‘The British government has strange ways of demonstrating its commitment to conserving the environment.’ So started an article written by Derek Ratcliffe for New Scientist magazine in 1989. The article continued to describe the splitting up of the then National Conservancy Council, which, according to Ratcliffe, was ‘punishment for having trodden too heavily on some sensitive corns‘ and a ‘determination to restrain conservation in the future’, for which he blamed Nicholas Ridley and Malcolm Rifkind. Ratcliffe argued ‘It is not the general experience that splitting up an organisation leads to a stronger total effort by the separate parts.‘ He even cited capitalism as a fine example ‘The numerous mergers in the world of commerce are intended to increase corporate strength.‘
But the NCC was split up and many would agree that it has been a case of ‘divide and conquer’ – a military technique for overwhelming the enemy – and that politicians have successfully boxed-in the organisations that we expect to protect our natural environment. And so began the slow but sure emasculation of our only statutory nature conservation organisations.
‘We’re the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England, helping to protect England’s nature and landscapes for people to enjoy and for the services they provide’ claims the Natural England website. It goes on to state that its responsibilities are:
- promoting nature conservation and protecting biodiversity
- conserving and enhancing the landscape
- securing the provision and improvement of facilities for the study, understanding and enjoyment of the natural environment
- promoting access to the countryside and open spaces and encouraging open-air recreation
- contributing in other ways to social and economic well-being through management of the natural environment
This sounds worthy and really does read like the objectives of a conservation organisation worth the name – and really that’s what Natural England should be. So, when it was announced, about this time last year, that Tony Juniper was taking over as Chairman, the conservation community thought that the government was at last taking the environment seriously.
However, we all know that Natural England is a super tanker that needs to change course and while it may seem as though Tony Juniper is captain of the ship, he isn’t really. Natural England might be described as ‘at arm’s length’ and ‘sponsored by Defra’ but we all understand that Defra and ministers decide NE’s budget and headcount; and according to Defra’s Framework document for Natural England: ‘In addition to Defra, Natural England also works with and delivers duties on behalf of a range of other UK Government departments.’ Hmmm, ‘delivers duties‘? Doesn’t sound terribly independent.
One of those duties is to contribute to the planning decision process, offering advice on the likely impact of developments to wildlife, whilst at the same time being the body that issues licences for developers and protects planning authorities from prosecution when it comes to wildlife legislation. There were over 406,000 planning applications in England in the year ending March 2019. If just 10% of those required considered opinion from our statutory conservation body, that would be 781 applications per week. Add into the mix the fact that Natural England’s paymasters (the government) have pledged to build 300,000 new homes a year in England, and you might start to wonder if a conflict of interests has been dumped into Natural England’s lap.
In June last year Juniper told The Guardian: “I’ve inherited an organisation that is depleted, massively depleted, on a whole range of subjects, we cannot do what society expects of us.”
At a time when we conservationists have been asking more from the new Chair, Natural England’s budget has been in free-fall, cut from £242m in 2009-10 to £100m in 2017-18. At the same time staff numbers have been reduced by around 40% over the same period.
To put that into perspective, Natural England has slightly more staff than the RSPB but only 70% of its income (RSPB income for year ending 2019 was £144m). Or, to put it another way, Natural England received 0.015% of total central government expenditure in 2018.
At the time of writing there is widespread outrage at the lack of PPE available for NHS staff treating Coronavirus patients, but we don’t point the finger at doctors and nurses, or even the CEOs of hospitals. No, we look to people who hold the purse strings – ministers – and ask how this situation could have arisen.
Why aren’t we doing the same with Natural England? Why do we take to social media and vent our anger at Tony Juniper and his colleagues rather than writing to the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister and demanding they do more? That’s what we should be doing, surely?
In 1997 Gordon Brown said: “This is the time to take the tough decisions we need for the long-term interests and prosperity of the country.” He was of course talking about handing decisions of monetary policy to an independent Bank of England.
20 years later Brown told a room of conference delegates: “High levels of growth and employment…are not possible unless you avoid taking economic decisions for political reasons….we were putting Britain on a long-term path.”
In his 1989 article, Derek Ratcliffe said much the same thing, ‘Conservation issues transcend political frontiers, and actions denying this truth damage the government’s credibility in being seen to take the environmental crisis seriously.‘
Natural England’s 2017 Framework document states: ‘Natural England’s strategic aim is to be at the forefront of successful implementation of the Government’s ambition to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better condition than we found it. This will be achieved by creating, resilient landscapes and seas, putting people at the heart of the natural environment and growing natural capital.’ That means avoiding taking environmental decisions for political reasons – hence Natural England should be a genuinely independent body treated with the same respect as the Bank of England and expected to deliver growth in natural capital for the country.
To achieve this Natural England needs to be properly funded, be independent from Defra, and have highly skilled people who can deliver.