Sunday, February 10, 2013

The week the "environment" died ( or potentially so!).

Throughout everyone's lives particular dates emerge that stay with us all through the years. Personal matters rank highly, but these can sit alongside dates of significant events which take place, be they the outbreak of a war, the death of a monarch or, indeed, man's landing on the moon. Sadly , it seems to me that, as a conservationist, this last week could go down as that when the self-claimed Greenest Government finally turned its back on both commitments and realities to the environment that are emerging which will have immense influences on our future countryside and wildlife. Dramatic, unreasonable, unfair even! Well, possibly, but this is how it feels and such conclusions arising amongst the electorate are concerns which any Government should address. The fact is, it doesn't feel such is happening, indeed, successive indicators appear to reinforce such feelings of despair.

We recently saw some very positive proposals emerge relating to forestry, but can we really believe such reflected the Government sincere commitments?  Think about it and what was proposed previously and the reaction which emerged. No , the Government undoubtedly listened, but determined, in its own political interests, that it couldn't afford to alienate so many reasonable people given an election arising in 2015. A reprieve for our national woodlands, but so there should have been, indeed the initial proposals should never have arisen!

Last week saw the Government's Triennial Review consultation closing in which the future of Natural England now rests. But given the organization's objectives had been "amended" last year better to reflect the needs of commercial development and, successively, its budgets reduced, could such an organization ever be at the top of its game? Additionally, when attempting to operate within such strictures, it hardly helps when the Chancellor is forever intoning the need to relax environmental regulation and the Prime Minister is extolling the need for a review of European Environmental Regulations. Not the utterances to draw confidence from.  The "sensible money" would seem to be indicating that Natural England will be absorbed into the Environment Agency , but we shall see. What does shine through is that there is no level of interest or real empathy with environmental matters in their own right. Oh yes, but there's the Countryside Alliance some would say. But is real interest or empathy a product of treating the countryside as a playground, if you own a horse or a gun that is, or an area ripe for commercial exploitation or as a larder?  What of the countryside in its own right, wherein it provides spiritual uplift via its landscapes and plays host to our ever receding native wildlife ?  Conservatism and the retention of all things worthwhile no longer seem to gel together!

At a more local level we hear shocking stories of some local authorities considering abolishing ranger services and axing countryside initiatives due to the need to respond to the swingeing budget reductions imposed by Central Government. Sadly, environmental schemes are always an immediate target in such circumstances, but one hopes good reason will prevail. It has to be said that the benefits to health and well-being never appear to be factored in to such decisions, which most likely arise from an examination of sterile balance sheets. Whilst I am not against cost cutting or sensible economies, the incompetent performances of past and current administrations in their budgets leave something to be desired. Expensive "white elephants" ,such as those emerging from the recent reviews on defence procurement, would cover the commitments to the environment several times over and yet the continuing presence within the Exchequer's balance sheet for such initiatives, eventually swept off at the stroke of a pen, ensured that essential maintenance or enhancement to the very fabric of the pleasant land we were endeavouring to protect was simply not possible.  OK, well maybe a little over the top, but it is the feeling one is left with and that within any budget debates "the environment" is almost debarred from consideration!  In summary, do we want to preside over an environment whose condition has deteriorated to that exhibiting the lowest common denominator of biodiversity and quality or do we want to live in vibrant and uplifting circumstances?

And then comes the much vaunted talks on the EU Budget!  Well, I think we have a real problem with the outcome, verging on a potential disaster, when linked to the demonstrated lack of interest from our Green Government. We have to face reality and accept that the UK embraced intensive farming in the recent past to an over-enthusiastic degree, which has resulted in the decimation of the wildlife and botanical diversity in such areas.  Now we can debate and analyse it until the cows come home, quite literally, but what emerges is that, if we wish to rectify those excesses of the past to any reasonable degree , we need to take action now. Given the requisite budget that would otherwise have provided the funding has been reduced by 11 billion Euros and given that there has been a mandate given to allow Member States to reallocate what remains in conservation funds towards affected agricultural subsidies, the net result is that the potential for assisting wildlife conservation on farmland is much the poorer. Whether this production obsessed Government will be interested in seeking out alternative means of assisting such initiatives will be a test for the future. At the present time one imagines the concerns of the Secretary of State are equine in nature and that we may have to wait for some little time before our questions are answered, if , indeed, there was any prospect in the first place!!

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