Open Spaces Society criticises Defra data collection

The Open Spaces Society, has criticised Defra for its "sham consultation" into Natural England's research on people and the natural environment.

Kate Ashbrook
Kate Ashbrook

The consultation results came out on 4 November, but Defra states that the changes have already gone ahead - before the consultation period closed.

The research, ‘Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment’ (MENE), is about the extent to which people visit the natural environment and what they do there.

Since 2009 Natural England has undertaken MENE, a progression from the England Leisure Visits Survey.  From weekly interviews with about 800 respondents MENE produced evidence of the visits made by the population to the coast and countryside. It provided 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.

Open Spaces Society general secretary Kate Ashbrook said: "We argued strongly against cuts to this vital survey which is relied upon by local authorities, government departments, local access fora and voluntary bodies. The data will no longer be consistent with previous work so that the continuous, comparable datasets will be lost. The results will be less reliable and we shall only have headline figures without any depth to them. The survey will no longer be of use in tracking changes in behaviour and local variation.

"The money saved on the survey is tiny but the effect is significant and it is a false economy.  Unfortunately, the government seems to have little interest in gathering evidence.

"This announcement comes shortly after Natural England publishes Conservation 21, its conservation strategy for the 21st century. This puts people at the heart of the environment—an excellent proposition. But to achieve this we need to know why people are not getting outdoors now and how they can be encouraged to do so. With the slashing of MENE it will be much more difficult to achieve this laudable aim.

"We believed that this was a genuine consultation, but clearly it was not. Defra had already decided to make the cuts before it even asked us.

"Now the sample size and number and frequency of questions have been reduced, and thus the robustness and accuracy of the survey are severely diminished."

There were 11 respondents who supplied feedback to the proposals for Natural England’s MENE statistics.

Comments provided about the proposals included: Concerns about the (late) timing of the proposals to reduce the survey; lack of linkage between these proposals and the wider direction of government policy; implications for future measurement of policy impacts (e.g. related to the Government’s new strategy for Sport or to biodiversity related indicators); implications of the changes on sample sizes on more regional/local uses for the survey; the loss in consistency of data with that provided by previous surveys; the potential impacts on future understanding of barriers to engagement and for identifying behaviours of members of the public from traditionally ‘harder to reach’ groups; and concerns that the removal of questions on expenditure during a visit weakens potential insights into opportunities from payments for ecosystem services.

Defra said: "The proposed changes to MENE have gone ahead. Due to contractual arrangements, an amended contract had to be agreed while the consultation was underway in order to enable field work to begin from the start of April 2016. The fact that we had to make this decision before the consultation period had ended was an issue that faced many of the surveys included in Defra’s consultation and, although this is at odds with general practice for Official Statistics, notice of this had been given to the UK Statistics Authority and overall support for this approach given. Looking to the future, we continue to explore new and innovative ways of gathering data relating to people’s engagement with the natural environment – for example through the use of an on-line survey panel or through using third party data - in order to ensure that long-term costs are more sustainable. We will be contacting all respondents and also making contact with the wider group of stakeholders within interests in this area in order to best evolve this work and to maintain and grow its value. MENE is a survey of the England adult population (aged 16 and above) asking about engagement with the natural environment. The survey and its outputs have no direct links to any EU requirements."


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