Environment, Food and Rural Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the Association of Local Government Ecologists (ALGE)

The Association of Local Government Ecologists (ALGE) represents over 300 professional ecologists working in local government in the UK. In partnership with others, the Association supports and develops the nature conservation work of local authorities. The Association aims to:

ALGE’s aims are to:

promote and develop good principles and practice of nature conservation in local government;

provide a forum for the exchange of information and ideas on nature conservation;

provide regular advice on nature conservation to the local authority associations; and

provide advice to, and liaise with, other bodies working on related matters.

All members of ALGE work as specialist professionals, often working alongside a multi-disciplinary team of landscape architects, archaeologists, countryside and public rights of way staff, and other planning colleagues. They may be the sole representative of the ecological profession in their authority, and may therefore often not have the benefit of direct professional support and advice from colleagues within their workplace on nature conservation and biodiversity matters.

ALGE has members throughout England and its members will be very actively engaged at the local level with the proposals set out in the Natural Environment White Paper (in particular Nature Improvement Areas and Local Nature Partnerships).

1. Introduction

1.1 Unfortunately, ALGE did not become aware of the Select Committee’s Inquiry until mid February of this year, so we apologise for the late submission of this paper and hope that it will still be able to make a valuable contribution to the evidence being considered.

1.2 While ALGE is interested in all aspects of the Committee’s Inquiry, at this late stage our evidence specifically relates to the fifth and sixth questions posed in Committee’s announcement of the Inquiry in July 2011. These are:

What resources will be needed to fully deliver the White Paper’s ambitions and how can these best be provided? How might the value of “services” provided by ecosystems to beneficiaries be translated into spending that will enhance the natural environment?

Does the White Paper set out an accurate assessment of the barriers to public engagement with the natural environment and make the most effective proposals for re-engagement?

1.3 ALGE has serious concerns over the apparent “mis-match” between the aspirations and expectations expressed in the Natural Environment White Paper, when weighed against diminishing availability of resources within local government to actually engage with and undertake the sorts of biodiversity initiatives outlined in the White Paper.

1.4 Also, in the past, local authorities have played a very active role in engaging the public in local biodiversity issues and projects. However, recent evidence—as set out below—indicates that this engagement is reducing and is likely to continue to reduce in the foreseeable future.

2. Alge Survey (2011–12) into Reduced Resources in Local Government for Biodiversity Work

2.1 During the summer of 2011 ALGE undertook a survey of its members in England to establish what effect, if any, the cuts in local authority budgets was having on biodiversity work in local government. The survey was carried out online and the results analysed automatically using Survey Monkey. The results are based on a response rate of approximately 13% of all ALGE members in England.

2.2 ALGE intends to repeat this survey during the coming financial year 2012–13 to see if current trends, identified for this financial year, are continuing and to assess whether the expected impacts of this on biodiversity work within local government have occurred.

2.3 The results of this survey should also be seen in the context of another ALGE survey undertaken in 2004 of all local authorities in the UK. One of the key findings from that survey showed that only 35% of local authorities in England had access to an in-house ecologist. In other words, 65% of Local Planning Authorities have no reported expertise for biodiversity work.

3. Implication of Spending Cuts on Local Government’s Capacity to Deliver Biodiversity Services

3.1 In light of public spending cuts generally, it will come as no surprise to find that the results of this survey show that local government’s capacity to assist in the delivery of the a wide range of biodiversity initiatives (see Appendix 1) is already limited and is being further eroded, in some cases at a rapid rate.

3.2 The results of the ALGE survey are based on responses from our membership who represent the 35% of English authorities that do have some in-house ecological expertise. In the absence of any contrary evidence, logic would tell us that a large proportion of the remaining 65% of local authorities (that do not have in-house expertise) are probably not currently actively engaged in such a wide range of biodiversity initiatives and projects. They simply do not have the expertise and capacity, and without this, are likely to be lagging behind—with serious implications for delivery of the aims of the Natural Environment White Paper.

