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The RSPB, water polluters and a whiff of hypocrisy

It is extraordinary what can happen in 24 hours. Yesterday, RSPB England launched a full-scale attack on the Government, accusing them of “lying” over their commitment to the environment.

In a thread on X (formerly known as Twitter), the RSPB wrote: “LIARS! @RishiSunak @michaelgove @theresecoffey you said you wouldn’t weaken environmental protections. And yet that’s just what you are doing. You lie, and you lie, and you lie again. And we’ve had enough.” The tweet was accompanied by a grey image of the three politicians, with “LIARS!” stencilled across it in red. 


The tweet came in reaction to the Government’s announcement on Wednesday that it is removing anti-pollution EU laws on nutrient neutrality to allow more than 100,000 new homes to be built. For its part, the Government argues housing developments only contribute a “small fraction” of nutrient pollution — and new funding will be provided to mitigate any increases. They also argue that the new law, which replaces older EU law, protects the environment “never addressed” before. 

A few hours later, it appeared that an adult with training in public affairs diplomacy had wrestled back control of the charity’s Twitter account, releasing a separate tweet, offering up an apology claiming the original post had fallen "below the standard we set ourselves". 

The charity said its "frustration" at the government "reneging on its environmental promises... led us to attack the people not the policy".

The RSPB’s chief executive, Beccy Speight, was put up on Radio 4’s Today programme earlier today to explain the tweet and subsequently dodge accusations of political bias. Speight opted to distance herself from the tweet, saying that she didn’t approve it. 

Inevitably, the original tweet and subsequent row back has caused furious backlash. Some have criticised the RSPB for apologising, while The Telegraph reports Tory sources condemning them for “dishonest party-political activism”. At the time of writing, the original tweet still remains live, having attracted over 5.7 million views. 

The saga is clearly a headache for the RSPB, but it also raises questions about their selective approach to condemning water polluters publicly. 

Some might find it surprising that the RSPB enjoys a “working relationship” with United Utilities, a relationship which includes managing parts of its vast portfolio of land. This includes the Haweswater Reservoir in the Lake District, for example, which recently received £250,000 of funding for a native tree and wildflower nursery from Defra in addition to £150,000 from United Utilities.  

For those that don’t know, however, United Utilities was identified as England’s worst polluting water company last year in data released by the Environment Agency. That data showed that they owned half of the country’s 20 pipes that spilled the most sewage and had pumped waste into the River Ellen, near the Lake District, for nearly 7,000 hours. Last month, a ban on bathing along 14 miles of coast around Blackpool was put in place because United Utilities, which supplies more than three million homes and 200,000 businesses across the north west of England, was releasing sewage into the sea.

Yet despite the revelations about United Utilities’ appalling environmental record, the RSPB has said nothing. Nada. Certainly not anything publicly that is easily retrievable online. Rather, as recently as 17 August 2023, the RSPB issued a glowing press release in collaboration with the polluting water firm, heralding the release of water voles in the Lake District. All very well and good, but no mention whatsoever of that same firm being responsible for pumping filth into the nearby River Ellen? 

Perhaps even more objectionable is the fact that just the day before, the Government announced that United Utilities had been fined £800,000 after illegally abstracting 22 billion litres of water from boreholes in Lancashire following a prosecution by the Environment Agency. An EA spokesperson said: “While water companies are allowed to abstract water from the environment, over abstraction, especially during times of prolonged dry weather, has damaging impacts to our environment”. Where was the RSPB’s hurried tweet to condemn United Utilities? 

The fact that 24 hours after being successfully prosecuted by the Environment Agency, United Utilities was able to push out a glowing press release on its website, standing shoulder to shoulder with the RSPB – “Nature’s Voice” - clearly provided a welcome distraction amidst a tidal wave of negative publicity. On this however, United Utilities has form. 

United Utilities’ decision to ban shooting on its land earlier this month was apparently a long time in the making, but the timing of the announcement seemed designed to deflect from United Utilities' appalling environmental record and the subsequent eco-protests ahead of its Annual General Meeting. 

It is not known whether the RSPB had any input in the announcement to ban game shooting on United Utilities’ decision and enquiries remain ongoing, but it is worth remembering that despite the charity’s own stated neutrality on the issue, it has repeatedly called for increased regulation and a total ban on controlled burning, a vital tool used by moorland managers to reduce the risk of damaging wildfires and the loss of carbon as a result of these.

As the RSPB picks up the pieces from the fall out of their Twitter outburst yesterday, the charity will inevitably review its social media policy. Perhaps, within that review, they might wish to consider using their social media channels to clarify exactly what their “working relationship” with United Utilities is. And how, based on everything we know about United Utilities’ appalling environment record, it can justify not publicly calling them out with the same vigour as its tweet aimed at the government yesterday. 

To quote the RSPB’s social media officer: “Our members, supporters and everyone who loves nature demand it”. Until they take that important step, the RSPB is open to the accusation of hypocrisy. 

While you are here: Join us in standing up for the countryside, our environment and the thousands of people who depend on shooting, by telling United Utilities to reverse their ill-thought-through decision not to renew shooting leases on its land immediately. 

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