Interview: Stuart Housden

by Jun 27, 2011 No Comments
RSPB Scotland director Stuart Housden OBE on changing tack for majority government

Stuart Housden OBEFor NGOs and charities, one of the perks of minority government was their increased ability to influence policy and legislation. In a Parliament where every vote counted, organisations seized the opportunity to put forward ideas that might otherwise never have seen the light of day and, using the committee system as a means of bringing MSPs round, many of these ideas eventually found their way into legislation.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the environmental sphere. During a session which saw several big pieces of environmental legislation passed – most notably the Climate Change Bill – environmental organisations really felt it was possible for them to get their points of view across.

“The mathematics, the balance between minority administration and the opposition parties meant that if you’d got well researched, well thought through good ideas that were practically workable – they weren’t dreams or aspirations, you’d actually tested them – you could then use the committee structure to advocate those ideas, take people out, show them what you meant on the ground and make some real progress,” says RSPB Scotland director Stuart Housden.

“So we did do that and trips that we organised for committee members out to see some of what we were talking about in a practical sense then bore fruit so that was a very constructive opportunity for us and we saw quite a lot of advantages.”

Over four years, RSPB Scotland was able to influence policy in areas such as flood management, the marine environment, biodiversity and wildlife crime. One of the particularly important wins for Housden was the introduction of the clause committing the Scottish Government to producing a Land Use Strategy as part of the Climate Change Bill. Even Housden says the idea was not “originally looked upon with favour” by government or the civil service, a number of environmental NGOs joined forces to make sure this idea was heard and it ended up being contained in the finished Act.

Now though, majority government means that parliamentary committees are not likely to have the same influencing power. Although Parliamentary Business Secretary Bruce Crawford has called for reform to ensure that Parliament remains open, the reality is that the Government will be able to coast through with easy wins on every vote in the chamber. For RSBP Scotland, this means a rethink of strategy.

“Many of the people we worked with closely during the last administration are still there and we get on well with them and we hope that despite the fact they have a majority, good ideas will still be encouraged and allowed to prosper. No one party, the civil service or organisation generally has got any sole grip on what good ideas are and what the solutions are that help the country move forward,” says Housden.

In order to help get this message across, RSPB Scotland has launched its ‘Stepping Up For Nature’ campaign to encourage the public to let government know they care about the environment.

Housden says the idea behind the campaign is to “try and harness that enthusiasm that we know is out there”. RSPB Scotland are asking the public to take positive environmental action in their own lives by doing things like paying attention to biodiversity, removing invasive plant species from their local area and anything else that makes a positive contribution to the environment.

“We want to try and give that latent support a popular voice. And we think that will be more important running into the future because if we are to be listened to by ministers in a government that has got a majority, we’ve got to demonstrate that we’ve got popular support behind what we say and we’re absolutely sure that’s right,” he explains.

Another issue behind the ‘Stepping Up For Nature’ campaign was the need to make the public understand the importance of the environment at a time of pubic spending cuts.

“The trouble is [the environment is] seen as something that comes for nothing and I think we’ve got to get people to realise that to look after it requires care and investment and that the amount of money we actually spend on it as a nation at the moment is pretty small, really and we need to keep that going and use the money and resources wisely.”

Although two thirds of RSPB Scotland’s £11m annual funding comes from its 90,000 supporters, Housden is worried about the effect public spending cuts will have on the remaining third. He also fears that partnership working with other organisations and government agencies will become more difficult as everyone tries to come to terms with having less available cash and battles for their survival.

On RSPB Scotland’s chances of making it through the next few years Housden is upbeat, citing the organisation’s track record of managing 70,000 hectares of land as a reason to be positive. He says: “We think we give very good value for money, we’re one of those organisations that if we say we’re going to do something we do it on budget and on time and deliver it and our record is good.

“We hope that we’ll win through and so forth but nonetheless [the public sector] is not going to be an area that growth of income is going to come from, is it? So we’re looking quite hard at making economies, reducing our costs, making what we do more effective and trying to raise more funds from our supporters who are also, of course, feeling the pressure, so it’s not going to be an easy few years ahead.”

Despite this, RSPB Scotland’s work will go on, with priority areas being Common Fisheries Policy reform, Common Agricultural Policy reform and work on the National Marine Plan in which he hopes RSPB Scotland and others can come together to form a national overarching group.

As well as these aims, the organisation will also keep up the pressure on the Land Use Strategy, urging the Government to strengthen the existing document which was published at the end of last session. While some environmental organisations wrote the document off as a damp squib, Housden is less quick to do so and believes it is an important step toward integration of environmental policy.

He says: “What’s published is not perfect and it’s not by any means the finished product. If it was easy someone would have done it before. So I would rather throw our expertise and weight and influence and ideas into working constructively over the next few years to try and improve it, make it better.”

In particular, Housden would like to see action on a peatland strategy. Scotland has around 80 per cent of the UK’s peatland, and if this is not managed correctly it can release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

“We have a Forestry Commission but we don’t have a peatland commission, so how do we encourage people to look after them? How do we get the correct type of management? How do we bring the science that’s needed to fill the gaps and acknowledge who pays for it? It needs a concerted effort,” says Housden, explaining that the Land Use Strategy along with the National Planning Framework  would be the most obvious ways by which to bring about change.

For Housden, his 17 years as RSPB Scotland director has been time spent in the perfect job. Describing himself as “an RSPB person through and through”, he is a keen ornithologist and has been working with the organisation for over 30 years.

The proof of his commitment to his job? At the time of writing, Housden was embarking on a trip to Peru with a group of friends to learn more about the country’s system of Community Protected Areas. Although taking the trip as annual leave, he hopes that he might be able to bring back examples that can influence RSPB Scotland over the next few years.

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