Reshuffling the deckchairs (7): a verdict on the outcome of the triennial review of Natural England and Environment Agency

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Reshuffling the deckchairs (7): a verdict on the outcome of the triennial review of Natural England and Environment Agency

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Last summer, the Government initiated a review of  the Environment Agency and Natural England. Yesterday, it published the results of its review.

We argued that any review should improve the agencies' abilities to meet the ambitions set out in the Natural Environment White Paper.  Has it achieved that?

It has been clear that some sections of the Government saw this as an opportunity to reduce costs, reduce the number of quangos and quieten any pesky bodies who might get in the way of commercial interests.  The question of whether to merge EA and NE dominated the discussions.
The review has taken a year to complete. This is not a great use of taxpayers' money and no way to motivate staff in organisations that are already feeling the squeeze from hefty cuts.  This level of uncertainty is not conducive to high performance, particularly if you feel obliged to continuously prove yourselves to your paymasters.

For all that, the review is now complete.  And the good news is that Natural  England and the Environment Agency rightfully remain as two separate agencies.   They have distinct, important jobs and can now be free to get on with them.  Both organisations have excellent staff and I am glad their independence was defended by their advocates in government.

But, if you delve into the detail, there are a few nasty surprises about how the Govenment wants the agencies to operate.

1. There is continued talk about  the agencies having a duty to support economic growth. The whole point of agencies is to provide specialist advice. In the case of Natural England, this should mean providing impartial scientific advice on ecological matters decision-makers. Ecologists should not be expected to factor economic considerations into their advice.  This not only undermines their scientific integrity and impartiality, there is a very real danger of ill-informed decisions, which fail to safeguard our legally protected wildlife and habitats.

2. The report highlights the need for ‘more stretching targets for reducing regulatory burdens’. Time and again, the value of the natural world to our economy is laid bare. Defra’s own research shows that biodiversity-related regulations in England have a benefit-cost ratio of almost 9:1. Meanwhile, the net direct costs are only a small fraction of total turnover of agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. Despite this, some in Government seem fixed on a race to the regulatory bottom that will severely undermine the sustainability of our economy.

3. The report talks about consolidating the planning functions of the Environment Agency and Natural England. In such a scenario, how do you maintain transparency? Part of the rationale for separation is to maintain transparency where there might be conflicting advice. For example, in a case of flood defence v habitat restoration, how do you ensure that ‘a single conversation’ for developers doesn’t mean one agency doing what two agencies are needed for? This sounds a little like a merger by the back door.

There are only so many ways in which you can protect wildlife: incentives to encourage people to do the right thing, penalties to get them to stop doing bad things, pricing natural assets and creating a market in which to trade them or... exhortation.  The Chancellor has confirmed that there is no money. If the Defra spending axe falls in the way we predict, by 2015-16 Natural England will be about half the size it was in 2009.  Markets for natural assets are either a long way off (eg for carbon rich soils or water resources) or inapporpiate (for species).  So, no markets, much less money, and fewer laws.  That leaves exhortation - good old-fashioned persuasion.  And, as Professor Sir Bob Watson once said, no environmental problem has ever been solved solely by voluntary means. 

Failing to invest properly in the natural world will either sell us short or, worse, come back to haunt us.  And it means we shall undoubtedly leave our natural environment in an impoverished state for our children to grow up in, which is counter to the ambition set out in the Natural Environment White Paper.

We are where we are. 60% of species declining (State of Nature Report), nature's life-giving services being eroded (Natural Capital Committee) and the slow abdication of the State's responsibility for any of it. 

In the short term, we may have to make do with the decisions that have been made: use existing money well, prevent bad things from happening and be creative about how to get new investment. 

We are sleepwalking into an environmental catastrophe and it is time to wake people from their slumber.  Not just politicians, but businesses, landowners and, yes, you and me.

We need a new deal for wildlife and we need it fast.

