The new political focus on a “Big Society” and the serious funding challenge that faces the nature conservation sector as a result of the Comprehensive Spending Review presents opportunities and challenges to the biodiversity delivery.
An MSc project investigating these opportunities and challenges, looked at how a stronger volunteer lead in the biodiversity sector might make the London’s Biodiversity Action Plan, process more effective.
The research consisted of 20 interviews with local authority biodiversity officers and organisations including Natural England, London Wildlife Trust, BTCV, Groundwork, and GIGL.
One finding was that small community groups such as allotment associations are still seriously underrepresented in the BAP process. However, in order to expand Big Society involvement, local authorities need financial and staff resources. Some community groups were also found to be not that interested in engaging with the BAP process, instead preferring to continue with their own ways of working.
Local authority spending cuts will present a major challenge for biodiversity, because both the number of biodiversity officer and volunteer coordinator posts, and the public funding for community groups, is likely to be cut. This means that more groups could be left to compete for limited alternative funding sources, and that larger groups could lose their positions on BAP steering groups if they are not able to fund their time to attend meetings.
An over reliance on the voluntary sector could also be a risky strategy because the success of many local groups is highly dependent on the commitment and health of the few key individuals who run them, and on their volunteers having the time and enthusiasm to continue. Waning volunteer interest and/or the loss of community group leaders therefore have the potential to threaten the viability of several green spaces.
Small groups also will not necessarily hold the required expertise within their own ranks to be able to manage open spaces independently of local authorities. Even if they did, they would not have the capacity to take on responsibility for essential local authority services such as boundary maintenance or tree surgery. Most local groups would also be disinclined to accept such liabilities on the basis that they are supposed to be publically funded, which confers responsibility for their management on local authorities.
The Big Society is still, on the whole, thought to be a worthwhile agenda to pursue in nature conservation, because getting more people involved in biodiversity will be the key to its ascent on the national political agenda. However, the project findings would suggest that the Big Society idea of local groups surviving on their own is unlikely to work, and that a model of reduced state intervention would make the success of localism patchy at best.