The Independent View: Liberal Democrats – nature needs you!

A majestic soaring eagle. The lightning flash of a kingfisher. Feeding the ducks.

For most people, wildlife ignites their first sparks of interest in environmental issues, yet it is currently conspicuously absent from the political discourse. We hear a lot about sustainability and climate change, but if this Government is to realise its ambitions to be “the Greenest Government ever” it has to tackle biodiversity conservation as well.

We desperately need action: the UK has missed its commitment to halt biodiversity loss by 2010; 42% of our most important habitats and 24% of priority species are declining; and the farmland bird index – a crucial barometer of the health of our countryside – has halved since 1970.

So how is the Coalition Government doing? The initial signs were promising, with then Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman leading the world in making the case for biodiversity conservation at the Nagoya Summit in 2010, and following up domestically last year with the publication of the Natural Environment White Paper (the first in 20 years) and the England Biodiversity Strategy.

There was much to welcome in both these important documents, though it was clearly apparent that the White Paper’s laudable ambitions could only be realised if the necessary funding was made available and its aims were embedded across departments. Without this nature will continue to suffer. This was reflected in last year’s Naturecheck report, published by Wildlife and Countryside Link, which found Government progress against its own targets to be mixed.

The next Naturecheck, due next month, will show what further progress has been made. One area in which we hope to see progress is on cross-government support, where environmental protection is still often seen in isolation, separate to other areas of policy. Recently this has translated into a view amongst some departments that key environmental protections are a brake on the UK’s economic recovery. This is wrong-headed and damaging; Ministers need only turn to their Government’s groundbreaking 2011 National Ecosystem Assessment to recognise the astonishing value of the goods and services nature provides us with for free. From growing food to providing clean drinking water these are worth billions every year to the UK economy. It makes no more sense then to undermine our natural capital – from pollinating bees to our life-giving rivers – be it through changes to planning policy or new airport developments, in order to achieve short-term economic growth, than it does to borrow money we can’t afford to repay. And unlike the banks, nature has no overdraft facility – once it is gone, it is lost forever.

It is frustrating that despite this, species and habitats often only gain political focus when they are seen as a ‘problem’. Here, politicians have recently risked overlooking scientific evidence and bypassing proper engagement processes– with disastrous consequences. Consider, for example, the public outcry over Government proposals to trial the nest destruction and removal of buzzards in order to protect non-native pheasants reared for sports shooting. This was a timely reminder of how much people value nature. Like the public huge outcry provoked by the government’s plans to sell off the Public Forest Estate, ‘buzzardgate’ showed how politicians should tread carefully when making decisions affecting our cherished wildlife.

These expressions of public support reflect a wide and deeply-held passion about our natural environment. Whether it is the RSPB’s million-plus members or the 360,000 people who signed our ‘Letter to the Future’ in 2010, there is a huge body of support for politicians who are willing to ‘Step up for Nature’ by protecting and restoring the UK’s wildlife and habitats.

The Liberal Democrats, with strong support for environmental action amongst its grassroots, and as a partner in the Coalition Government, can play a pivotal role here. Recently, the party has shown encouraging signs, most significantly with Nick Clegg publicly recognising the need to protect our natural capital. Mr Clegg now needs positive encouragement to build on this and place biodiversity at the heart of his ambitions for this government’s remaining term in office.

Whether it was the eagle, the kingfisher or the ducks that inspired you, that nature now needs political champions. The Liberal Democrats have the chance to be those champions. Will you take that chance?

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Tom Fewins is a parliamentary officer at the RSPB. He is not a member of any political party.

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