Nature Improvement Areas: £384,000 wasted

Twelve new Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs) today learn that they will share £7.5 million of Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) funding over the next three years.  The scheme only applies to England but already Stuart Housden, RSPB Director for Scotland has welcomed the scheme on twitter (@StuartHousden: This is an idea the rest of the UK should consider: focussed action works, twitter, 27.2.2012).  Congratulations to the successful 12; commiserations to the other 64 and in particular to Big Chalk, Hampshire Farmers and Lee Catchment who made it to the final final 15 but weren’t in the eventual winning line-up.

But at what cost and to what benefit?

  • It’s likely that the total cost of the 76 initial applications to the consortiums that put them together was in the order of £456,000. (Chasing £7.5 million funding remember)
  • So the successful 12 bids accounted for c. £72,000 of this, while the remaining unsuccessful bids cost a total of £384,000.  It’s to be hoped that some other benefits will result from the abortive work!
  • NIA’s are a flagship policy of the Natural Environment White Paper published last year, so they seem to be important.
  • Although it’s not easy to gauge, the total area covered by the 12 successful bids seems to be in the order of 63,880 hectares (about 158,000 acres).
  • That’s less than one half of one percent of England’s land area of about 130,400 sq km.
  • Put that another way: 99+% of England is not covered by a ‘Flagship Policy’.  This flagship policy ‘may’ be recognised in planning policy – but is an extension of planning policy, not a new policy according to Defra.
  • And comes at a cost of about £117/hectare (but offset against this the wasted expenditure on failed bids of £6 per successful hectare).
  • Scaling this up to half England’s land area (reasonable for a ‘flagship policy’?) would imply a cost of £750 million.

Sir John Lawton, chair of the judging panel, commented on the difficulties facing the selectors:

“Never in all that time [40 years – Sir John’s career in the environment] have I seen the sort of creativity, partnership working and sheer enthusiasm that the NIA has released on consortia that want to deliver more effective conservation for England’s wonderful wildlife in their area.  Choosing 12 winners from 76 bids was an awfully difficult task ….”

So let’s hope the deflation of the losers doesn’t come at too great a cost to all that creativity and sheer enthusiasm.  But it has come at a cost to ‘Big Society’ because for every winner there have been 5 losers.  Their wasted expenditure consists at least in part of volunteer time, charity time, member organisation time and inputs by various government and quasi-government agencies.  But not, officially at least, government funding – so the cost hasn’t fallen on we poor taxpayers.  But then it has, hasn’t it, because of the subscriptions we have paid to various organisations involved and the time our fellows have given voluntarily to this process?  So what value for money in the Big Society here, Caroline Spelman and David Cameron?

The Devilish Details:

  • The NIA scheme opened for bids last July.  Seventy-six initial bids were initially whittled down to 20 applications which went through to a second stage.  Of these 20, 15 were interviewed for the final cut of 12 successful applications (see links below for further details).
  • Defra plans to spend £7.5 million on the NIA scheme from 2012 to 2015.
  • At about 63,880 ha (author’s estimate from Natural England press release – link below), this equates to £117/ha (£47/acre).
  • The total area of England is about 130,400 sq km (and 1 sq km = 100 ha), so the NIA’s cover 4.8% of England.
  • The estimate for the cost of the NIA bids was worked up by assuming 30 working days per bid at a daily cost of £200, ie £6,000 per bid x 76 bids = £456,000. Even at 20 days at the National Minimum Wage (+20% for employer overheads) the cost per bid would be nearly £1,200. (author’s own estimates).  In reality, £6,000 is probably a very conservative estimate if all the time was carefully recorded and costed.

Learn more (links):

Defra announcement

Natural England announcement, including links to each successful NIA

Natural England NIA information page

Natural England Map of 15 short-listed areas

Defra Natural Environment White Paper

Final shortlist of 15 (successful 12 in bold):

Big Chalk

Birmingham and Black Country

Dark Peak

Dearne Valley

Hampshire Farmers

Greater Thames Marshes (airport permitting?)

Humberhead Levels

Lee Catchment

Marlborough Downs (farmer led)

Marches Meres and Mosses

Morecambe Bay

Nene Valley

North Devon

South Downs Way

Wild Purbeck

See link above for more information about each of the successful bids.

10 thoughts on “Nature Improvement Areas: £384,000 wasted

  1. Interesting analysis! But isn’t this meant to be a pilot scheme? Presumably if this works, those who didn’t make the cut this time will be at an advantage in the next round of funding…?

    1. Thanks for this comment Mark. There are one or two points which indicate it’s a pilot scheme, in the Natural Environment White Paper, in the initial guidance for scheme applicants and in the designation of successful applications as Pilot NIAs.

