Natural England ‘unable to protect wildlife’ say beleaguered staff

Press release from Prospect, Natural England’s staff trade union (10th November 2020):

Prospect launches second State of Natural England Report

A decade of austerity with pay cuts, budget cuts, cuts to grants and a decline in staff numbers is putting England’s natural heritage at risk.

That is the finding of the second report by Prospect into the State of Natural England which shows that the agency does not have the resources it needs to continue to adequately fulfil its responsibilities. The first report was published in 2019.

Over the past two years Prospect, the main union for workers in Natural England, has spoken to its members about their experiences at work, analysed budgets and grants, and assessed programmes. What we have found is an agency getting beyond crisis point.

Natural England is the body responsible for maintaining and protecting England’s natural environment. It is responsible for: protected sites such as national parks and Sites of Special Scientific Interest; countryside stewardship, helping farmers and landowners enhance the biodiversity of their lands; planning and development policy; the marine environment; ramblers’  favourites like the England Coast Path, and many more things which make our natural heritage what it is.

Natural England is at risk because its funding has been slashed and its workforce reduced. Natural England’s government-funded Grant in Aid budget has declined by 49% in six years and almost two-thirds over a decade. Over that time the agency has gone from more than 2,500 staff in 2010 to, we estimate, around 1,900 staff now.

Workers in Natural England were subject to a 1% pay cap for eight years. This has improved this year but the increase comes nowhere close making up for the real-terms losses of the past decade. There is also an 8.4% gender pay gap which shows little sign of being reduced.

This is the reality of government austerity and its effect on agency staff – highly qualified workers facing financial hardship, increased workloads, loss of pension accrual, terrible morale and looking to move elsewhere for a better deal. Successive ministers have made things worse by undermining and attacking the independence of the work of agency experts.

Prospect is calling for:

  • Natural England’s wide and important remit for people, nature and the green recovery, to be properly recognised and funded.
  • It’s autonomy as a non-departmental public body to be meaningfully restored.
  • The damage caused by the pay cap to be reversed and pay progression and pay equality, to be restored.
  • To achieve pay parity with the rest of Defra, particularly for pay scale minima and maxima.
  • To no longer be covered by the civil service pay guidance and be subject to an independent pay review body.

Download the full report.

Mike Clancy, Prospect general secretary, said:

There is a yawning gap between the government’s rhetoric on climate change, the environment and biodiversity and the reality of years of underfunding our environmental agencies.

Protecting nature means investing in the people who do that work. Natural England is at the heart of this agenda but it can only be effective if it is properly funded and the importance of its staff properly recognised.

The disproportionate cuts, out-dated and unfit pay framework, and significant pay inequality all need to be addressed. The UK has a world-class natural environment which is treasured by the public, but this natural heritage will suffer if the expert custodians of our natural heritage continue to be treated as second class public servants.


There’s also an article on this in today’s Guardian (here).

It might help a little bit if Natural England bosses stopped defending the pouring of money in to the insane Hen Harrier brood meddling trial, a conservation sham sanctioned by DEFRA and carried out by Natural England, in cahoots with the very industry responsible for the species’ catastrophic decline in England.

Although the actual ‘meddling’ bit is apparently being funded in a secret financial arrangement between the Moorland Association (grouse moor owners’ lobby group) and the National Birds of Prey Centre in Newent – the cost of this has not been made public, which you’d think would be quite crucial when it comes to assessing the viability of this ‘trial’ – there is still considerable cost in terms of NE project staff time.

And then there’s the equally ridiculous NE project to ‘reintroduce’ hen harriers to southern England, another conservation sham aimed at drawing attention away from the criminal onslaught in the uplands, and for which NE is forking out thousands of pounds to send staff over to Europe, along with satellite tags bought by British tax payers, to fit to harriers in Europe in what looks like a way of ‘persuading’ the European authorities to send young harriers to the UK for the ‘reintroduction’. More details on this shortly.

The question of Natural England’s ability to conduct effective monitoring and enforcement of the new General Licences was raised in a Zoom call between Wild Justice and DEFRA officials yesterday. Judging by today’s report from Prospect, there’s very little indication that NE will be up to the task.

10 thoughts on “Natural England ‘unable to protect wildlife’ say beleaguered staff”

  1. For me, any good they may do is overshadowed by will I guess to bend the knee for gamekeepers.
    Licences to kill wildlife in favour of commercial interests should never be granted, it is an outrage.
    Moreover NE supported the rolling out of flawed badger cull in England.

