3 September 2023

Weekly briefing: Bird brained


I’m no twitcher, but my understanding is that birds tend to hang out in the sky. Why then is the RSPB objecting to a modest change that will enable around 100,000 more houses to be built on the ground?

Now, ornithologists among you will say that, in an ecosystem, the condition of the earth can affect animals in the air. But why should I know more about birds than this conservation charity appears to know about environmental policy?

In a series of tweets the RSPB branded Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and Thérèse Coffey ‘liars’ of whom ‘we’ve had enough’, following their announcement of reforms to legacy EU laws governing ‘nutrient neutrality’. These regulations, which are intended to protect particularly valuable sites and species from water pollution, have blocked hundreds of thousands of new housing developments. Our Editor-in-Chief Robert Colvile has written the essential explainer on this – but the key point is that reforming them is in no way the ‘reversal’ of green legislation the RSPB claims it is.

This organisation should know that all existing development, both commercial and residential, is estimated to contribute less than 5% towards the nutrient loads in our waterways, and the Government has announced an extra £280m to mitigate the impact of new developments unlocked by this scheme. The vast majority of water pollution comes from agriculture – but the RSPB’s wilful blindness to this inconvenient fact suggests their outrage isn’t really about the environment at all, but about politics.

They have since apologised, but without deleting the original tweet or acknowledging that calling for a change of Government is a completely inappropriate thing for a charity to do. Of course it’s no surprise that the RSPB, like so much of the third sector, doesn’t like the Tories — but it’s perplexing that a Conservative government is so supine about it.

The state doesn’t just passively tolerate activist organisations thinly disguised as charities, it actively shovels public money their way. The RSPB received £8.7m from Defra in 2022 and £5.2m from the National Lottery. But it is hardly the worst offender. Groups involved in the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change have received £110m of taxpayers’ money since 2017 while blocking roads alongside Extinction Rebellion. Indeed, Conservative Way Forward have identified almost £880m of public spending directed at charities that are actively hostile to government policy on issues like illegal migration and LGBT rights. And that is before you get to the funding lavished on quangos and institutions that advance vaguely progressive, but distinctly anti-Tory agendas.

There is an argument that caring what these people think is, in itself, not very conservative. The problem is that the left don’t think that way. From constitutional reform to institutional capture, we are still living with the consequences of New Labour’s march through public life. And with his pledge to charge VAT on private school fees, it’s clear that Keir Starmer will not hesitate to intervene in those parts of the charity sector he finds distasteful.

This is not a call for an assault on non-profits like the RSPB, which probably does some very good work. Rather a frustrated yearning for this administration to be more assertive in projecting its values and to use the powers at their disposal to do so, while they still have the chance.

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Alys Denby is Editor of CapX.