Bee’s eye view of 2015 election manifestos

Friday 24th April 2015

Bee decline is the number one environmental concern of the UK public and we are in the midst of a slew of new and shocking evidence about the impact of intensive agriculture on pollinators.

Not only do the public love bees and understand the ethical responsibility we have not to drive species to extinction, the economic argument for protecting our pollinators and other wildlife is compelling, and the health and welfare benefits to people of doing so are clear.

So in the run up to the General Election on 7th of May what commitments are being made by the political parties to save our beleaguered pollinators and wildlife more generally?

What do the manifestos say on bees and wildlife? – At a glance table

Bee Committed

With a National Pollinator Strategy introduced by the coalition, which parties think that it is important to do more for the bees?

Reassuringly four of the main parties commit to conserve bees and pollinators in their manifestos, and two of them make important commitments that go further than the National Pollinator Strategy and deliver elements of Buglife’s own Pollinator Manifesto that we launched last April.

Conservative (Manifesto)

Promise that they will use agri-environment money to “help our bees to thrive.”

Green (Manifesto)

The Greens promise what appears to be a thought through suite of actions to save bees, committing to “Help bees by reducing pesticide use (banning neonicotinoids), ‘greening’ farming, improving planning guidelines to preserve/create bee habitats and making bees a priority species [sic] in biodiversity strategies”.

The Green Party is alone in making a positive commitment to ban neonicotinoids – a key ask in our Pollinator Manifesto – their additional promise to reduce pesticide use, such as would be needed to establish genuine integrated pest management or sustainable agriculture, would also benefit pollinators, predatory beetles and much other wildlife.

They are not the only party to mention pesticides in their manifesto, the Conservatives “will support a science-led approach on GM crops and pesticides”.  Given the recent history of the UK Government on pesticide science one might consider this to be a step forwards, or at least stepping up to the existing standards, however it is food for thought that Nick von Westenholz CEO of the Crop Protection Association of pesticide companies has welcomed the commitment, believing that “science-led” is synonymous with the CPA’s own manifesto’s call for, the apparently reasonable at face value, “science-based decision making” on pesticides. We might also recall that in their 2010 manifesto the Conservatives promised a “science-led” approach to a badger cull!  Clearly a more flexible term than one might think.

Labour (Manifesto and Green Plan)

No mention of bees or pollinators in the main Manifesto, but the accompanying Green Plan states that a Labour government “will…….reverse the decline of pollinators”.

Liberal Democrat (Manifesto)

The Lib Dems are making a brace of resounding commitments to pollinators, promising to “Bring forward a package of measures to protect bees and other pollinators, including legal protection for bumblebee nests.” and “ensure that bees and other insects are able to fulfil their important role as crop pollinators.”

The commitment to introduce legal protection for bumblebee nests is unique to the Lib Dems.  Protecting the nests of wild bees is a key component of Buglife’s Pollinator Manifesto.  Bird nests have legal protection and it is sensible to provide similar protection to bee nests, particularly given the additional benefits that bees provide to agriculture, gardens and wild flowers.  Currently nests of wild bees are subject to wilful destruction, including annihilation with insecticides.  New legislation would stop the unnecessary destruction of nests, while enabling the responsible regulation of control measures where essential.

Plaid Cymru (Manifesto)

No mention of bees.

Scottish National Party (Manifesto)

No mention of bees.

United Kingdom Independence Party (Manifesto)

No mention of bees (or wildlife, or biodiversity, or nature!)


National Habitat Networks

Developing a national network of wildflower meadows is an essential step to saving our pollinator populations, as set out in the Pollinator Manifesto.

In May 2010 the coalition agreement committed the Government to “introduce measures to protect wildlife and promote green spaces and wildlife corridors in order to halt the loss of habitats and restore biodiversity.”  This commitment has not been fulfilled and interestingly it is not repeated in either the Conservative or Liberal Democrat manifestos, despite appearing in their 2010 manifestos.  Is this because they no longer think it important, or are they just trying to avoid drawing attention to a failed commitment?  Let’s hope it is the latter!Urban B-Line Meadows © Jenny Wytcherley

In contrast the Labour Party promises that they “will ensure the development of coherent ecological networks to protect wildlife and reverse the decline of pollinators.”  And the Green Party say they will be “requiring local authorities to map local ecological networks and work collaboratively to develop national spatial plans.”

All in all, in light of existing plans for Countryside Stewardship agri-environment payments we can be optimistic that the B-Lines network should continue to develop and thrive under the next government.


