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How Austerity has Endangered Britain’s Ability to Safeguard its Natural Environment

Debilitating cuts have reduced regulators’ role in safeguarding the natural environment and stymied the Government’s approach to net zero, reports Thomas Perrett

Prime Minister Liz Truss. Photo: Zuma/Alamy

How Austerity has Endangered Britain’s Ability to Safeguard its Natural Environment

Debilitating cuts have reduced regulators’ role in safeguarding the natural environment and stymied the Government’s approach to net zero, reports Thomas Perrett

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Liz Truss has so far shown little sign of willingness to address the array of environmental issues which face her Government. Even as consumers are plagued by skyrocketing energy bills driven primarily by increasing gas prices, and the danger of energy blackouts this winter looms, it remains committed to expanding heavily polluting sources of energy. The new Energy Secretary has advocated for “squeezing every last cubic inch of gas from the North Sea” and has recently reversed the 2019 moratorium on fracking.

Truss’ antipathy towards the long-term spending measures required to develop renewable energy sources is indicative of her approach to economic policy.

She is willing to increase Government borrowing to fund tax cuts in the hope that this will accelerate growth, but unwilling to issue a windfall tax on energy firms due to make £170 billion in excess profits over the next two years, having argued that this would impede new investment in the economy.

Indeed, during her stint as Environment Secretary, Truss presided over a lengthy period of budget cuts which reduced funding for the Environment Agency by £235 million. Between 2014 and 2016, she oversaw a £24 cut from government grants intended for environmental protection and the prevention of the discharge of sewage into the water supply.

Her approach has been criticised by Greenpeace, which argued that she had “sewage on her hands” following Labour’s analysis of official figures showing that raw sewage discharge had nearly doubled between 2016 and 2021. Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK, observed that “the growing tsunami of sewage unleashed onto Britain’s waterways is a shocking demonstration of how undermining our regulators leads to a disregard for nature and those meant to protect it”. 

The sewage scandal was the consequence of a prolonged campaign of austerity which has crippled key environmental agencies, leaving them toothless in the face of crumbling infrastructure and biodiversity loss which will impede government attempts to address the climate crisis.

According to analysis from the campaigning coalition Unchecked, prosecutions of businesses by the Environmental Agency fell by 80% between 2009/10 and 2016/17, in addition to a 33% decline in prosecutions for waste crime and a 29% fall in the number of incidents of pollution logged by the agency.

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Both the Environmental Agency and conservation regulatory body Natural England have been hit by significant funding cuts leading to staff shortages. Funding for environmental regulators fell by an average of 50%, leading the number of full-time staff to decline by 30% over the same period.

Concerns soon mounted that Natural England – which lost 66% of its funding between 2010 and 2017 – was particularly affected by austerity and would be compelled to reshape its priorities, resulting in it being less able to enforce measures to protect and restore the country’s biodiversity.

Back in 2010, 25 leading conservation groups made a joint statement arguing that further cuts would “translate into huge long-term costs for our economy and our national wellbeing” and that “England’s uplands have become degraded; their wildlife is in decline, and their ability to lock away carbon and provide clean drinking water for millions sadly reduced”.

A 2020 report by trade union Prospect found that Natural England’s programme expenditure had dropped by £30 million since 2006, arguing that the financial hardship it had faced would exacerbate biodiversity loss and make it more difficult for the Government to implement measures addressing the climate crisis.

Mike Clancy, Prospect’s general secretary said “there is a yawning gap between the Government’s rhetoric on climate change, the environment and biodiversity and the reality of years of under-funding our environmental agencies”.

“The disproportionate cuts, out-dated and unfit pay framework, and significant pay inequality all need to be addressed,” he added. “The UK has a world-class natural environment which is treasured by the public, but this natural heritage will suffer if the expert custodians of our natural heritage continue to be treated as second class public servants.”

Indeed, Natural England has since attracted criticism for failing to implement robust measures to protect biodiversity and altering its strategies to effectively penalise rewilding. Last year, it released its ‘biodiversity metric’ which outlined how roads, houses and other infrastructure projects could avoid despoiling the natural environment. The metric erroneously categorised land set aside for rewilding as “degraded”, further endangering species dependent on this land to survive.

The biodiversity net gain metric, which entomologist Steven Falk said was potentially “the single most dangerous thing to be done by a statutory agency I’ve seen in all my 40 years working in nature conservation”, was found to have reduced available green spaces by 34%. The report, which assessed 6% of houses built between January 2020 and February 2021 in local authorities which adopted Natural England’s scheme, concluded that “little attention has been paid to ensuring the delivery of habitats within developer-owned land”.

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The report cast doubt on the effectiveness of government-enforced conservation initiatives, arguing that “even ambitious policies are subject to huge uncertainties that risk undermining their biodiversity benefits” and that “the safest mechanism for reducing the biodiversity impact of infrastructure is to avoid impacts to biodiversity initially. In practice, this means redirecting development to previously degraded sites wherever possible”.

Owing in part to the consistent under-funding of regulatory agencies, Britain has experienced extensive biodiversity loss over recent decades.

Only 50.3% of Britain’s biodiversity remains, in comparison to an average of 75% for nations in the G7. Britain is also in the bottom 10% of nations globally for nature – depletion, having seen a 13% decline in the abundance of wildlife since 1970.

Moreover, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, one in four species are at risk of extinction in Britain following a 70% decline in the populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians since 1970. Of the 7,615 species in England assessed, 13% are classified as near-extinct.

Natural England and the Environment Agency have faced debilitating austerity measures which have impeded their ability to safeguard the natural environment and stymied the Government’s approach to net zero. With the country facing alarming rates of species extinction and biodiversity decline, how will Liz Truss be able to justify making this systematic under-funding any worse?

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