The government’s environment department faces a £500million cut in real terms after last week’s autumn statement, as critics say it will leave it unable to tackle problems properly , including sewage spills.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) oversees everything related to the environment and agriculture, from agricultural inspections and nature restoration to cracking down on environmental vandalism, including fly dumps and sewage spills.
Following last week’s autumn statement, the department faces a reduction in real terms of 10.6% over the next two years, equivalent to £496.8million, according to a Liberal Democrat analysis.
In real terms, Defra’s budget for 2022-23 is £4.6bn and is expected to fall to £4.3bn in 2023-24 and £4.1bn in 2024-25.
Campaigners have previously said the budget has already been cut to the bone, with huge cuts made during the austerity period launched by the Conservative government of David Cameron. Funding has declined significantly under austerity, with real spending cuts of 33% in 2016-17 compared to 2010-11.
The Liberal Democrats have pointed out that the underfunded department has so far failed to clamp down on sewage dumping in England’s waterways, and that further cuts risk making it even more ineffective.
Water companies discharged sewage 775,568 times for a total of more than 5.7 million hours over the past two years. Meanwhile, water company bosses have paid themselves £51.1m in pay, including £30.6m in bonuses.
Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Tim Farron said: ‘While banks are being unfairly rewarded with tax cuts, the department that is supposed to tackle the sewage crisis is seeing its budgets slashed. Frankly, it all stinks.
“This budget cut gives companies a license to pump sewage into our precious rivers and precious UK coastlines.
“Funding to stop sewage poisoning in our waterways must be protected at all costs. Otters are being poisoned and children are getting sick because water companies dump sewage where they want. All the while making multi-million pound profits and paying their executives tempting bonuses.
“The priorities of this government are all wrong. They put big banks and water companies above wildlife and the health of children.
There are also fears that the government’s failure to deliver nature-friendly farm payments after Brexit could push the Treasury to cut its budget, leaving farm businesses unable to operate. Food and farming accounts for more than 80% of the daily spending budget, driven by £1.8 billion in rural payments to farmers.
It’s unclear how the department plans to marry its cuts with spending commitments made in the 2020 spending review, including doubling flood and coastal defense investment to £5.2billion on six years, £2.4bn in 2021-22 to maintain the current annual budget for farmers and to tackle climate change and emissions with £92m for the Nature For Climate fund, £75m for national parks and an additional £40m for nature recovery through the Green Recovery Challenge Fund.
A Defra spokesman claimed Lib Dem’s analysis was incorrect because the overall budget, which includes future capital spending, was increasing.
They said, “These claims are incorrect. The autumn statement confirmed that departmental budgets will be maintained at least in line with the budgets set in the 2021 spending review, which announced that Defra’s total budget would fall from £6.6 billion to £7, £1 billion.
However, the Lib Dem analysis refers to daily expenses, which are reduced. Combined with the capital budget, Defra’s total expenditure in real terms is £6.6bn in 2022-23, rising to £7.1bn in 2023-24, then falling to £6.8bn pounds sterling in 2024-25.
Resource spend is the money that is spent on day-to-day resources. Capital expenditures are money that is spent on investments and things that will create growth in the future.
Given the enforcement of sewer regulations, agricultural payments and other day-to-day operations are not capital expenditures but will come from day-to-day expenditures, meaning the government is cutting money for these services.
It comes after the government was criticized for an £18billion ‘gift’ to big banks, after the Budget cut the bank surcharge from 8% to just 3% from April next year .
Next year the two bank charges will rise to a total of £2.5bn – up from £4.7bn in 2016-17 – a reduction of 56%. This means banks operating in the UK will pay £18billion less in these taxes over the next five years, the Lib Dems have said.