school it would be judged inadequate, would be served a notice to improve and be put in special measures. But it isn’t, so it jogs on as the government department near the bottom of the political pecking order and with few friends in government or in the real world.

Defra sprung into existence in 2001 after foot and mouth closed the countryside for months. A shake up was deemed to be necessary and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was seen to be too close to the farming industry it was supposed to be regulating.  The report of the Curry Commission signalled that agriculture should change to be more public-facing and environmentally friendly.  Unfortunately Defra has gradually changed itself back into having many of the faults of the old MAFF and is failing almost everywhere one looks.

Examples of Defra failure:
My main interest in Defra is whether it is delivering on its environmental agenda, particularly for nature conservation. That’s not all it does, but it is the lead government department on a whole range of environmental issues including wildlife. If Defra isn’t looking after wildlife in England then government is ignoring it.  So, how is it doing?
  • Reform of agriculture policy –  this is a key part of taking control post-Brexit, and Defra is making such a meal of doing this that it has lost the farming community as well as environmentalists. No interest group has confidence that Defra knows what it is doing or will bring in a better system after what will be a decade of uncertainty and change. But we’ll have to see – maybe it’ll all come right in the end. However, it seems very unlikely that the path  that is fuzzily visible into the future will deliver a wildlife renaissance in the countryside as it is too little, too voluntary and too uncertain.
  • protecting wildlife sites – the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2002 introduced a raft of measures to ensure that notified wildlife sites, Sites of Special Scientific Interest were well managed and delivered for wildlife rather than simply being protected from loss. Fewer than half of these sites are in favourable condition and the proportion is gradually falling. If Natural England had the resources to monitor sites properly we would probably find that it is falling faster than we currently realise. This is a system that was working well when the Conservatives (with a few LibDems) came into power 12 years ago and they have used their power to let that progress be dissipated. SSSIs, despite having a ghastly name, are like the art galleries of natural culture in our landscapes and under this administration they are decaying surely and not so slowly.
  • water quality – sewage and agricultural run-off in rivers is in the news every day it seems, although that will partly be pushed aside by water shortages for the next month or more. It’s Defra’s job to sort this out and it clearly hasn’t. Defra seems to have presided over failures by both Ofwat (who must take account of Defra policy guidance) and the Environment Agency – but the buck stops with them.
  • bird/poultry flu – Defra has said practically nothing about the conservation consequences of this virus and has no plan of action for dealing with it. It’s as the RSPB said – Defra is asleep at the wheel.
  • lead ammunition – in 2015 Defra received a report, from an expert panel, recommending the phasing out of lead ammunition on environmental and human health grounds. It sat on it for well over a year and then as her last action before leaving the department, Liz Truss spuriously rejected the group’s recommendations. Defra is now going through a convoluted consultation  to waste a few more years where the science is clear – let’s ban it, use steel and other ammunition, and simply move on. Defra’s ability to make things difficult when they are simple is one of its main faults.
  • environmental reporting – we heard recently that Defra has ditched two thirds of environmental measures that have been long used as sustainability measures. These were treated seriously by the former Labour government (reports issued, press releases, press conferences, ministers answering questions on progress or lack of progress) but have been downgraded and now more or less disbanded by Defra – it’s almost as if they are afraid of indicators of environmental progress being published. The change is said to be temporary – but then, income tax was introduced as a temporary measure and seems still to be with us.
  • Woodcock shooting season – this is a tiny matter compared with those above but it indicates Defra’s inability to do anything at all. Perhaps a good reform of agriculture policy is too difficult for any government department (it seems too difficult for this one) but little bits of helpful tinkering, no-regrets measures, along the way are sensible politically (so that you can point to something you’ve done) and if you really believe in your role (so that you can point to a range of small measures carried out whilst tackling the big, difficult ones).  This is an example where a pro-shooting organisation, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, has long recommended that shooters, who shoot c160,000 Woodcock a year in the UK, should only start shooting on 1 December rather than, as the outdated regulations allow, from 1 October. It’s a trivially easy adjutment to make which has no economic consequences and requires no legislation. It’s really a no-brainer if you care about wildlife but it’s actually a no-brainer if you don’t give a monkey’s about wildlife but would quite like people to think that you do! So, as might be expected from the government department that cannot do the big things and doesn’t do the small things, Defra has refused to face up to the science and has said it won’t budge on this tiny matter. To give them more of a nudge please sign this petition so that a Defra minister will have to respond in parliament.
Why is Defra so awful?
  • a tiny budget – thanks to coalition government ideological cuts in 2010 means that Defra can’t do much on a broad range of fronts – but who would give more money to a failing department that isn’t even doing its best?
  • client capture – Defra is turning back into MAFF and the vested interest of farming has too big a say in the spending of billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. Where else does the industry have such a say in how it is treated and the taxpayers’ interests seem to have no voice in what happens?
  • Defra ministers have been dominated by farmers and shooters for the last 12 years – Jim Paice, Richard Benyon (now back again as Lord Benyon), Owen Paterson and the long-serving George Eustice have been in office, either singly or in tandem for most of the last 12 years. And with brief periods of hope for change, under Caroline Spelman and Michael Gove, there has been a succession of ministers – Truss, Leadsom, Villiers, Stewart, Coffey to name but a few – who have presided over a very conservative status quo where it almost appeared that the policy was ‘no change in anything, at any price’.  The Defra agenda has not been well-served but various vested interests must feel pretty content with the lack of change.  The brightest of the bunch have been Spelman, Gove and Goldsmith who tried, and succeeded in part, to make some progress.
  • no ambitious civil servant would be gagging to end up in Defra and I hear that morale is very low because change is difficult and ministers aren’t up to it, but everybody moans about their bosses.
  • lack of engagement with professionals – there are plenty of wildlife and environmental bodies who know what they are talking about who could be giving Defra more help but they aren’t welcomed these days. And they don’t feel that Defra is on their side, the side of the environment, the side of the taxpayer very often, these days.