A New Deal for Nature

Buglife and partner charities have been calling for new legislation – a Nature and Wellbeing Act – to put wildlife and the natural environment at the heart of economic, corporate and local authority decision making, while also introducing planned approaches to saving species and improving access to wildlife.

Two parties have made a commitment to introducing new legislation for nature.  The Green Party line is clear “The time has come for a new legal framework for the protection of wildlife, and we would promote a new Nature and Wellbeing Act”, while the Liberal Democrat proposal seems more limited in scope – “Pass a Nature Act to put the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) on a statutory footing, set natural capital targets, including on biodiversity, clean air and water, and empower the NCC to recommend actions to meet these targets.”

The proposal to put the Natural Capital Committee on a statutory basis to hold the Government to account over sustaining natural resources is key to the NGO’s proposals and it is good to see the Committee mentioned in the manifestos of the three currently biggest parties.

In addition, linked to the work of the NCC, the three biggest parties all commit to introducing a 25 year plan to recover nature, which sounds like a great step to take.


Money for Farm Wildlife

Modern agriculture can be a hard place for pollinators to thrive.  To create the space and conditions for agricultural wildlife to live needs financial support and this comes from the agri-environment payments that originate in the Common Agricultural Policy and are channelled through Countryside Stewardship agreements to land owners and managers.  As it stands only 12% of farm subsidies are spent on agri-environment payments.  This was lower than was hoped for, and Owen Paterson, the then Secretary of State, indicated that he intended to raise it to 15% of payments by 2018.

Only the Labour and Green parties clearly commit to increase the environmental component of farm payments.  Labour will improve biodiversity “by freeing up £150 million of Common Agricultural Policy funding” while the Greens say that “all farm payments should be designed to protect the soil, reduce flood risk, conserve wildlife, improve water quality, increase recreation and assist carbon capture.”

The Lib Dem position is less clear while they commit to “reforming” the Common Agriculture Policy and “supporting the development of environmentally sustainable solutions”, they also commit to “reducing the proportion of the EU budget spent on the Common Agricultural Policy”.

Conservatives “will spend £3 billion from the Common Agricultural Policy to enhance England’s countryside over the next five years.”  £3 billion represents the current 12% of farm subsidies extended until 2020, which is less than the 15% that Owen Paterson indicated should transferred from 2018.

If you live in Wales then you can also choose to vote for a party, Plaid Cymru, that boasts that it has “opposed the maximum transfer of funds” to deliver environmental objectives!


Planning and Wildlife Protection

For pollinators and many other endangered species the destruction of sites through development remains a significant cause of declines and localised extinctions.  Fixing this is important for sustaining wildlife and will require the most important sites to be protected from development.  One complication is that while many think of brownfield sites as being ideal places to develop, in practice the definition of brownfield includes many sites that are key to conserving wildlife, but their wildlife importance is often not properly recognised in planning decisions (see this blog for more info).

First we need to be certain that existing wildlife protection will not be undone, and there are those in the EU who are keen to make it easier to build on protected wildlife sites.  The Greens and Lib Dems seek to reassure that they are committed to Europe-wide wildlife protection, the Greens promising to “increase the amount of land offered long-term protection through the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directive, make sure these directives are properly resourced and defend them against EU attempts to weaken them”, and the Lib Dems to “Improve UK enforcement of the EU Birds and Habitats Directive.”

The only other reassuring mention of protected sites is in the Conservative Manifesto, they “will protect the Green Belt, and maintain national protections for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Parks, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and other environmental designations.”

The UKIP approach is inherently worrying, with any step away from the carefully crafted and well established Habitats Directive being a high risk for wildlife, even so the UKIP manifesto seems to acknowledge that environmental protection is one of the aspects of EU membership that gets broad support “While we will abolish excessive and unnecessary regulations and directives, keeping those necessary to protect our environment, or replacing them with more appropriate controls, administered at national or local government level, will be a priority for us.”

On brownfields the three biggest parties and the Greens are seeking to “unlock” it, develop it “first”, “prioritise” it and build on it as much “as possible”.  The manifestos do not recognise the current problem with the definition of brownfield that means that crucially important wildlife sites get caught in the melee and destroyed – so it is impossible to know if the delivery of these intentions will result in an increase, or reduction, in the rate of loss of endangered bees, beetles and other bugs on brownfields.

In addition the Green Party is proposing a Land Value Tax; this is potentially concerning for wildlife as depending on how it was done it could risk applying a strong economic force that would drive the development of sites in sought after locations, regardless of their ‘value’ to wildlife.