3.3 ALGE acknowledges the new funding that is being released to support the NEWP, for instance to support Local Nature Partnerships. However, in looking at the next 12 to 24 months, it is likely that pressure will increase to cut biodiversity services in local government even further. It is difficult to conceive how the small proportion (35%) of local authorities with ecological expertise will manage to maintain existing services let alone engage and become active in many of the proposed new initiatives. It is even more difficult to foresee a situation where local authorities without ecological expertise and current biodiversity budgets will be able to find new resources that might enable them to “catch up”.

3.4 It is likely that all local authorities will find it increasing difficult to fulfil their various statutory obligations, and for many it will become impossible to become involved in other projects that are only discretionary without any mandatory requirement or additional resources to become involved.

3.5 It seems very likely that local government will find it even harder to fulfil its statutory duty under the NERC Act (2006) where it should have regard to the conservation of biodiversity in all aspects of its work. And while local planning authorities are also bound by various statutory obligations for biodiversity when exercising their various planning functions, they will have less expertise and resources to work with, and the probability is that even more planning decisions will be made without taking biodiversity into account.

3.6 Increased pressure in delivering these statutory duties needs to be considered alongside other changes within local government. The introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework and delegation of decision making to the very local level will make it all the more important that professional ecological advice is available at the local level. Current, and future resource losses, will significantly impact the availability of such expertise and any efficiencies sought after in terms of applying and implementing wildlife legislation, such as the Habitats Directive, will be hard won.

3.7 Central Government has identified local government as a key player in the delivery of many aspects of biodiversity conservation in England. This has been emphasised in the NEWP: The Natural Choice (June 2011), the new England Biodiversity Strategy (2011), and the Lawton Report: Making Space for Nature (2011). However, many of the initiatives in the above documents rely upon local government playing an active role and often taking the lead at the local level. Such initiatives include:

Biodiversity Offsetting.

Local Nature Partnerships.

Nature Improvement Areas.

Protecting natural value through the planning system.

Improving the quality of local wildlife sites.

Restoring habitat connectivity at the landscape scale.

Engaging and involving local communities in local projects.

Planning for green infrastructure.

3.8 Unfortunately, it seems increasingly unlikely that local government will have the resources or the capacity to engage in these initiatives in the way Central Government would wish. Also, without adequate resources, it will be increasingly difficult for local government to play its vital part in engaging with local communities and the public at large.

3.9 Never before, have so few, been expected to do so much, with so little!

4. Recommendation

4.1 The Defra Habitats Directive Review Team have recently invited ALGE and the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (IEEM) to jointly host, with Defra, a workshop to look at how local authorities can better manage capacity around ecological expertise. For example, looking at new model ways of working and highlighting better how important biodiversity is as a service that local government should support more consistently and effectively than it currently does.

4.2 The scope of this workshop should therefore be extended to also examine not only how capacity can be increased with regard to issues pertaining to the Habitats Directive, but also how to increase capacity to undertake wider biodiversity work within local government, and particularly that which can assist in the delivery of the Natural Environment White Paper.

5. Appendix—Main Findings from the ALGE Survey

5.1 A full breakdown of the results for each question is presented in the ALGE Report on the Impact of the Spending Cuts 2011 to 2012 (published February 2012 and submitted to the Committee as a supplement to this evidence). Below is a summary of the main findings and a brief commentary on the implications for future biodiversity work within local government.

5.2 Total Cuts: Cuts in biodiversity services are by no means uniform. There is considerable variation between local authorities in the total percentage of cuts being applied, with a range between 5% and 100% of total budgets.

5.3 The average is a 19% cut in the budget available for biodiversity work. The cuts need to be considered in the context of the budget size, which for biodiversity is often small, covering a handful of staff at most and very little, if any, activities budget. Therefore any cut to such a budget can significantly impact the authority’s capacity to undertake biodiversity work.

