This post is by Jess Chappell, senior policy officer at RSPB England.
Earlier this year, Defra’s Nature Recovery Green Paper outlined the department’s intention to explore options for the future structure and function of so called Arm’s Length Bodies. These organisations advise the government on environmental matters and challenge others – including the government itself – to ensure that environmental standards are maintained.
The outcome of such a review could have huge implications for nature conservation in England. And, while firm proposals are yet to emerge from Westminster, there are whisperings of potential future structures that are more likely to obstruct, rather than achieve, the government’s ambitions to protect and enhance nature.
We need a distinct nature regulator
At a time when the planet is in a nature and climate emergency, and with the UK recognised as one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, more than ever we need a distinct body whose primary purpose is to think, speak and act for nature. It should be a critical friend of the government which can scrutinise the actions ministers take and give advice, free from political interference.
This begs the question: with Defra considering reform of these bodies, what is the future of Natural England (NE), the existing regulator and adviser on the natural environment?
NE’s job is vital in protecting biodiversity and our most important habitats, whilst also benefiting people’s health and wellbeing by promoting responsible access to nature and the outdoors. But strong independence from government is essential for any Arm’s Length Body to effectively use its powers. The structures under which it was established have eroded its independence over time, affecting its ability to challenge the work of other public bodies and government departments. The agency relies on the government for funding, putting pressure on it to deliver government priorities, instead of its statutory duties and responsibilities.
Natural England has lost its independence
In 2018, the outgoing chair Andrew Sells confirmed that NE had “lost its independence”, which led a House of Lords Select Committee to recommend that the government “take steps to enable Natural England to operate with the appropriate degree of independence”. The RSPB completely agrees.
A similar process in Wales, which resulted in the formation of Natural Resources Wales, has arguably been damaging for nature, with the conservation element of its work disproportionately affected by budget cuts.
Nature needs an independent statutory champion
But it is the rumour about the possible absorption of NE into Defra itself, eradicating any last shred of its independence, which strikes the most fear into conservationists’ hearts. By moving the natural environment regulator to the heart of Defra, the government would effectively ensure there was no independent voice for nature in government decisions. The idea that NE could speak up and challenge from the inside is not feasible, and the result would be disastrous for the country’s already fast declining wildlife.
We agree that change is needed. Efforts to date to halt or reverse the loss of nature in England – and across the UK – have failed so far. But, to meet the UK’s target to halt the decline in species abundance in England by 2030, Defra’s agencies – including NE – have to be robust enough play a critical role, with a strong shared focus on nature recovery. Balancing the costs and benefits of that change will be important. The focus should be on improving governance by empowering and, where necessary, refocusing (in the case of the Forestry Commission) existing agencies to restore the natural environment. In NE’s case that means renewed focus on its legal purpose: to act as the champion for wildlife and ensure nature is conserved, enhanced and managed. The agency needs to be more, not less, independent so it can fulfil its role to enforce regulation to protect nature for the benefit of current and future generations.