Last September the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced that its 25-year plan will ‘give people more opportunity to use, enjoy and engage with the natural environment’.
Last week, Defra published its Plan for England’s National Parks which ‘kickstarts a programme of activity to safeguard the future of these iconic landscapes’.
Surely Defra would want to have in place the means to monitor and evaluate these fine ambitions? But no, it seems that it does not.
Defra intends to cut the all-important survey on people’s engagement with the natural environment. Known as MENE (Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment) the survey involves interviews with about 800 respondents in their homes across England. It is undertaken every week and provides robust information about their visits to the outdoors, the type of destination, the duration of the visit, main activities and modes of transport, money spent, motivations and (importantly) barriers to visits. Natural England has carried out this survey consistently for the last seven years, producing year-on-year figures which can be compared.
Natural England’s 2014 review of MENE revealed that it
fundamentally underpins our evidence base on how people engage with the natural environment. MENE is widely recognised for its value as a continuous comparable dataset and provides a robust evidence source to inform the delivery of a number of initiatives of the Natural Environment White Paper … It is also referenced in Natural England’s new draft strategic direction as the key evidence base we will continue to use to understand how people use the natural environment and the benefits they gain from this.
In other words, they will be official statistics in name only, and will only be of limited use for headline figures. For local interpretation, the data will be useless.
In the so-called consultation (which closed last week) Defra claims that ‘we want to know what you think about our plans to change some official statistics produced by Defra—the core department and agencies. These changes will optimise how we meet departmental and wider user needs.’ How so? How can these cuts optimise anything? They are about saving money not about improving the data or the evidence. And it feels very much like a consultation which had a foregone conclusion.
Plan for parks
Defra’s new plan for national parks includes commendable aims to:
- double the number of young people who will experience a national park;
- promote national parks as world-class destinations to visitors from overseas and the UK;
- increase annual visitors from 90m to 100m, generating an estimated £440, for local businesses;
- encourage more diverse visitors to national parks;
- promote volunteering in national parks;
- enhance people’s involvement in the interpretation of the parks’ historic environment and natural beauty;
- realise the immense potential for outdoor recreation in national parks.
How will Defra know whether it has achieved all this without a comprehensive monitoring programme such as MENE provides?
But this is all too typical of this government and its predecessor. Witness how it passed laws to restrict the registration of town and village greens, claiming that people were abusing the process to prevent development. Its figures did not back this up—but no matter, development must come first. Witness the cuts to the world-famous botanical research at Kew Gardens. And now the government plans to make all schools into academies: ideology without sound research or evidence to justify the decision.
This is a government which is fuelled by dogma not data. But those of us who believe in the value of research on the outdoors have submitted tough responses to the consultation on MENE and hope we can salvage something.