A Green Deal for Scotland?

A flurry of early autumn publications and announcements underline continuing widespread concern that Scotland’s wild animals and plants are in decline, and public recognition that a larger practical response is necessary. But the scale of action required in such a response implies a substantial commitment of public funds. What are the prospects that these will be forthcoming?

Early in September, the Scottish Government published its new Programme for 2019-201 , headlined with a ‘Green New Deal’ (sic). One passing reference to ‘biodiversity2 in the summary is later expanded to four pages (out of around 160), trumpeting a £2m “Biodiversity Challenge Fund“. While such prominence is encouraging news, the risk remains that such rhetoric raises expectations when £2m falls far short of an adequate response.

Green New Deal‘ is a fashionable buzzphrase which has emerged this year, promoted by prominent Democrats in the USA and picked up in Europe and elsewhere3. The core idea seems to be to harness public investment to achieve environmental and social objectives together. The Scottish Greens published their own GND proposals4 just ahead of the SNP Government. For the Greens, biodiversity is subsumed within one of six wide-ranging aims, however the document also highlights the need to rebuild the capacity of Scotland’s public bodies. Detailed Scottish Government budget proposals will soon follow for the annual total spend of more than £30bn; it isn’t easy to disentangle biodiversity implications from within this total, but clearly they must involve a lot more than £2m.

The 2019 State of Nature report5 documents how human impacts are driving sweeping changes in wildlife in the UK. The companion report for Scotland evidences the continuing net loss of nature in Scotland. The main UK report estimates around £456m of public funding in 2017/18, representing a modest 0.022% of GDP6. This has fallen by about a third from a cash peak of around £700m in 2008/9, which still only represented around 0.038% of GDP. No separate figures are presented for Scotland, but an equivalent proportion of Scottish GDP would currently be only around £30m, down from around £50m ten years ago. This, also, seems too low when set against the total Scottish Government budget.

Reinforcing concern around the trends of relevant expenditure is a recent Unchecked report: The UK’s Enforcement Gap7. This headlines a 50% fall in real terms funding for the environmental and social protection work of ten key national regulators since 2010. Although this striking headline is problematic in some ways8, it mirrors a corresponding trajectory and scale of change in Scotland. The government’s financial support for action to protect Scotland’s wildlife has now fallen year-on-year for a decade. Prior to 2010, funding and staffing had slowly grown year-on-year, enabling a growing capacity to tackle these challenges. That capacity is now seriously compromised.

So how can the scale of relevant public expenditure in Scotland be assessed? The background document accompanying the published UK biodiversity metric quoted above confirms that this is a tricky thing to pin down. The regulatory activity forming the focus of the Unchecked report is only one part of the story, which must also include the costs of staff conducting research and monitoring to underpin expert advice based on sound evidence. There’s also substantial direct funding for land managers and others in the form of grants and management agreements. Much of the latter is not solely devoted to measures protecting nature directly, but also access, amenity and landscape measures. Many other budget lines contribute less directly to “the importance of biodiversity and the complexities and challenges that tackling its loss presents9. It’s clear that the UK metric adopts too narrow a definition of relevant expenditure for this purpose.

Taking Scottish Natural Heritage as an example, the current annual budget of around £46m is down from £69m in 2010. Only part of this would qualify for the definitions contributing to the UK headline figures above10. Overall Government funding has fallen by about a third, with a corresponding fall in staff numbers from a 2010 peak. Similar shrinkage has taken place across other public bodies in the sector. For SNH, the annual budget has usually split roughly 50/50 between staff costs and grants/agreements; these both had to be reduced. In order to avoid compulsory redundancies, much of the shrinkage in staff costs had to be achieved simply by not replacing staff departures. One inevitable consequence of this has been to unbalance the age profile of the organisation with relatively few younger, up-and-coming employees. As highlighted in the Scottish Greens GND proposal, there’s now a growing urgency to be able to rebuild capacity in SNH and its public body partners.

Throughout the period of austerity, the Scottish Government has preferred to maintain a convenient fiction that the diminished organisations continue to work effectively across the full breadth of their responsibilities despite fewer staff and less funds to disburse. The Unchecked report challenges this for regulatory functions; similar challenges can be made on staff capacity and the outcomes from direct grants and agreements.

But SNH and its budget is only one part of Government support for sustainable land and marine management, involving several other public bodies with much larger budgets including farming and forestry. SNH staff advise on substantial central government expenditure outwith the SNH budget. For example, farming support includes so-called “agri-environment” measures, some of which should qualify as part of the published UK biodiversity totals. For Scotland, in 2018, these came to around £10m, down from over £40m in 201411. But, digging deeper, the annual Economic Report on Scottish Agriculture12 lists these figures alongside a separate total of more than £140m simply labelled ‘greening’. This is around one third of the annual ‘Basic Payment’ to farmers, “for agricultural practices beneficial for the climate and environment13. I don’t think the latter can qualify for inclusion in the UK biodiversity metric, since the sum of similar expenditure across the UK would match or even exceed this total. So questions around what qualifies as relevant spend and what, exactly, this buys do not yield straightforward answers.

In summary, the ‘green’ dimension of the proposed Scottish Government programme is prominently framed as a response to climate change14. Buried in the detail are clear (and welcome) statements that biodiversity loss and the climate emergency are intimately bound together, and equally welcome commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals15. There’s a commitment to publish a biodiversity progress report by April 202016. But will funds allow these commendable commitments to translate into action on a sufficient scale – and how will we ever know?

The next step, for Scotland, is a draft budget for 2020/21, due to be published in the coming weeks. This will reward close scrutiny for the extent to which good intentions are backed up with realistic funding.