Saturday, 8 October 2016

Do statutory bodies have a responsibility for countryside management?

A bit of history

My view of organisations passing responsibility to voluntary sector were greatly influenced by experience when I became Conservation Officer for South Humberside back in 1994. It was a baptism by fire for me. I arrived to find that the leadership team in Wakefield had decided to withdraw funding for the Humber Wildfowl Refuge. Until that time English Nature had employed a  warden on behalf of the Refuge Committee. The cessation of funding coincided with my arrival and caused mayhem. My first year or more was occupied trying to find alternative funding streams. I was accused by some in the Refuge Committee of being incompetent because I was not fighting off the move - by the time I arrived it was a fait accompli but somebody had to be blamed.

Leadership suggestions were that the Refuge Committee should look for alternative funding sources such as sponsorship. That was a big 'ask' and as the nominated secretary to the Refuge Committee I found that much of the work fell to me (part of my EN job). I put in vast numbers of hours attending evening meetings and drew comments from my line manager that I should not be doing such levels of work. I was threatened a reduced (performance) box marking at the end of the year if I did not cut my hours. Not much chance of that - I still had to achieve my performance agreement, which included sorting out the Refuge Committee problems. So my workload management failed completely! We never did find sponsorship for wardening but did find funds for other projects that required yet more work from me to manage the projects.

Lesson 1. I've never forgotten that experience and the lessons it conveyed. Anybody that thinks you can replace long-term funding for maintenance of an organisation or site forgets that sponsors need some big sound bites. Project funding explicitly excludes maintenance of the fabric that makes a project possible. So do not fall for the idea that you can replace long-term funding by 'sponsorship' - to do that you will have to spend a lot more of staff to raise funds to keep their jobs going and maybe provide a surplus to do some worthy projects.

A parallel experience

Later on, I found myself picking up the pieces when English Nature's Estuaries Initiative was drawing to a close. This was a 'pump-priming project that had a clearly defined timeframe for funding. It was always the case that funding would diminish. I arrived in post to find that the funds were rapidly dropping and an alternative funding stream was needed; does that sound familiar! A study was commissioned to look at the value of Estuary Partnerships. I, and several others felt that if funding was to be maintained there was a need for the partnerships to have some clear evidence of the benefits that employing a project officer brought to the funding bodies (including EN). I've never forgotten the English Coastal Partnerships meeting in Dorset when Pete Barham and I were met with vocal comments - here are the men who want to close down Estuary Partnerships. How wrong they were, but we did want them to actually understand that funding organisations need some tangible evidence of what they will loose if they stop funding.

Some of the Partnerships have survived because they were genuinely needed. Others, perhaps because of the skills of their project officer finding funding initiatives - often European projects. Yet, over time their numbers have dwindled. Not that long ago, Natural England cut the last funding route - European Marine Site management.

Lesson 2 - don't set up pump-priming projects - they will turn round and bite you! Likewise, don't think your withdrawal from funding will not convey a clear message that you are no longer committed. If you work on a project, please recognise that it is a project and not mainstream - thus you will always be vulnerable to funding cuts. Those cuts will be decisions by more senior people than the manager of the initiative who will probably have little or no say in the outcome.

Modern parallels

I was therefore very surprised when Surrey Wildlife Trust took on management of Chobham Common and other Nature Reserves on behalf of Surrey County Council. I thought it was a brave move by the Trust and suspected they would get caught by removal of funding some time later. I gather that this is now happening and that the Council is doing what happened to me - passing responsibility to the Trust and removing the agreed funding stream and suggesting that funds be sourced from 'sponsorship'. There is a big lesson to be learned from this experience!

Lesson 3: Beware the gifts that carry a funding stream that can be cut!

Moving on to issues closer to me. I have had an interest in Mitcham Common ever since I could walk. It was my playground as a child and was instrumental in the early development of my science 'skills'. Until the late 1970s the Common had very limited funds, even though three Local Authorities (Croydon, Merton and Sutton) were required by law to maintain the common on behalf of the communities they served. The 'Conservators' response was to use the common as a tip - gaining a significant investment opportunity and establishing a pot of money that provides a diminishing investment return. It was not the first time that the common had been used as a tip - there are several low-lying tips of domestic rubbish and one huge one - that accommodated the rubbish of the London Borough of Croydon for several years - at zero cost to the Council!

Today, we find that both Croydon and Sutton Councils are reducing or ceasing their contributions that fund staff to keep the common in good order for the enjoyment of local people. There is a serious risk that Local Authority funding streams will stop completely. Current funding levels are really insufficient to maintain the common - scrub has advanced inexorably, despite lots of action by the wardening team and volunteers. In recent years there has been additional funding under the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme - effectively EU funding. That funding stream is also threatened by Brexit. Whilst it would be nice to think that such schemes will be maintained after Brexit, the track record of Governments and Local Authorities is very dubious based on my past experience.

Lesson 4: Do not believe that statutory responsibility means that funding cannot or will not be cut. It can, and it happens with frightening regularity. It is all a matter of priorities.

So, from these lessons, I urge the 'Friends of Mitcham Common' to put pressure on the three Local Authorities (Croydon, Sutton and Merton) to recognise that the common is a fantastic resource for the peoples of the three Boroughs. It cannot be maintained by voluntary effort alone; nor can it be resourced by project funding.