  • Martin, I'm writing this on 8th July, many days after your last blog as far as I can tell! When the rspb has just launched a major new initiative with the TV advert exhorting us to look at the website, part of it (especially your blog and the rest of the Community site) appears moribund! What is happening? Can't find any useful info. beyond "closed for maintenance". Not the best of times to change the website without it being fully tested first.

  • The reality of the current UK economic position is that with zero growth and an annual deficit in the order of £90 to £120 billion plus interest payments of £47 billion last year and £58 billion at year end 2013 then we will be adding to the national debt (currently £1.1 trillion) to the tune of £1 trillion every 6 years! Now take into account the cost of the financial sector bailout and "quantitive easing" which adds an additional burden in the order of £1.2 trillion.

    Hence the call to promote growth in GDP under the rules of the current globalised economic system!!

    You think its bad here look at Japan and the USA not to mention Noriel Borini's (Dr Doom) warnings of the next stock market collapse beginning to come to pass.

    When you take into account the state of nature and societal pressures throughout the world, never has the time been more ripe to press for a fundemental change of economic system.

    I therefore very much thank the RSPB for stepping up their game in response to past criticism from me and others in announcing  their new initiatives including TV campaigns in support of nature.

    Right, lets press Forum for the Future and the Green Party et al to raise their visibility and come out fighting!!

  • Think your last few words said it all Martin.There are very few politicians,not many business men or even landowners.there must be about 57,000,000 ordinary bods who care nowt about wildlife and the environment,all they consider is what is best from day to day for them.Question is how do you tap into them,even £1 contribution each per month would provide enough money to do lots of projects.

  • I don't think its about the real economy - its about cuts and the simple prejudice that it is 'regulation' that is stifling business - an easy position, because it means it's someones elses fault - the Labour party, the Greenies etc.

    It is hearteneing (and I know you may disagree, Martin) that as well as not putting NE into EA (and we do agree about that !) Forest Services - the regulatory/grant/extension bit of FC - have been left alone - probably as a result of a 'rainbow alliance' which spread from the anti-sales protestors (predictable) to the Woodland Trust (formerly the Government's key ally) to the timber industry (who one would expect to the Government's allies were it doing anything real for the economy).

    And behind all this, not one squeak have I heard about the potential of managing more of our woods for local-use energy for heat (not bulk, industrial use for co-firing where again I agree strongly with the RSPB position !) Presented with a complete win-win for both economy & environment the Government remain silent. Cuts and growth are not the same thing - nor does growth have to destroy the environment if the skills that exist - but are being ignored - were being used properly ?

    And where  will it end ? I'm predicting it'll have to be the 'great flood' which devastates one of major cities and kills a significant number of our fellow citizens. I wish it weren't so but the prospects of waking up before - the memories of the summer floods of 2007 seem to have drifted into history - seem slight.

  • ''Sleepwalking'' induced by ''singing beetle'' bugs,distributed cleverly, by the 'money hunger 'Gods'... directional microphones should be clever enough to get rid of electronic'pesky'bugs

  • Given the economic situation that prevailed when this present Government to over I thought they did really quite well for the natural world, given the prevailing restraints. The Government personnel of the time seemed reasonably supportive as far as any politicians could be. However, I have to say with some change to the incumbents, there now seems to be an almost total lack of interest, will and support for combating the loss of wildlife and biodiversity despite all the previous promises about greenest Governments. In this context the survival of Natural England must be counted a a positive.

    Given that Government incumbents change fairly quickly it should be possible, at some future time to bring the terms of reference for Natural England(NE) back to something sensible. However if NE had disappeared completely then resurrecting the organisation would have been very difficult even by any new personnel.

    The current outlook for our wildlife is pretty grim. All we can do at present is our very very best using our brains, ingenuity, and organisational skills as much as possible until a set of more sympathetic incumbents take over, whoever they may be.

    (By they way I gather the EU budget for 2014 to 2021, which presumably includes the CAP budget,, is still not yet approved within the EU. If it remains unapproved then I gather the budget for 2014/2021 reverts to the budget for the previous seven years This might change the CAP situation???.)