We have attacked plans by the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to cut its long-standing research on people and the natural environment. Defra is consulting on changes to the official statistics produced by its associated body, Natural England (NE).
Since 2009 NE has undertaken its Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment survey (MENE), a progression from the previous England Leisure Visits Survey. From weekly interviews with about 800 respondents MENE produces robust evidence of the visits made by the population to the coast and countryside. It provides data on the type of destination, duration of visit, mode of transport, distance travelled, money spent, main activities, motivations for and barriers to visiting the countryside.
Says Kate Ashbrook, our general secretary: ‘We deplore the proposed cuts to this vital survey. It will cease to be consistent with previous work so there will no longer be continuous, comparable datasets. It will be unreliable. It will only provide headline figures without any depth to them; it will no longer be of use in tracking changes in behaviour and local variation.
‘Much local work by councils, local access fora and voluntary groups encourages people to enjoy the natural environment for their leisure, health and well-being. The providers need to monitor and evaluate their expenditure and effort, and this survey is an essential tool for them.
‘The reduction in data will also mean that MENE cannot be used to support other elements of Defra’s work, such as improving nature conservation, biodiversity, Nature Improvement Areas volunteering and much else. It will also be unable to show how enjoyment of the outdoors supports people’s health—an important link when the health budget should be applied to creating better environments which in turn reduce health spending.
‘It is hypocritical of government to make such changes while encouraging accountability and local and regional devolution, and while saying that its 25-year plan will “give people more opportunity to use, enjoy and engage with the natural environment”. If it cuts MENE, Defra will be unable to monitor the effect of initiatives emanating from its 25-year plan. There is little point in Defra investing in new work if it cannot evaluate the results.
‘Defra claims that the proposed cuts are to “optimise how we meet departmental and wider user needs”. It is obvious that the proposed cuts will not optimise anyone’s needs, they will merely save a little money. That money is peanuts in the big scheme of things but will have a damaging effect on the evidence needed to help people to benefit from the natural environment. We therefore urge Defra not to mess about with MENE,’ Kate concludes.