Yesterday I attended the Third Sector Assembly which is the umbrella group for all voluntary sector organisations in Birmingham, and happens every quarter. I have been attending these since my second week in the job, which just also happened to be the first time there was an environment network as part of the third sector assembly. After sorting a few things in the office, I went down to the Third Sector Assembly in time to see Birmingham City Councillor & Cabinet Member Stuart Stacey present the council’s consultation on the budget for 2014/2015.

Councillor Stacey outlined their approach of finding ways of working differently, by more partnership collaborative working and streamlining what they do. However Stacey also said that they still needed to set a budget and so this meant cuts. There would be no more salami slicing and some services would be protected more than others. A few would even be increased, while many would eventually be cut altogether, although Stacey insisted no service would be cut completely in 2014/2015.

We discussed the impact on this for Birmingham’s environment in our afternoon meeting of the Environment Network. But before we got onto that we had two very interesting presentations from Chris Parry of the Birmingham & Black Country Wildlife Trust, about Nature Improvement Areas and Local Nature Partnerships. It was really good to have these positive presentations in order to provide a useful antidote to the budget cut discussion.

The Birmingham & Black Country Nature Improvement Area is a partnership of over 50 organisations that have come together to deliver significant improvements to the natural environment of Birmingham, Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton over a three year period.

The Birmingham Black Country Wildlife Trust feel it represents a step-change away from site-focused nature conservation to a joined-up landscape-scale approach. Environments that have been improved so far include heathlands, woodlands, grasslands and natural environments og geological interest. Many areas have been improved over the two years so far, and they will undoubtedly have had a really positive effect by the time the NIA finishes in 2015.

Chris Parry also talked about the Local Nature Partnership in Birmingham and the Black Country, which has representatives from many public, private, and voluntary sectors working together to improve natural environments in Birmingham and the Black Country. It includes many organisations and not just ones related to the environment, health bodies are very well represented for example. The Partnership is working at a strategic level to try and deliver improvements over the long term.

After this we moved to talk about the council’s budget. This was dominated by the massive cuts to parks and the impact this will have, particularly around peoples wellbeing. We discussed how groups working better together could maybe offset this to a certain extent, but it was pointed out that voluntary and “friends of” groups already do a lot. One small advantage was possibly less staff might mean less beaurocracy and therefore it is easier to get permission to do things such as events in parks, or the opposite could be true and it becomes that much harder.

The network also discussed other cuts such as those to the Climate team, and the fact it will have to be self-funded, which could make implementation of the recent Carbon Roadmap that much harder. We also talked about the decision, which has been already taken, to charge for green waste collections. It was felt this could encourage fly-tipping and in increase in residual waste, rather then an increase in people composting at home. Some people also made the point that they felt that industrial composting produced better quality compost! We also touched on how residual waste collections weren’t being cut, so the worst option for the environment remains at full service. This is of course because the grant for wheelie bins was dependant on keeping residual waste collections for at least five years.

All in all it was a useful and interesting day, as it is always good to network and speak to people in like-minded organisations to find out what they’re up to. Hopefully next time we’re discussing something a little less depressing than budget cuts, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.