UKIP’s dedication to brownfield development goes further than the other parties, committing to  “remove the barriers to brownfield builds with the aim of building one million homes on brownfield sites by 2025” while introducing a range of incentives for developers and local authorities to develop on brownfields.  The probability is that this approach would have a harmful effect on wildlife.

One of the problems with the current planning system is the lack of a right of appeal on the basis of environmental harm.  The developer can apply and appeal endlessly, but wildlife has no escape route, a single poor decision is terminal.  A number of parties are proposing a limited form of third party appeal of planning decisions.  Both the Greens and Lib Dems propose a “community right of appeal” linked to the compliance with the Local Plan – while not a solution, this is certainly a significant step towards a balanced planning system. Brown-banded carder bee (Bombus humilis), a Brownfield dweller © Steven Falk

UKIP have a proposal on local planning democracy that is more dramatic, but probably less applicable to wildlife destruction; they will “Allow large-scale developments to be overturned by a binding local referendum triggered by the signatures of 5 per cent of electors within a planning authority area, collected within three months.”

Finally, we should recall that the Greens’ pledge to “Help bees by …improving planning guidelines” – an important part of the Pollinator Manifesto that we would hope other parties would also apply if elected.


Other Wildlife Commitments

Of course it’s not just British pollinators and bees that are in difficulty, there are endangered bugs in other places.  Conserving marine life is an urgent priority and it is reassuring to see the three biggest parties and the Greens committing to the completion of the UK’s network of Marine Conservation Zones.  In addition the Conservatives and Labour commit to creating substantial marine nature reserves around UK Overseas territories  – Pitcairn, Ascension, and South Georgia and South Sandwich (Labour) or a ‘Blue Belt’ around all 14 Overseas Territories (Conservatives).

Four other policies from single parties deserve a mention because of their potential to help bugs:-

1)      The Greens take firm responsibility for biodiversity on our wildlife rich UK Overseas Territories and commit to “ensure that conservation of the environment of the Overseas Territories , including their marine areas’ is funded to a level equivalent with their global significance”, they would also work to extend the Biodiversity Convention sign up from UKOTs.

2)      Plaid Cymru “will continue to work across the British Isles and Europe to prevent the spread of invasive alien species, both flora and fauna, including creating early threat warnings.”, we hope that the other parties will do the same, but it would have been good if they could have also mentioned this important work in their plans.

3)      The Lib Dems will “Set up a commission to research back-to-nature flood prevention schemes, including the role of habitats such as upland bogs and moors, woodlands, wetlands and species-rich grasslands in absorbing and holding water.” – this could result in some sensible changes to flood management that would be good for wildlife and for people.

4)      Labour promise to “Bring nature closer to people by planting new woodland and trees closer to where more people live.” a modest sounding commitment, but one that could change the landscape very significantly if strongly implemented – think of a London green belt made of woodland.


What about the Scottish National Party?

You may well ask, there is a big blank column in the table, they make no proclamations on any of the issues considered here.  The SNP manifesto says this:-


While responsibility for animal welfare is devolved to the Scottish Parliament –and the SNP in government is already working to improve the conditions of kept animals, including consultations on responsible dog ownership and wild animals in travelling circuses, and giving consideration to further protection at slaughter, the registration or licensing of horse establishments and a review of tail docking in working dogs – at Westminster we will support further animal welfare measures with a global focus. This includes action to end the illegal ivory trade and protect species such as polar bears and bluefin tuna.”

Most of this is about animal welfare, rather than what we would think of as ‘species conservation’.  Where it does stray onto other species, they are big and far away.  The probable reason for this apparent absence is that most wildlife conservation, planning and agriculture are devolved issues so the SNP do not have a need to promote policies at a UK level.  Never-the-less, given that the SNP seem likely to have quite a few MPs in the next Parliament and have committed to vote on ‘England only issues’ it would have been more reassuring if they had at least provided some indication of their broad feelings towards sustaining life on Earth.


Will wildlife come in from the political wilderness in 2015-2020?

After a decade in which the National Pollinator Strategy and Marine Act have been just about the only significant positive developments for wildlife, the outlook is a bit rosier.  Certainly there is more about conserving bees and biodiversity, respecting nature and changing the high level frameworks in the 2015 manifestos than the 2010 manifestos.

Of course the final outcome for bees and biodiversity will depend on how you, and the rest of the public, choose to vote.  I hope that the state of the natural environment is part of your decision making process and that this blog has provided a helpful summary and explanation.