Following the Money (Part 1)

Quite a lot has happened out there since my previous post, and here we are now in 2022 with new, updated, understandings of the damage we are inflicting on the rest of the natural world1, new rhetoric about how this damage might be tackled and put right2, and new budgets in place that might provide the means to do so3. Here in Scotland, with one of the lowest ‘biodiversity intactness’ scores in the world4, it continues to be hard to make any sense of how all this plays out among the confused landscape of public bodies involved in rural land management.

The header page ‘Crowding Out‘ lists these public bodies and summarises their roles. Finding out about the resources each can bring to bear on this task is far harder than it ought to be; relevant numbers (where available) are published in diverse places and formats, while definitions are less than clear about what these mean in practical terms. This post is a first effort to assess these allocations so as to inform discussion on the adequacy (or otherwise) of the measures in place. Awareness of the way we are failing to make space for Nature is now widespread, and there’s broad support for doing something to correct this. The focus of this blog is on how, in Scotland, this might come about in the important arena of rural land management.

The most recent suite of biodiversity targets5, agreed internationally in 2010 for the decade to 2020, spawned an assessment of relevant UK expenditure6. The relevant 2010 international target7 was: “by 2020, at the latest, the mobilisation of financial resources …… should increase substantially from the current levels“. The UK assessment, on the basis of these definitions, is that while government expenditure had grown gradually to around £700m per annum in 2008/9, it then fell back to around £500m in 2019/20. So, over the decade, a ‘substantial increase’ was not achieved.

What is the annual Scottish contribution to this expenditure? Pro rata by population the Scottish share of the UK estimate might not be much more than £40m. More plausibly perhaps, on a land area basis, the Scottish share might be around £150m, but this draws from a very (perhaps unhelpfully) tight definition of relevant expenditure. Closer examination of these definitions and comparison with related Scottish budgets reveals considerable scope for debate.

Care is always required when drawing together and comparing information from UK, GB or Scottish sources. Published description of the UK assessment, in an attached ‘technical note’, gives some idea of how the total has been compiled, aiming to present information collected on a consistent basis across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Achieving this requires numbers to be: ‘estimated by expert judgment‘ on the relevant share of larger budgets, noting: ‘the figures presented are likely to be an underestimate of total biodiversity spend‘. Both for these UK and any Scottish figures, there’s a valid debate around what spend is directly, or indirectly, relevant. Adding to the general fog of confusion, plenty of items: ‘are designed to meet more than one policy objective, eg tree planting‘. Realising the stated ambition to protect nature requires bold and clear resource commitments, but measuring these is not straightforward!

The UK estimates are for biodiversity expenditure as a whole; rural land management is the largest subset of that total, but there’s also spend directly addressing the impacts of urban and industrial activity, the marine environment and so on. Here, we are trying to tease out relevant expenditure on rural land management in Scotland.

To start with, let’s consider the sectors listed in the Crowding Out page in turn:

Farming – ‘Agricultural Support’ is by far the largest block of support for rural land management in the Scottish Budget, amounting to about £800m per annum mainly disbursed to farmers via the Scottish Government Rural Payments and Inspections Division (RPID), with associated running costs. A small part of this8 has been included in the UK biodiversity expenditure estimate, but most of this spend has implications of some sort for nature. Some large parts are labelled oddly for example £142m ‘greening’ payments to farmers “for agricultural practices beneficial for the climate and environment” are not classed as biodiversity expenditure. The work of the Crofting Commission is additionally funded under this heading, with running costs of some £3.5m per annum as well as funding various grant and loans for crofters included in the larger subtotal.

Forestry – The two public bodies involved, Scottish Forestry and Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), attract funding totalling around £120m. There’s significant change from year to year here, mainly because taxpayer funding for FLS is only part of a much larger turnover dominated by timber sales which fluctuate from year to year. Again, only part of this expenditure directly supports biodiversity, although nearly all has implications of some sort depending how the core purpose of timber production is conducted.

Environment – Several funding streams fall under this heading, including NatureScot (or Scottish Natural Heritage) currently around £50m funding most SNH annual spend, with a focus on wild species and habitats, and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) at around £40m. The latter is complicated in two ways, first that SEPA has a charging regime which provides a significant proportion of its annual turnover and second that the primary focus of its work is on water and air quality impacts from urban and industrial activity. Nevertheless, SEPA is active in rural land management and its environmental implications such as nutrient runoff from livestock farming. In addition, the sponsoring part of Scottish Government spends a growing amount directly (eg on peatland restoration) currently a little over £60m. The new regulator, Environmental Standards Scotland, now has a budget just over £2m.

Outdoor recreation – The most easily identifiable distinct budget is that for Scotland’s National Parks at £18m, although access and recreation also forms part of NatureScot/ SNH activity across Scotland as a whole. Little or none of this spend has been classified as biodiversity expenditure, although access, recreation and tourism generally have major impacts (both positive and negative) on our care for nature.

Other bodies with land management interestsHighlands and Islands Enterprise and its recently established counterpart, South of Scotland Enterprise, have a combined budget of around £100m, although only a small proportion of this impacts on rural land management. Historic Environment Scotland has a budget of around £70m, again only a small proportion impacts on rural land management. None of the spend in this sector would be formally included in the biodiversity spend totals. However, the work of the Scottish Land Commission and administration of the Scottish Land Fund supporting community buyouts amounts to around £15m, with implications for the way rural land is managed.

Relevant research funding – The Scottish Government budget includes support for a variety of research bodies, some of which have significant involvement in rural land management. Out of a total of nearly £90m, some has implications for rural land management and biodiversity, for example via the James Hutton Institute, but none will be included in the biodiversity expenditure totals.

To sum up – The sum of all these numbers is more than £1.3 billion per annum in Scotland; not all of this directly impacts rural land management, but the relevant total must be of the order of £1bn. How much of this is relevant to caring for nature? There’s no separate published Scottish account for biodiversity expenditure; perhaps the relevant share of the UK total may be £100m. If these set upper and lower boundaries, the tenfold gap deserves closer scrutiny. The stated ambition is for: ‘strong and bold actions to bring about transformative change… to halt biodiversity loss9‘. What are the trends in all these annual lines of spend? How is this money actually spent? And what does it achieve in terms of our general desire to care for nature?