Shuffling the deckchairs (6): why we still want a Forest and Wildlife Service please

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Shuffling the deckchairs (6): why we still want a Forest and Wildlife Service please

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The consultation on the future of the Environment Agency and Natural England closed three weeks ago.  We’ve had our say and it is now over to civil servants and ministers to decide on how to refresh the agencies to meet government’s ambition for the natural environment.

Things have changed a bit since the consultation was first issued.

In January, Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, rightly accepted the main recommendation from the Independent Panel on Forestry to split the public forest estate from the Forestry Commission’s Forest Service functions (eg regulation and advice to private forest owners/managers).  At the time, he also agreed to consider the future of Forest Services alongside EA and NE. 

While many of us started this process being agnostic about the form the agencies should take, views have hardened.  This week I shall explain why we are now in favour of merging Forest Services with Natural England but opposed to a full merger with the Environment Agency.

We’ve been here before. In early 2011, it was the RSPB who, during the forestry furore, called for the creation of a Forest and Wildlife Service

Many of the points we made then, remain today.

Defra needs to ask itself is whether it be easier to reconnect fragmented habitats and restore biodiversity (a stated aim of this government), if we had one agency responsible for all habitats, rather than having one agency for forests and woodlands and one for nature everywhere else? Common sense would dictate that a single agency would be better placed to put our ecological jigsaw back together, simply because they would have access to all the pieces.

It should make sense to landowners as well as they’d have a single authoritative body to provide advice and incentives.

Government has an opportunity to create an independent champion for all nature. In a recent national Forestry Commission survey, asking why people value woodlands, wildlife was the most popular response. This same wildlife is in trouble, with one in six woodland flowers threatened with extinction, a 56% decline in woodland butterflies and 70% decline in some specialist woodland birds.

Combining Natural England with Forest Services could allow a single organisation to have a strategic overview of all terrestrial landscapes and habitats, allowing the integration of policy and delivery mechanisms for woods, trees and forests with those for the wider landscape, for example, by integrating the grant schemes and advice provision.

Furthermore, given the relatively small size of Forest Services, any upheaval caused by a merger would be relatively minor, and considerably outweighed by the subsequent conservation benefits.

Forest Services staff are highly regarded and their expertise would need to be retained (or ideally, increased) in any merged body. The current legislative duties, powers and functions on sustainable forestry and biodiversity would need to be maintained in the legislation governing any new body, including those on protecting England’s forests from pests and diseases. Natural England currently has neither the resources or expertise to simply take on these critical functions.

So, is it time for a new, stronger, independent body that can champion all nature and provide a step-change in landscape-scale conservation? We think the answer has to be yes.

But should government go one step further and merge all of this with the Environment Agency?  As I shall explain tomorrow, we think the answer has to be no.

  • Martin, there are possible gains in a 'Forest and Wildlife' service - but I've tended to see them more to do with joining the forest estate & NNRs as a land delivery organisation, rather than the grant/regulatory side you are talking about.

    In theory there could be gains there, too - a well conceived, outcome focussed approach could be a powerful tool to bring neglected woodland into the right sort of management. FC could bring a greater awareness of business - and using real economics to win environmental gains to NE whilst a common position over how best to manage woods could be a real asset.

    Sadly, the record doesn't support positive outcomes of this sort - nature conservationists haven't noticed the way the countryside agency 'people' agenda has just disappeared in NE where the dominant conservation element either didn't understand or didn't care. There is no evidence in Defra or Government in general in how they set up such organisations that there would be a balance between interests, let alone a uniting forward agenda - all the evidence is that the smaller interest would just be lost- which is why an EA NE merger would be a complete disaster for nature conservation.

  • Peter - your final idea is an excellent.  Although Whitehall departments are sponsoring bodies and provide the cash, I like the idea of a degree of indepependent scrutiny from the select committees.  Will float this...

  • The advantages of this proposal are very seductive however; having one great big NNR/Forest Wildlife Estate is a great thought. I remember trying to get Jonathan Porrit to include it in his position re FC and I think some fusion of thinking occurred at that time.

    I am not in favour of such a substantial re-organisation as an EPA would require after repeated re-shufflings; so I defer there; although I remain an advocate of the advantages of a large environmental protection organisation, which if well managed, would gain confidence and momentum and authority. This is not how the constitutional arrangements have evolved here.

    In the absence of this can I refloat the idea/proposal that such quangoes should be reporting to the relevant House of Commons Select Ctte to protect their independence. .

  • RedKite....the strong independent voice for nature conservation has been lost in English Nature's merger with old MAFF square heads to make Natural England. There is no longer such a voice.

    I was advocating something on these lines at the time on the Avery blog. It has some merits.

    However I have since been persuaded that I  was wrong and this is a rather flawed understanding of the FC whose larger forest conifer estates are run to the advantage of the "recreation" forests and this may compromise the wider picture of forest management and deepen the neanderthal elements within FC; the FC is successful because of economies of scale and this impacts on that.

    I still remain in favour of the EPA approach; how one can manage flood management for example without integrating flood plain useage and sea defences into that defeats me and surely that is one of the greater challenges of the next few years.

  • I agree this possible merger makes sense and does not make sense with the Environment Agency. However a few queries would arise. For example, how would the new organisation relate Forest Enterprise? Would there be a conflicit here? The Government would probably be tempted to reduce staff from both organisations as they merge. Apart from perhaps any obvious savings, this must not happen as a matter of course. All the expetise of both organisations must be maintained in the merged arrangement. Finally, the new organisation must have a strong independent voice for nature conservation and not be "muzzeled" in any way, as Governments are often tempted to do. with Government funded organisations. (Perhaps the establishment some kind of Government funded semi independent trust with fully independent trustees might be worth considering).