Encouraging involvement of HMG Departments and Agencies
For over a decade after UKOTCF’s creation in 1987, the only two coordinating bodies addressing conservation across UKOTs were UKOTCF, bringing together interested UK bodies and helping local partners form and develop local conservation bodies, and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, which has UK Government’s policy lead on UKOTs.
UKOTCF’s Chairman and the Head or Deputy Head of FCO’s Environment, Science & Energy Department (ESED), later the Environment Policy Department (EPD), chaired jointly a twice yearly meeting of interested UK Government Departments and NGOs, bringing in also representatives of UKOTs. This proved very effective in unsticking issues lost in the system (largely by sharing knowledge so that officials felt less exposed if they were facing a matter of which they had no previous experience, a fairly frequent occurrence re UKOT matters). These meetings also saved a great deal of time as, otherwise, very many bilateral meetings would have been needed. As Crown Dependencies showed increasing interest in the cooperation, they were brought into the grouping.
FCO and UKOTCF agreed that it would be desirable to pull in other UK Government Departments which had actual or potential involvement in UKOTs. This was not easy, and efforts spread over many years. Initial progress was the drawing in of the Department for International Development (DFID), which became a major partner, until it lost interest in the environment about a decade into the new millennium. The Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) followed and, by late in the first decade of the new millennium, their agency for nature conservation at the UK and wider scale, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) was also authorised to work substantively in support of UKOTs/CDs. Progressively, and encouraged by UKOTCF and other evidence to Parliamentary Select Committees, particularly the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), the remits of other UK Government agencies have been expanded to include UKOTs.
So, a success in pulling in this wider involvement, but there were also negative consequences. As anyone who has worked in UK Government (and probably others) will probably recognise, inter-departmental communications can be challenging and time consuming. As a result, FCO and other departments spent more time talking to each other, reducing the time available to speak also with NGOs. They also felt a need to agree a “government position”, so that substantive discussions tended to move to closed governmental meetings, relegating wider discussions to a secondary and often neglected role. This meant that the expertise of NGOs was lost to the substantive discussions, with a consequent loss of quality in decision-making.
With increasing financial pressures as we moved further into the new millennium, government departments became more drastic (and sometimes less logical) in their financial cuts. FCO decided that Defra should take the lead in biodiversity matters in UKOTs. Unfortunately, FCO did not wait to agree that, but made drastic financial cuts during the first decade of the new millennium, abolishing its environmental department, leaving just a small number of people giving specialist climate-change advice in a separate area and a single junior staff member becoming the only remaining official concerned with biodiversity and most other environmental aspects. FCO also lost interest in the joint meetings with NGOs, denying that it wished to end them but finding a string of reasons why meetings could not happen. Eventually, FCO cancelled the meetings. Over the same period, assorted problems arose with the already limited funding available to conservation work in the UKOTs. These are addressed elsewhere, but it is worth noting that, despite assurances at the start that this would not happen, available funding has tended to drift away from NGOs and towards UK Government’s own agencies, thereby losing some of the opportunities for skilled volunteer effort.
Overall, a success in widening the awareness and involvement in environmental issues in UKOTs and probably an increase in total resources deployed, but a reduction in resources available to NGOs in this area, and a much less integrated approach, leading to a less cost-effective approach.