The MENE survey covers the public's activities in the outdoors. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

The MENE survey covers the public's activities in the outdoors. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

Campaigners have dismissed as sham a consultation by a government department into outdoors research.

The Open Spaces Society said a decision on changes to the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment took place before the consultation period closed.

The MENE reports detail how many members of the public make use of the great outdoors and what they do there. Natural England, the Westminster Government’s advisory body on the outdoors, has produced the MENE data, using weekly interviews of 800 people about their visits to the countryside and coast since 2009.

But the OSS, the oldest national conservation charity, said the sample size and number and frequency of questions have been reduced, reducing the robustness and accuracy of the survey.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the integrity of the statistics has been maintained and they have the backing of the UK Statistics Authority.

It said it had been necessary to make the changes when it did because a new contract for field work had to be signed during the consultation period.

Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, 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.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “Defra is a highly responsive, open and data-driven organisation, consistently producing high-quality statistics which benefit industry, business and the public.

“After conducting a public consultation, we will make some specific changes to a limited number of official statistics products, ensuring we continue to meet departmental and user needs whilst offering the best possible value for taxpayers and businesses.”

The MENE set-up was reviewed by Defra as part of a wide-ranging review of statistics it produces, including those covering farming, food, the environment, Forestry Commission and those of Natural England.

A Natural England spokesperson said: “Although Natural England will be making some reductions to the questions it uses in its MENE surveys, we will continue to collect data on core questions and with sufficient frequency to maintain the scientific robustness of this important monitoring project.

“By continuing with the survey we will ensure that the evidence base continues to grow and be available as open data.”

Kate Ashbrook: 'results will be less reliable'. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

Kate Ashbrook: 'results will be less reliable'. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

Ms Ashbrook said: “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.”

Defra said: “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.”

The department added the consultation took place before the referendum on leaving the European Union. It said: “Following the vote to leave the EU, we must keep abreast of changing statistical priorities and evidence needs. Hence we may need to implement further changes to the overall portfolio.”

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