This post is by Jess Chappell, England senior policy officer at the RSPB.
Nature needs a champion. With so many precious species now on the brink of extinction, more than ever we need our ministers held to account for the actions they take that affect nature.
Natural England, the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission and the Marine Management Organisation are just four of a multitude of arm’s length bodies (ALBs) in England which exist to do exactly that. They provide specialist expertise on environmental matters and challenge the government and others to ensure environmental standards are maintained. But ongoing threats of reform and reorganisation mean that their future is looking uncertain. RSPB’s new report sets out our views on how these four organisations can and should work to recover nature in England.
Successive funding and staff cuts to Defra’s arm’s length bodies over the years have already left them struggling to fulfil their regulatory duties. Earlier this year, Defra’s Nature Recovery Green Paper set out the government’s proposals to restore nature and halt species decline by 2030. The very same paper also signalled plans to explore options for the future structure of the arm’s length bodies.
Change for the sake of it is a big mistake
The government ascertains that the aim of reforming the bodies would be to strengthen their ability to deliver for nature. But at a time when the planet is in a nature and climate emergency, can we really afford to divert time and money away from delivery to focus on major institutional reform? The answer is no.
We are yet to see any detailed proposals but, when the Nature Recovery Green Paper was published back in March, it was clear a merger of the existing environmental arm’s length bodies into one was a preferred option. Since, there has been a new government and a new secretary of state for the environment, so whether that is still the plan remains to be seen.
For now, we are calling on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Secretary of State Thérèse Coffey and our friends and colleagues at Defra to heed our warning. The upheaval and lost focus from merging distinct functioning bodies could be long term, with several years before a new organisation would be settled and working effectively. But nature simply doesn’t have that time.
We’ve been here before
UK nature conservation has been here before. The formation of National Resources Wales (NRW) in 2013 saw the merger of Countryside Council for Wales – previously responsible for wildlife conservation – with the Environment Agency Wales and the Forestry Commission Wales. As was predicted, the RSPB’s experience is that the budget cuts since have disproportionately affected the nature element of the merged organisation’s work meaning that, ultimately, nature lost out. The actual cost of setting up NRW is forecast to have been £78 million by 2022-23, £9 million more than originally estimated. As the Westminster government grapples with a cost of living crisis, would a similar exercise in England really the best use of such vast sums of money?
Our new report proposes a different plan. And it’s so simple: we recommend empowering and better resourcing the existing agencies. Natural England, the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission and the Marine Management Organisation need better funding, with access to in-house expertise to ensure that government policy is underpinned by evidence. They need to be fully independent from the government to allow them to give advice free from political interference. Finally, all four should have a legal duty to recover nature, and mutual objectives to help them work together. This is a set of straightforward improvements that could be delivered immediately and would result in huge benefits for nature.
We hear repeated promises from the government about its commitment to recover nature in England. But it could achieve that just by making sure the experienced regulators we already have are able to do their jobs to protect nature and the environment. The alternative, lengthy and disruptive structural reform, is a waste of time and money. If it is allowed to happen it will do more harm than good.