This post is by Andrew Sells, the outgoing chair of Natural England.
Natural England is an organisation that some thought – at various stages – was as endangered as some of the species we strive to protect. But as it prepares for life after the UK’s departure from the European Union, it has never been more important.
With my time at the helm now drawing to a close, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on five years as chair of Natural England and the future for conservation.
Targeting shared outcomes for people and nature
When I joined in January 2014, Natural England’s survival was hanging by a thread. It had only just emerged intact from a painful triennial review process and it was regarded by many of its stakeholders as remote and difficult. There was also a clear divide between members of the board and the executive management.
We set about building on its undoubted strengths in science and evidence; the bedrock of nature conservation. Creating a structure of area teams allowed us to take decisions closer to the people we work with, and more in partnership with them. We also set up a number of sub-committees bringing together the experience of our new board members and the skills of the executive teams.
Rethinking our strategy from first principles, we decided that, instead of telling people how best to look after the environment with a stick behind our back, we would listen more and seek to secure shared outcomes that benefit both people and nature.
For example, I was proud to witness the opening of the vast new Ribble Estuary National Nature Reserve in Lancashire in 2017. In partnership with the RSPB and Environment Agency, we are creating 160 hectares of saltmarsh habitat for wildlife, reducing the risk of flooding and providing greater access to nature for people.
Natural England approved the trial release of beavers into the wild in Devon. The success of that project led to a further trial release in the Forest of Dean to monitor the biodiversity and flood reduction benefits.
District level licensing promises to transform the fortunes of legally protected species such as great crested newts. Previously, developers had to obtain a site specific licence for work that affected these species. The new approach operates on a more strategic level, for the first time seeking to benefit newt populations by significantly enhancing and linking up habitats, while making it quicker and easier for developers to obtain licensing cover for their work.
Natural England was behind the ‘Blue Belt’ of marine conservation zones which now exists around our coastline, and has been created with input from the fishing industry and other users. And the 2,700-mile England Coast Path is well underway thanks to tactful negotiation with landowners and communities by our staff.
We’ve fought hard for nature under threat, such as maintaining our robust defence of nightingale habitat at Lodge Hill in Kent, protecting an important grassland site at Rampisham Down in Dorset and successfully opposing a huge windfarm off the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site.
There have been setbacks too. Despite our best efforts, many of our most precious species continue to decline, and numerous difficulties have meant that agri-environment schemes, such as the Countryside Stewardship scheme, which could achieve so much for the environment, are currently an understandable source of frustration for the farming industry as a result of delays to payments and agreements.
The environment is no longer a political footnote
But, overall, I’m proud of what Natural England has achieved in the past five years, especially considering the financial climate in which we have operated. Budget reductions of almost 50 per cent in that time only serve to highlight how desperately hard our passionate, committed staff have had to work for the good of the natural world.
No government agency can ever take its survival for granted but Natural England can face the future with confidence. Hearteningly, the environment – and Natural England’s role in protecting it – has ceased to be treated as a political footnote and is now part of the mainstream debate in government.
We have shaped the government’s 25 year environment plan and are committed to delivering it. For example, Natural England is helping to create a Nature Recovery Network and enshrine the concept of ‘net gain’ in all major decisions affecting the environment. This could see future housing and infrastructure projects required to produce a tangible overall benefit for nature. Natural capital accounting is also being developed, under the plan, to understand and value what the natural world provides and stimulate long term investment.
All of this work demonstrates Natural England at its best. We offer environmental leadership and advice to those whose decisions affect the natural world. We forge partnerships to help people and businesses conserve nature in the places that are important to them, and our renowned expertise in science and evidence informs government policy.
The new green watchdog needs to be independent and well resourced
Brexit offers the opportunity to rethink the way we conserve and enhance nature. Central to achieving this will be authoritative, impartial advice to government and all public bodies, supported by a strong supervisory body with the ability to scrutinise and regulate.
Natural England has the credentials to provide this authoritative, impartial voice, a role it has consistently performed, for example in its advice to reduce the environmental impacts of HS2.
As to the strong supervisory role, my personal hope is that the Office for Environmental Protection, proposed in the draft Environment Bill, should be granted independence, along with sufficient powers and resources, to hold government to account. Ideally it should be independently funded – with a three-year funding settlement – and accountable to parliament, but not tied to a government department.
This body would operate at a more strategic level than Natural England, setting measurable statutory targets, advising government on the co-ordination needed to meet them and ultimately holding the government to them, backed by the power to fine where necessary.
This approach could really deliver progress towards the government’s long term goal of leaving the environment in a better state for the next generation which I believe should be put on a similar statutory footing to its commitments on climate change.