Last week, the Chancellor set out plans for departmental spending over the next five years. We look at the potential impact on funding for outdoor recreation.
The environment was one of the biggest losers in Chancellor George Osborne’s Autumn Statement, with Defra facing cuts of 15% to its day-to-day resource budget and the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s budget falling by 22%.
The good news? The cuts don’t run quite as deep as it was previously expected they might. Defra had been asked to submit proposals for cuts of between 25 and 40% over the course of this Parliament. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) also fared less bleakly than originally feared, with its core administrative budget cut by 20% but increased central government funding to elite sport increased and UK Sport given a 29% funding increase.
So how do the interests of walkers and climbers fare in the new Spending Review?
A boost for national parks
The major piece of positive news is that, while overall Defra funding has been slashed, £350 million has been set aside to fund National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and public forests. National parks will also be given “legal flexibilities to allow them to build sustainable, long-term revenue streams and boost growth in rural areas.”
The Campaign for National Parks welcomed this announcement, crediting its Stop the Cuts campaign with 38 Degrees in part for the investment.
“It is great news that the Chancellor has listened to concerns about the future of English National Parks and confirmed their funding will be protected for the rest of this Parliament,” she says. “National Parks are nationally important assets which deliver important environmental, social, economic and cultural benefits to both local communities and the nation and it’s wonderful that their value has been recognised.
“We know, however, National Parks face a wide range of development threats including from new infrastructure and house building. We do not want these landscapes preserved in aspic, they must be thriving communities, but this will only be achieved through appropriate development. So we will be looking at the wide range of announcements made today to fully understand the implications on our designated landscapes.”
A question of sport
In further positive news, an extra £2.6 million has been pledged to Sport England between now and 2020. Organisations such as the BMC rely heavily on Sport England funding to support everything from regional operations and climbing competitions to aspects of Mountain Training. The body also runs valuable campaigns such as ‘This Girl Can’, aimed at getting people off the couch and enjoying the outdoors.
It was previously feared that Sport England's budget would be slashed in the 2015 Spending Review, but the Government appears to have acknowledged the important of sport and recreation with a further 29% budget increase for Sport England and UKAD’s funding ring-fenced.
James Allen, Head of Policy at the Sport and Recreation Alliance, called it a “positive day” for the sector.
“The Chancellor talked today of wanting to leave behind a stronger country for the next generation,” he wrote on the Alliance’s blog. “We entirely agree with that – and let that include a future where people are equipped and have the opportunity to make healthy choices and to be active in whatever way they choose. A real focus on preventative investment and building a population fit for the future is essential.”
Uncertainty for walkers
While climbers and walkers can welcome the announcements on National Park and sport spending, the Ramblers have pointed out that cuts to local authority grants could have a detrimental impact on the UK’s 138,000 miles of public footpaths and bridleways.
“These are maintained by local authorities that have seen their direct grants from central government fall by 27 per cent between 2011 and 2015,” the organisation said in a statement released last week. “The Department which issues these - Communities and Local Government - has seen its own budget reduced by half since 2010 and with local authorities struggling to plug gaps in vital services there is going to be even less funding available to keep paths open in the coming years.”
“Schemes such as Walking for Health, which the Ramblers run in partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support, rely on Local Authority funding in England for more than half of its 400 health walk schemes,” said The Ramblers. “Without them, inactive people are more likely to suffer long-term health conditions.”
With new figures from Visit England demonstrating that walking is worth £1.8 billion per year to the economy and Natural England estimating that improving local access to green space could save the NHS around £2.1 billion per year, the Government could potentially be doing more to safeguard funding for the area.
The future of coastal access
The future of coastal access remains uncertain. No details have emerged as to whether the previous Coalition Government’s pledge to speed up access improvements around England’s coast will continue to be honoured. Natural England, the agency charged with rolling out the coastal access programme could yet fall victim to the Defra budget cuts.
The BMC has been campaigning for improved coastal access from the start. What we are interested in is not just the path but the associated spreading room which allows open access to the seaward side of the coast path including important access to the cliffs and foreshore.
Ordnance Survey faces privatisation?
Some groups have raised fears that proposals hidden in the Spending Review could hint at privatisation plans for Ordnance Survey, which became a Government-Owned Company (GovCo) in April 2015. As part of plans to raise £5 billion in corporate asset sales by March 2020, the Government announced its intention to “develop options to bring private capital into the Ordnance Survey.”
Prospect negotiator Ben Middleton said on behalf of OS specialists that private investment could be a positive move if it is done in a way that is compatible with the existing GovCo strategy, but that the OS should continue as a 100% publicly-owned body fulfilling its public task as the National Mapping Agency.
“Investment in the form of equity share of partial sell-off, where profit would increasingly come before public service, would be contrary to that policy position,” he added. “We do not believe that maintaining a majority ownership or a ‘golden share’ provides any meaningful assurance that wholesale privatisation would not follow.”
Climate change and the environment
Finally, it was generally grim news for the green sector, with a £1 billion pot of money for a flagship carbon capture and storage programme scrapped and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) facing budget cuts of 22%.
There were, however, a few positives. A £1.7 billion share of the Government’s £5.8 billion International Climate Fund has been allocated for helping the poorest and most vulnerable countries adapt to the effects of climate change - a move that may prove of benefit to the world’s mountain communities.
DECC’s innovation programme has also been doubled to £500 million over five years, while £295 million will be provided over the same time period to improve the energy efficiency of schools, hospitals and other public sector buildings.
By and large, budget cuts in the Autumn Statement to the areas that most concern walkers and climbers aren't as dramatic as had been feared. But the Government could still be doing more to recognise the benefit of green space on our economy, environment and health.
As the climbing walls, crags and mountains start to open, we wanted to say thanks to every BMC member who supported us through the Coronavirus crisis.
From weekly Facebook Lives and GB Climbing home training videos, to our access team working to re-open the crags and fight for your mountain access, we couldn’t have made it without you.
If you liked what we did, then tell your friends about us: www.thebmc.co.uk/join