Biosecurity agency cut by Labour experiences 1000 per cent increase in workload

The Tree Health Diagnostic and Advisory Service has experienced over 4000 calls in the last six months about the chalara outbreak.

The Tree Health Diagnostic and Advisory Service (THDAS), a sub-section of the Forestry Commission which was defunded by the last Government, has experienced over five years worth of enquiries in the last six months due to public fear over the chalara disease, which causes dieback of ash trees.

In a normal year, the service receives a combined total of 750 enquires. But in autumn 2012, the UK saw multiple cases of chalara, a serious disease of ash trees which is caused by the fungus Chalara fraxinea. According to Forest Research, the disease "causes leaf loss and crown dieback in affected trees, and usually leads to tree death in younger trees"; as a result, "it is being treated as a quarantine pest under national emergency measures", and Forest Research is asking that suspected cases be reported.

Since then, THDAS has received over 4000 enquiries from England and Wales alone (as well as approximately 200 from Scotland), a workload ten times higher than normal.

That massively increased workload comes as the service struggles with budget cuts introduced in the years leading up to the 2010 election.

Las Autumn, the Times' Oliver Moody reported on the numerous cuts made to biosecurity programmes run by the Forestry Commission:

  • In 2010 Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary at the time, signed off a strategy paper making biosecurity the Forestry Commission’s least-funded field of research, with an annual budget of less than £1.2 million;
  • David Miliband presided over a 20 per cent cut in biosecurity funding in 2007 alone;
  • In the last financial year for which figures are available, 2010-11, just £50,000 was spent on Forestry Commission research into invasive diseases. This was in spite of a £130,000 external grant for the work;
  • Between 2004 and 2010 the “monitoring and biosecurity” budget was cut by almost 60 per cent in real terms.

Those cuts came despite warnings from Scandinavian scientists in 2007 that chalara outbreaks had been reported, and could spread to the UK. Roddie Burgess, then head of plant health at the Forestry Commission, told Moody that he had sent a pest alert to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) that year, but still the cuts came. As THDAS attempts to cope with its 1000 per cent increase in calls, that is starting to look like a false economy.

Discoloured leaves hang on an infected ash tree in near Ipswich, United Kingdom. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR