Scottish Government funding for major environment bodies has been slashed by 40 per cent over the last decade putting nature and the climate at risk, according to a new expert analysis.

Scottish Environment Link, a coalition of more than 35 wildlife, countryside and campaign groups, estimates that almost £100 million has been cut from the budgets of public agencies in Scotland between 2010-11 and 2019-20.

Amongst those who’ve been hit are Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa), Scotland’s Rural College, the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh and environmental research institutes.

Link describes the cutbacks as “staggering”, and demands that they be reversed. Major public investment is now needed to help combat a “climate emergency and biodiversity crisis”, it says.

The Scottish Government, however, says that Link’s analysis is “incomplete and misleading” because it omits European and other funding. It points out that budgets have been “constrained” by ten years of austerity imposed by the UK government.

Scotland missing targets to prevent wildlife extinction

Scottish Environment Link has compared the initial budget allocations since 2010-11 given to SNH, Sepa and the Scottish Government’s Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services (RESAS), which funds six main research providers.

Taking account of inflation, funding has fallen overall from £246 million in 2010-11 to £147.5 million in 2019-20. “The annual aggregate SNH, RESAS and SEPA budgets have been cut by almost £100m, measured in 2019 prices, a staggering 40 per cent reduction in real terms,” said a blog published by Link.

“Now that the urgent need to address the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis has been widely acknowledged, funding for the environment agencies and environmental research must surely not only be reinstated, but substantially increased.”

Link accepted, though, that Westminster was at least partly to blame. “Scottish Government has been in receipt of falling funding from the UK government as a result of austerity measures and local authorities providing public services are under pressure from tightening budgets,” it added.

“Transformative change requires commitment from governments at all levels to act to reverse declines in nature, underpinned by targeted and sufficient funding.”

The figures show that SNH’s budget allocation fell 42 per cent in real terms from £80.5 million in 2010-11 to £46.5m in 2019-20. SNH, headquartered in Inverness, is responsible protecting wildlife, landscapes and green spaces.

Over the same period Sepa’s allocation decreased 34 per cent from £52.5m to £34.4m. Sepa, based in Stirling, is responsible for regulating pollution, combating climate change and monitoring the environment.

The budget for RESAS was cut 41 per cent in real terms from £113m in 2010-11 to £66.6m in 2019-20. As well as funding the rural college and the botanic garden, RESAS gives money to the James Hutton, Moredun and Rowett institutes, which research land, disease and nutrition.

How environment funding has been cut back

Government agencyProposed budget 2010-11Proposed budget 2019-20Cut in real terms
Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services£113m£66.6m£46.4m (41%)
Scottish Natural Heritage£80.5m£46.5m£34m (42%)
Scottish Environment Protection Agency£52.5m£34.4m£18.1m (34%)
Totals£246m£147.5m£98.5m (40%)
All figures are in 2019 prices. Source: Scottish Environment Link

According to Link, wildlife is in decline globally and in Scotland. The latest ‘State of Nature’ report said that populations of almost half of Scotland’s monitored species reduced in numbers between 1994 and 2016.

Some 642 Scottish species – 11 per cent of the 6,413 that have been assessed – are threatened with extinction. They include wildcats, puffins, kittiwakes, curlews, capercaillie, freshwater pearl mussels and northern brown argus butterflies.

“We are facing a climate emergency and a biodiversity crisis. We have to start treating the crisis like a crisis – and act,” said Link’s chief officer, Dr Deborah Long.

“This means investment in actions and solutions. It means enabling our environment and research agencies to target funding to priorities that will make a real difference on the ground.”

She added: “Without investment in nature and ecosystems, Scotland’s nature will continue to decline. The potential for significant and efficient nature solutions to climate change will be lost and the species and landscapes on which Scotland thrives will be diminished.”

The Scottish Wildlife Trust suggested that environment spending had been cut more than spending in other areas. SNH funding had fallen by a third as a share of total government funding, it said.

“Scotland’s natural environment is under greater threat than ever before,” the trust’s chief executive, Jo Pike, told The Ferret.

“Funding for the environment has fallen behind other sectors as public spending has come under pressure. This is not only bad news for nature but will have impacts on our wellbeing and the wider economy.”

Scotland was due to host world summits on wildlife and climate in 2020, Pike pointed out. “It is vital to show international leaderships on these issues and demonstrate how investing in nature is the solution to many of the other challenges facing society,” she added.

“Turning the positive commitments made by the Scottish Government into real action will not be possible unless funding for the natural environment is increased.”

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds argued that spending on Scotland’s natural environment had suffered from a decade of “severe” austerity cuts. “There is now an opportunity to repair the damage of chronic under investment in our environmental assets through a nature and climate emergency budget,” said the society’s head of policy, Aedán Smith.

“This not only needs to get us back to levels of spend we saw 10 years ago, but also to bring forward significant additional funds that will kick-start transformative positive change and help to tackle the urgent threats to our nature and climate.”

Cutbacks forced the James Hutton Institute, which researches crops, soils and land use from its bases in Dundee and Aberdeen, to axe up to 70 jobs in 2014. Dozens more redundancies have been threatened in 2019.

“I very much regret that, twice now over the past few years, we’ve had to reduce staff numbers significantly,” said the institute’s chair, James Curran.

“I certainly understand that public money is in short supply and there are a lot of social demands. But at the end of the day our food, water, air, and soil are what matter to every single person.”

The Scottish Government, however, criticised Link’s figures. “This analysis provides an incomplete and misleading picture of government spending on environment activity and relevant agencies,” said a government spokesperson.

“It does not include other sources of funding or recognise how the shift from one European Union common agricultural policy programme to another might have affected the availability of funding for internal government research. It also does not include the full picture on other sources of funding such as European funds or in-year budget adjustments.”

The government accepted, though, public spending had been tight. “While budgets have been constrained over the past decade due to UK budget cuts, we have worked hard to provide our environment agencies with the necessary resources to fulfil their statutory functions,” the spokesperson continued.

“We have expanded the range and number of agencies working in this area, including the Scottish Land Commission, Crown Estate Scotland, Forestry and Land Scotland and Scottish Forestry. Research institute funding has been instrumental in leveraging significant additional capital investment.”

Scottish Natural Heritage pointed out that, because of extra funding for projects such as peatland restoration, its budget has increased since 2017-18. “We work within the budgets allocated to us to deliver our statutory functions and priorities agreed with Scottish ministers,” said an SNH spokesperson.

Revealed: how Scotland’s wildlife is suffering

“We also manage substantial additional expenditure programmes such as the Green Infrastructure Strategic Intervention using European regional structural funds. In addition, this year the Scottish Government announced a £2m increase to the Biodiversity Challenge Fund.

“We use all available resources to drive our continued protection and promotion of Scotland’s nature across all its fantastic and unique diversity, to help mitigate climate change and to support sustainable development.”

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency produced figures showing that its staffing levels had remained “relatively consistent”. The agency’s headcount in 2019 was 1,281, compared to 1,240 in 2011.

According to Sepa, its baseline budget grant from the Scottish Government was £34.2m in 2008-09 compared to £31.7m in 2019-20. Link’s figures included extra funds for projects and specific duties.

“We have retained a strong funding position by recovering the costs of our regulatory activities, by working in partnership with public partners and by realising income from our international services,” said a Sepa spokesperson.

“In doing so, we remain well placed to not only continue to meet our statutory purpose but more effectively contribute to a flourishing, sustainable Scottish economy.”

This article was published in tandem with the Sunday National.

Photo thanks to iStock/ian35mm/AbiWarner/ShaunWilkinson/jeromewhittingham/davemhuntphotography

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