The government’s environment department is facing a £500m real budget cut following last week’s autumn statement, as critics say this will leave it unable to properly address issues such as spilled sewage.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) oversees everything related to the environment and agriculture, from agricultural inspections and wildlife restoration to tackling environmental vandalism, including illegal dumping and sewerage.
As a result of last week’s autumn statement, the department faces a real-world cut of 10.6% over the next two years, amounting to £496.8 million, according to an analysis by the Liberal Democrats.
In real terms, Defra’s budget for 2022-23 is £4.6bn and is expected to fall to £4.3bn in 2023-2024 and to £4.1bn in 2024-25.
Campaigners have previously said the budget has already been cut to the bone, with massive cuts during the period of austerity initiated by David Cameron’s Conservative government. Funding fell 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 tackle wastewater discharges into England’s waterways, and further cuts are likely to make it even more inefficient.
Water companies have discharged sewage 775,568 times in the past two years for a total of more than 5.7 million hours. Meanwhile, water company bosses have paid themselves £51.1 million, including £30.6 million in bonuses.
Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Tim Farron said: “While banks are unfairly rewarded with reduced taxes, the budgets of the department tasked with tackling the sewage crisis are being slashed. Frankly, it all stinks.
“This cut gives companies a license to pump wastewater into our precious rivers and Britain’s cherished coastlines.
“Funding to stop sewage poisoning in our waterways must be protected at all costs. Otters get poisoned and children get sick because water companies dump sewage wherever they want. All while making millions in profits and paying their executives eye-watering bonuses.
“The priorities of this government are all wrong. They put big banks and water companies above nature and the health of children.”
There are also fears that the government’s inability to introduce nature-friendly agricultural payments post-Brexit will result in the Treasury cutting the budget for it, preventing farms from functioning. Food and agriculture make up more than 80% of the daily spending budget, driven by £1.8bn in rural payments to farmers.
It is unclear how the ministry plans to combine the cuts with the commitments made in the 2020 spending review, which include doubling investment in flood and coastal defenses to £5.2bn over six years, £2, 4 billion in 2021-22 to maintain the current annual budget to farmers and tackle climate change and emissions with £92 million for the Nature For Climate Fund, £75 million for national parks and an additional £40 million for nature restoration through the Green Recovery Challenge Fund.
A spokesman for Defra claimed that the Lib Dem analysis was incorrect because the total budget, including future capital expenditures, was increasing.
They said, “These claims are false. The autumn statement confirmed that department budgets will be kept at least in line with those set by the 2021 spending review, which announced that Defra’s total budget will grow from £6.6bn to £7.1bn.
However, the Lib Dem analysis refers to day-to-day spending, which is being cut. Combined with the capital budget, Defra’s total spend in real terms is £6.6bn in 2022-23, rising to £7.1bn in 2023-24 and then falling to £6.8bn in 2024-25.
Resource expenditure is money spent on everyday resources. Capital expenditures are money spent on investments and things that will create growth in the future.
Considering the enforcement of sewerage, agricultural payments and other day-to-day activities are not capital expenditures, but accrue from day-to-day expenses, which means that the government is cutting back on these services.
This comes after the government was criticized for a £18bn “giveaway” to major banks after the budget slashed the bank surcharge from 8% to just 3% from April next year.
Next year the two bank levies will raise a combined £2.5bn – up from £4.7bn in 2016-17 – a 56% cut. This means banks operating in the UK will pay £18 billion less in these taxes over the next five years, according to the Lib Dems.