5.4 Proportion of Cuts Across Each LA: 8% of respondents report that they are experiencing cuts greater than the average across their authority, while nearly half report that their cuts are proportionate to those being applied elsewhere in their authority, and 24% report that the cuts in biodiversity work in less than the average for the authority.

5.5 Areas of Biodiversity Work Being Affected: Respondents were asked to report on the cuts being applied to 13 areas of biodiversity work, many of which support the priorities of the Natural Environment White Paper (see Table 1 for a summary with a full breakdown).

Table 1


Area of biodiversity work facing cuts

% of respondents with an existing budget for this type of work

% of respondents with a budget (see column 2) facing full or partial
cuts in the service

Biodiversity Opportunity Mapping



Ecological Restoration Projects



Biodiversity Grants and Support for Local Community’s Biodiversity Work



Management of Council Land for Biodiversity



Local Environmental Records Centres



Local Wildlife Sites Management



Marine Conservation Work



Countryside Management



LBAP Officers



Support for LBAP Partnerships



Support for Planning Services



Corporate BAP Work



Training Budget



5.6 In 10 of the 13 areas of work, respondents report that the service is under-going at least a 60% cut in budget.

5.7 Not surprisingly, 96% of respondents reported that they currently provide Support for the Planning Service (one of the primary roles for most ALGE members is providing input into the planning service). 38% report that this service will be cut or reduced as a result of the overall budget cuts in 2011. It should be noted that this nearly 40% reduction in service across England, comes at the same time as reductions in the level of planning advice offered by Natural England.

5.8 In contrast, there are some notable areas of work where less than half of the local authorities are currently engaged in such work. For instance, only 45% of respondents reported that their authority was undertaking work on Biodiversity Opportunity Mapping and of these, 68% were going to experience cuts in that service (with 38% reporting that all work will be cut during 2011). This is of particular concern given that biodiversity opportunity mapping is likely to be a key element for a local planning authority aiming to introduce a local Biodiversity Offsetting Strategy.

5.9 Likewise, only 54% of authorities report that they are undertaking Ecological Restoration Projects, and of these, 46% are undergoing cuts in budget (with 20% reporting that all work will be cut during 2011).

5.10 Prior to 2011, 100% of the respondents reported that they had been providing financial support for their Local Environmental Records Centre. However, 44% reported in the survey that they would be cutting or reducing their support.

5.11 75% of respondents reported that they currently support local biodiversity grants or local community biodiversity projects, and 90% of respondents provide support for their Local Biodiversity Partnership. The survey showed that these are two areas of work where cuts will have a very significant impact:

50% of authorities report that they are cutting all funding for local grants and local community groups and a further 43% report that their budgets are being reduced.

26% of authorities are cutting all of their funding support for local partnerships and 34% are reducing their budgets.

5.12 Number of Biodiversity Staff Lost: 26% of respondents report that they will be losing one member of staff and 18% report that they will lose between two to four staff during 2011. One authority reported losing over five of its biodiversity team. There are also signs that staff losses will continue over the next couple of years, with 20% of respondents reporting that they expect to lose at least one member of staff during 2012–13, and 14% report that they expect to lose another member of staff during 2013–14.

5.13 Proportion of Biodiversity Team Lost: Individual staff losses as shown in response to Q4 above should be placed in context with the total size of team present within an authority. Usually, biodiversity work is covered by only a handful of staff at most, and in many authorities by only one member of staff. Hence any loss in staff can have a significant impact on capacity.

5.14 For the year 2011–12 when the first cuts were introduced:

11% of respondents reported a 50–74% cut in team size;

18% of respondents reported a 25–49% cut in team size;

25% of respondents reported a 25% cut in team size; and

33% reported that there would be no change in 2011–2012.

5.15 For the two following years (2012–13 and 2013–14) it appears that this trend is likely to continue, although current figures are not as high as for this financial year. ALGE will seek to verify whether losses are slowing by repeating this survey again in 2012–13.

7 March 2012

Prepared 16th July 2012