Six asks of the Government's Spending Review

Visitors in the Picture Gallery at Stourhead, Wiltshire

We’ve responded to the Government’s consultation on the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review. We believe there are six areas the UK Government needs to invest in to get the best outcomes for people and places, nature and heritage and the economy alike.

The coronavirus pandemic continues to be one of the most significant challenges we’ve faced in a generation. But while Covid 19 has changed the world, we also continue to face many of the same global challenges as before the pandemic. Threats from climate change and the depletion of nature and biodiversity remain as immediate and worrying as ever.

As the Government considers the long-term future, we need to make sure the economic recovery not only responds to this pandemic, but also to these wider crises. 

A brighter future

Here at the National Trust, we’d like to help lay the groundwork for a brighter future, which addresses the joint threats of climate change and nature depletion, tackles the inequalities of access to green space, heritage and culture that we have witnessed throughout the crisis, and supports the recovery of our sectors and our communities.

The impact on the conservation sector

Private and third sector organisations act as key delivery partners for the Government in many areas, whether that be undertaking tree planting projects to lock in carbon, installing energy efficiency measures in people’s homes, or making Covid-secure adaptations to heritage sites to ensure tourists can return safely.

Many of these organisations have suffered severe losses to income in recent months and will face long term limitations in what they can deliver, with reduced budgets and staff resource.

We have very warmly welcomed the vital short-term funding that has been brought forward for the environment and culture sectors, and which has made a difference. But there is still a real challenge for many organisations and sectors, which will only worsen if the UK returns to lockdown. There is likely to be an ongoing need for support for businesses that rely on visitor income in the coming months.

Six ways the Government can help

Beyond this immediate need, our consultation submission sets out our view of where the UK Government can most effectively invest to get the best outcomes for people, places, nature, heritage and the economy.

There are six key priority areas that we invite HM Treasury to consider in terms of Spending Review decisions:

1)  Delivering the 25 Year Environment Plan and investing in our natural assets to deliver significant public benefits. Research we’ve undertaken with the RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts shows that at least £2.9 billion annual investment is needed across the UK in the delivery of environmental outcomes to meet existing commitments associated with farming and land management.

However, this is unlikely to capture the full extent of the need in terms of delivering the ambition of the 25 Year Environment Plan and the UK’s net zero target and so there is a strong argument for retaining at least the existing Common Agriculture Policy spending envelope of £3.2bn per year across the UK.

This spend will make a major contribution to protecting and restoring our natural assets of soils and water and managing land to benefit habitats and species; ensuring our farming forestry and other land managers are achieving world-leading, environmental and animal welfare standards; and providing support to key sectors of our economy through a period of transition.

2)  Investing in better, more integrated environmental data. This is fundamental to the success of proposed planning reforms and to support the delivery of the 25 Year Environment Plan, including providing an evidential base-line for environmental targets, supporting the delivery of the nature recovery network and optimising the benefits delivered by Environmental Land Management schemes.

Ongoing monitoring needs to be improved, and there are some datasets, including around Priority Habitats, that are out of date or incomplete. There is also more that could be done to improve landscape and historic environment data, Landscape Character Assessments, Historic Landscape Characterisation and archaeological mapping.

Investment in data should include developing effective frameworks for integrating, sharing and applying data, and exploring opportunities for innovative uses, such as supporting public access to green spaces. This data will underpin land-use decision making and help implement a range of policies effectively and maximise benefits for people, nature and communities.

3)  Transforming urban green infrastructure. Recently published research that we commissioned with other partners shows that £5.5bn investment in urban green infrastructure would deliver £200bn in health benefits, as well as boosting access to nature, creating green jobs, growing climate resilience and supporting active travel (walking and cycling). The programme suggests a focus on the most deprived areas across the country, levelling up urban green space.

4)  Investing in work by local authorities and key public bodies that will enable them to deliver on the Government’s proposed planning reforms and national ambition for the environment, address climate change and help level up and address inequalities of access to culture, nature and heritage.  Bodies such as Natural England, the Environment Agency and Historic England will be at the forefront of supporting local economic and social recovery from Covid 19, but without sufficient resource they won’t be able to deliver.

5)  Introducing VAT changes to support the recovery of key sectors and delivery against key government ambitions on the ground. The two specific changes we propose are:

  • Cutting the VAT on the restoration and refit of historic buildings; and
  • Providing exemptions for charitable bodies managing land for public benefit.

6)  Increasing the return on investment and value for money from the use of public grants and funding for the built and natural environment, local growth and mitigating and adapting to climate change. We propose two ways this could be achieved:

  • Structural changes to the way that public grants are offered: simpler application processes, removing structural barriers to partnership and collaboration, and enabling the pooling of sources of funding.
  • Exploring mechanisms and innovative financial instruments to attract and grow private investment that can be blended with public funding;

We believe these changes would increase the coherence of projects, deliver more substantial benefits at greater scale, and improve the sustainability of project outcomes.

And so..

We believe government policy and spending must seek to renew as well as recover. The goal should not be to return to the pre-pandemic status quo, but instead use this moment to move forward, learn from past recoveries, including the financial crisis, and put ourselves in a better position to tackle the challenges that the future will bring, with a legacy that benefits people today and tomorrow.

The decisions made by HM Treasury in the forthcoming Spending Review could well be the key to that legacy.