      However, the funding of £7.5 million is the total that has been allocated for the current spending period, ie the next 3 years and there is no specific indication of how the scheme might be extended to other areas. The scheme guidance only ever referred to the creation of up to 12 NIAs, which is the number of successful bids. So it may not be too cynical to say that they are pilots only insofar as the areas which have been designated are concerned. There’s certainly no clear commitment beyond the funding for the schemes announced on Monday in the next three years.

      There’s been some useful feedback via twitter. One of the successful schemes for example, commented on the value in the focussed collaboration before going on to say that there has to be a ‘Plan B’. But perhaps the development of thinking like that is one of the ingredients of success not shared by the ‘losers’. Another comment was that schemes rejected at the first cut probably had not put in 30 days of work – I’m not so sure about that myself in view of all the work needed to work up a partnership (a requirement of the scheme) and make sure collaborators had a shared understanding and commitment. I would be very interested to hear from anybody else involved in either a successful or unsuccessful bid with their views on these aspects.

  2. Hope I’m not a cynic and this has been rushed out to show that something has ‘resulted’ from the Nat Enviro White Paper!

    My concern is on the domestication of conservation. Lawton, in his making ‘Space for Nature’ paper (the precursor to the White Paper), said that conservation should take place near urban centres etc. i.e. where taxpayers can see the ‘fruits’ of their payments.

    Trouble is that most meaningful conservation is in ‘remote’ parts of countryside and does not involve ‘sexy’ stuff such as raptor release or nature reserves but more mundane stuff such as removing alien invasive species and getting farmers to work together.

    On a personal note, a pity that Big Chalk didn’t make it as with its long lead in time from 2008, I hope it’s own pilot experiences are not wasted (alongside the other losers), in the large landscape scale requirement for linking land use, food, nature and other trade-offs found within our modern countryside.

    1. Thanks for your comment Rob, and welcome to my blog. You have arrived on the day it passed the 5,000 visitor mark!

      It’s an interesting point about the domestication of conservation and one I think we have to be very careful of. I’m all for environmental and positive land management work of all types in and around urban areas – but for its own sake rather than as a visible sop to the electorate, and certainly not at the expense of low key worthwhile work across as much of the country as possible. I do mean country rather than countryside. Coupled with this might be a risk of ‘conservation gardening’, or ‘cosmetic conservation’, not least because a lot of things that happen in the environment aren’t that pretty including some practices discreetly undertaken by some of the ardent advocates of specific interests.

      I also wonder if we are going to see more compartmentalisation of the countryside with the arrival of Nature Improvement Areas, and the Rural Growth Networks which are coming soon. One correspondent has already suggested that these might be ‘more of the same’ as the points I made in this blog about NIAs. And meanwhile, CAP Review trundles on to an uncertain outcome. One possibility is the ‘repatriation’ of various environmental initiatives which would raise many more questions.

      It would be interesting to see some follow-up on the unsuccessful proposals like Big Chalk to see if something positive does come out of all that effort and disappointment. I have had some feedback via twitter from successful bids, but none so far on the unsuccessful ones.

      1. Lawton himself said (off the cuff) at the RASE Farmland Bird Seminar that he thought this zoning might be favourable; focus on conservation areas that give the most ‘bang for buck’ while giving up on those that don’t (hand over to food or other uses).

        I’ll keep up my contact with Big Chalk (they told me no feedback from Defra) and to see what comes of them.

  3. Thanks again Rob. A shame to see that an unsuccessful bid has not received any feedback through the bidding process – that’s a small thing to ask in return for the effort of bidding, especially if this sort of effort and initiative is to be fostered in ‘Big Society’. More so as Big Chalk was one of the really unlucky three from the final 15 that didn’t make the last cut of 12 so they had to do all of the work with none of the reward.

  4. There seem to be a few mis-conceptions emerging here. The total area of the 12 NIAs is about 500,000 ha or 4% of England. All unsuccessful bids have been offered feedback by Natural England, and the Big Chalk team has already received it. I hope these areas will be a marvellous success; if they become truly inspirational they might succeed in making the case for many more of them.

    1. Thank you Peter. It’s good to hear that the bids have all received feedback.

      How did you get the area of 500,000 ha? I mentioned in my original post that it was quite difficult to get at the total area from the published information from Defra and Natural England, and it was therefore my best guess. I may have been disingenuous in applying my total to the total area of England including all urban and developed areas, but on the other hand I would justify this along the lines of my response to a previous commentator – that urban areas are no less deserving of natural environmental enhancement as much as rural areas.

      Whatever the outcome of the detailed calculations it still seems a small area for a ‘flagship’ policy. Although a few commentators have made the point that NIAs are a pilot scheme, there is nevertheless no clear indication of any further funding to extend the scheme in the current funding period of about three years. Like you I hope that the scheme is a success and that valuable lessons will be learned, but Mark Avery has made some interesting comments in his latest blog that had not occurred to me as to who and how the scheme will be evaluated.

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