This post is by Andrew Pakes, research director at Prospect.
Prospect’s new report on Natural England, supported by some welcome media attention last week, has really touched a nerve about the state of England’s conservation body. Despite rhetoric from government about its 25 year environment plan, it is clear that nature conservation and environmental stewardship is creaking at the seams.
The conversation that is too often missing in this debate is one of resources. If politics is about choices, then public investment is the demonstration of intent.
A dedicated workforce at crisis point
As the leading trade union for scientists and environmental specialists, this is a hugely important debate for Prospect. Over the past year we have spoken to our frontline members in government agencies, conservation, climate science and agriculture about their experiences at work. What we have found is a deeply dedicated workforce struggling to do its best in difficult circumstances, but which now finds itself at crisis point.
The passion and expertise of our members whether they be in Natural England, Environment Agency, British Antarctic Survey, Met Office or countless other vital parts of our environmental infrastructure is awe inspiring. But now, in these politically uncertain and febrile times, our countryside and its wildlife are at more risk, especially from a hard Brexit, but also from the ever-increasing political control and diminishment of our environmental institutions.
That is why Prospect has launched a new campaign to highlight the crucial role of public service in delivering environmental outcomes.
Nowhere is this challenge greater than in Natural England. Subjected to almost a decade of real term pay cuts, and the halving of Natural England’s core budget since 2010, our members in Natural England are over-stretched and demoralised.
The toxic storm of funding cuts, pay restraint, Brexit and damaging political interventions is undermining Natural England and its work.
In September last year, the chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Mary Creagh MP, raised concerns about Natural England’s ability to deliver on its legal duties as a result of funding cuts, such as protecting England’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). The environment secretary also confirmed last year that over 400 staff were transferred from Natural England and other environmental agencies to work on Brexit; without those original posts being backfilled. In November, outgoing Natural England chair, Andrew Sells, warned the Efra Select Committee that staff were overstretched and that: “You can’t have this level of cuts without having impacts on the ground.”
Workers themselves in Natural England have been subject to a one per cent pay cap for eight years now, and have been blocked from advancing through the pay grades. This is the reality of government austerity and its effect on its staff: highly qualified workers facing financial hardship, increased workloads, loss of pension accrual, terrible morale and being forced to look elsewhere for better conditions at work.
It’s also about independence
Funding cuts and uncertainty aren’t the only issues facing Natural England. As Andrew Sells also said to the Efra Committee, it is about the independence of government bodies to provide expert advice.
Since 2010, successive ministers have targeted the independence of the UK’s heritage institutions such as Natural England, bringing them more closely under the jurisdiction and control of Whitehall. Even now, Michael Gove’s much promised new ‘green watchdog’ (the Office for Environmental Protection to be set up through the emerging Environment Bill) will sit under the watchful eye of ministers, bereft of the independence to truly challenge them. Ministers have also been critical of environmental experts in the civil service and public sector, and have hollowed out the expertise which has always underpinned an evidence based approach to conservation.
With these attacks, and the relentless curbs on funding and pay, our members could be forgiven for thinking they would be better off in the private sector. Many would find it easier to work in the NGO sector, free to speak their minds and away from the constraints of government, but most of them don’t want to; the drive to serve our natural environment, for its inherent value and for the public good, remains too great. This is our shared natural inheritance, and it needs the expertise and a properly funded public service to protect it.
All of these findings are set out in Prospect’s new report, The State of Natural England – 2018/19. Our members want to do their job, and we want to protect England’s natural heritage. But we also want fairness in the way our members are treated and paid. Everyone in England will be worse off if things don’t change. Our environment, wildlife and natural heritage will suffer.
[Photo by Jonathan Thacker, via Geograph]