What is the solution?

If the problem is low funding, client capture, poor ministers, disenchanted civil servants and lack of attention to expert advice then that mess won’t easily be sorted out without a change of government. Would that help? It’s difficult to know because it is so long ago that Labour were in power. There aren’t a galaxy of wildlife heroes visible in the Labour ranks but perhaps that’s not needed anyway. What characterised the last Labour government on these issues was their willingness to listen to everyone and then make a judgement – Hilary Benn, David Miliband and Margaret Beckett all did that, sometimes making decisions I liked and sometimes ones I disliked, but they were made on the basis of evidence mixed with political calculation rather than prejudice. The odds for a Labour win are just worse than those for heads (or tails) but the prospect of Truss as PM will only make a Labour win more likely. I don’t feel optimistic about getting a Labour government, let alone getting a great Labour Defra, but that’s the best we can realistically hope for, vote for, and work towards.

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3 Replies to “Defra fails nature – in the big things and the little things”

  1. Examples for DEFRA ineptitude are easy to find. I’ll just choose one: DEFRA/ Natural England protected species planning guidance.

    This is occasionally updated, and every time it is, so it says less of any value. This is important as the January 2022 wholesale revisions state for each species/ species group:

    “Following this advice:
    – avoids the need to consult (NE) on the negative effects of planning applications on ( X species) in most case
    – can help you make decisions on development proposals”

    Both of these presuppose that the guidance is fit for practical planning purposes, and stops all of that tiresome consultation stuff. Sadly, none of it is. The result is that the many poorly qualified- ecologically speaking- planners haven’t got the first idea of what to do/ how to assess applactions if relying on the statutory planning guidance.

    The guidance is gloriously unfocused. For example, freshwater pearl mussels biodiversity enhancement guidance (BNG) includes :

    ” achieve a net gain in biodiversity through good design, such as green roofs, street trees or sustainable drainage”
    a bit iffy ecologically speaking….I’ve yet to see pearl mussels romping around on green roofs, hanging off trees, or crammed into polluted SUDS ponds.

    So, what to make of this all? Unfit for purpose seems to cover it. If we are wedded to a planning system that want BNG, I’d neither want to start or end with the 2022 planning guidance. Maybe DEFRA/ Natural England should consult an ecologist before they issue guidance in future?

  2. Could add legislating an end to peat sale and extraction: abysmally slow progress despite strong public support and climate and nature wins – and yet another delay right now, in Defra’s still-awaited response to last winter’s consultation.

  3. There’s no incompetence here. Defra is doing exactly what it’s political masters want it to do. I’ve been increasingly appalled by the way mainstream conservation has continued to behave as if the Government was on it’s side in the way the last Labour Government demonstrably was. I never had any doubt that the wind would change – it always does eventually – and a new dogmatic Conservative Government would have a crack at the Forestry Commission forests, the only question being what form it would take. Along with restoring the reputation of forestry it was a key driver of the speed of change during the Labour years. A thinking conservation sector would have learnt from what happened – but instead it pretended the forest sales fiasco had never happened. It went on to make some terrible mistakes – dismissing natural capital, which was an obvious way in to serious decisions. To the ‘you can’t value nature’ the Government replied, OK, we won’t and they’ve certainly lived up to that promise. Similarly, the 25 year plan which any cynical policy maker knew was a classic delaying tactic – and now, several years in, it’s becoming quite apparent there’s nothing there – there never was. Similarly, the legally binding Environment Act – when it comes to the crunch this Government will simply turn round and say ‘it may be legally binding but the money isn’t there’. But if they lose office it’ll be great stick to beat their successors with.

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