Natural England was unpopular with this Government even while they were in opposition. Opposition spokesmen like Nick Herbert had already been complaining in 2009 that Agencies like Natural England, paid for by public funds, should not be publicly criticising their paymasters or Government policy.
Herbert complained Natural England had become a “political lobbyist”. NFU (a real political lobbying outfit) President Peter Kendall weighed in “When I see Natural England having a large policy section I ask if that really is the best use of our money. Defra should be developing policies and its agencies should be delivering them.” Is this not a little ironic given the billions of pounds farmers receive from the taxpayer, since some of this largesse is passed to the NFU in membership fees.
Never mind that independent expert voices such as the Nature Conservancy Council (controversially abolished by the last Tory Government after challenging the appalling policy that encouraged planting conifers in the Flow Country as a tax avoidance measure for millonaires), English Nature and formerly Natural England, have been an essential part of the public realm for decades and have performed a vital function in gathering evidence, analysing it objectively and developing evidence-based scientifically robust policy positions for their paymasters at Defra.
True to their word, when the Coalition came to power they immediately stopped Natural England from doing any policy work and from doing any marketing work. This was unfortunate for us, as we were in the middle of a contract with NE to produce a public report about the state of England’s grasslands, which included a policy analysis and recommendations of what needed to be done to improve their lot. This eventually became Nature’s Tapestry. Although NE funded a large part of the work, they couldn’t be seeen to be associated with such a dangerous and radical document.
Phase one of the emasculation of NE was complete; they had lost their capacity to make public statements about anything other than purely technical matters. When Andrew Wood, NE Executive Director, did make a very reasonable statement about licensing issues for the badger cull, this elicited much predictable fury from real lobbying organisations like the National Beef Association, calling “off with their heads”.
In the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, as I mentioned yesterday, the anti-environmental invective has been stepped up a notch (is this the Step Change for the Environment we read about in the Natural Environment White Paper and Nu England Biodiversity Strategy Biodiversity 2020?). Not content with taking a pop at the Habitats Directive, other announcements are even more ominous for our colleagues at NE and other agencies.This is what the Autumn Statement said
1.98 The Government is also reforming the planning and consenting regime, which can
significantly delay infrastructure projects and add to their delivery cost. This has been cited as a key reason for UK infrastructure being more expensive to build than in other European countries. In response to the Penfold Review, the Government will:
•• ensure the key consenting and advisory agencies have a remit to promote
sustainable development as soon as the National Planning Policy Framework
is finalised. This will ensure that these bodies consider the impact of their decisions on
sustainable economic growth and swiftly approve consents when it is appropriate to do so;
•• introduce a 13-week maximum timescale for the majority of non-planning
consents, to speed up the consenting process and give certainty to developers. This will
take immediate effect for government agencies.
1.99 In addition, the Government will:
•• ensure that there is a more effective mechanism for applicants to obtain an award
of costs, if there is an appeal against refusal of a planning permission where a
statutory consultee has acted unreasonably, through measures to be implemented
in summer 2012. The Government will also improve the performance of the key satutory
consultees in responding swiftly to applications. This will include key statutory bodies
bringing forward an improvement plan by spring 2012;
•• build more flexibility into the new major infrastructure planning process,
particularly in the pre-application phase, by summer 2012, as part of a light touch
review of the process responding to feedback from users of the regime; and
•• ensure that compliance with the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives does not lead
to unnecessary costs and delays to development, while continuing to support the
Directives’ objectives. The Government is reviewing the Directives as currently implemented in England by Budget 2012 and is committed to tackling blockages for developments where compliance is particularly complex or has large impacts. In addition, the Government has announced progress on specific projects where compliance has already proved problematic, including Falmouth Harbour.
1.100 These measures will complement the Government’s wider reforms of the planning
system. The Government has already made substantial progress through the Localism Act 2011 and the publication of the draft National Planning Policy Framework, which sets out a presumption in favour of sustainable development. “
So my reading of this is that Natural England will have a duty to promote sustainable development (as defined in the National Planning Policy Framework) alongside its duties on biodiversity and landscape. Also, NE will be much more risk averse about objecting to developments affecting biodiversity, because of the risk of having costs awarded against them for behaving unreasonably, whatever that means.
Oh and the Habitat Regulations will be weakened to stop them from slowing down developments.
In the National Infrastructure Plan, (pages 108-111) which at the moment doesn’t appear to want to be downloaded from its website, I have it on very good authority from a colleague at the RSPB, that there will be “a requirement [for NE] to report to Ministers on what they have done to support Sustainable Development” and “the largest 25 developers getting a relationship manager”.
At this rate Natural England will quickly be reduced to oiling the wheels of development and ensuring that inconveniences like international laws like the Habitats and Birds Directives are dealt with as quickly and cheaply as possible. Last week came the news that NE Chief Exec Helen Phillips was leaving (her 5 year plan completed) to become chief exec at Yorkshire Water. Though not universally liked within NE, she had been an effective champion for wildlife particularly within the corridors of power. What chance that such an outspoken advocate for wildlife and nature will be selected as the next Chief Exec? If Peter Kendall doesn’t get re-elected as NFU President, he probably stands a pretty good chance of landing the job at NE.
As Natural England is weakened by every cut and thrust, nature becomes more threatened; and the role of conservation NGOs becomes more difficult. We all now need to stand up to defend our statutory conservation bodies against this anti-environmental onslaught.