    I continue to have very little respect for this organisation.

  2. If they didn’t spend on brood meddling and the reintroduction into southern England, that would save a few bob.

    To quote Baldrick, “I have a cunning plan”

    “Stop killing Hen Harriers in Northern England and Scotland and let them recolonise naturally, I’m sure after a few years the numbers would increase sufficiently.”

    What a novel idea that would be, I wonder if anyone else has thought of that. I might apply for a job.

    1. I have no intention of sounding patronising, but not one of Baldrick’s cunning plans ever worked – indeed and whilst I accept wholly that the idea that the answer is for non-management will have some appeal – that may well work in The Rockies, or other areas of vast wilderness, but just about everything in the UK is in micro form and leaving nature to it will result in a greater decline, not an improvement.
      Our Flora and Fauna need considerate and careful management – less really isn’t more and when attempted, failure is the result.
      The aspect to mankind here in the UK which simply doesn’t give a toss about wildlife is in the majority – sadly. The majority are wrapped up in their own lives and work and careers and mortgages and children and their cars and their perceived positions in their worlds – – and it just goes on and on.
      Management only works when ‘balance’ is the criteria. Management doesn’t work when ‘Doing-nothing’ is the MO – again, it never has and it never will.

      1. ‘Our Flora and Fauna need considerate and careful management ‘
        Says one of the managers.

        This too wee argument is a joke. The reason wildlife crime is so difficult to stop is that there it is just too big.

  3. I’m sure there are a lot of well meaning would love to do more staff hanging on in there for their jobs and pensions. This rant is not aimed at them, as an organisation they are consistently inconsistent in interpretation and application of regulations, they dabble in areas better served by others (eg public education, health walks etc.). Sadly they have become a political tool and not what the late Derek Ratcliffe (Nature’s Conscience) had sought to achieve.

    However, as an observer in excess of four decades they may as well not exist as they have been neutered more each rebrand. They act as a wall to protect ministers and ineffective departments. That they can spend in excess of £2M on a building which initially had £600k allocated is just indefensible and verges on misuse of public funds when they fail to monitor the site it sits on. I could offer a catalogue of other cases but is there any point? Stop the pretense, own up and create a new organisation with teeth please.

    What nature really deserves is a truly independent organisation with powers …. ever an agnostic ;) Rant over (for now).

  4. This group’s time would be better spent in taking a wider view instead of concentrating slavishly on birds of prey. I have seen NCC/EN/NE get absorbed into the maws of Defra and its predecessors. It lost its remaining independence with the formation of NE when the new management failed to spot what was happening, they were hopelessly inexperienced and uninformed – but very confident of their own abilities. You would do better pressing Ministers to resource NE – or successor bodies – adquately to do its joband for it to have independence. Don’t expect OEP to come to the rescue.

    I expect to get flamed for this so carry on. The difference is that I speak from knowledge and experience.

  5. The Blair Government was the first to force the NCC/EN to include the infamous Hampton Principles into its core objectives, which placed the consideration of economic growth above that of conservation.

    This was a calculated move to monetise nature – something the staff of NCC/EN had no experience or ability to defend. The accountants were placed in control of our environment, and a price placed on the head of a Hen Harrier (for example) against that of employment in often deprived rural communities.

    The subsequent coup de grace to our lone statutory body supposedly ‘speaking up for Nature’ was the later de-funding which came under Tory and Lib Dem Governments…

    This is why (for another example) the imaginary economic ‘benefits’ of HS2 easily outweigh the losses to 80 ancient woodlands in the minds of accountants, and as far as Public Inquiries are concerned: they are forced by law to consider the Hampton Principles.

    Ultimately, it is also why the European Court of Justice were forced by the European Commission to allow Natural England and the Department of Transport to override consideration of the Habitats Directive regarding the supply route for HS2, in a case I brought.

    “In the wider scheme of things” said Natural England’s representative at the Public Inquiries “the loss of wild life does not matter”.

    Tellingly, Natural England could not get one of their ecologists to fight their case: they employed an Administrator (History graduate) and a Barrister to do the dirty work.

  6. Natural England is not supported in other ways too. The wishy washy laws that are supposed to protect ancient woodland hedge boundaries do not apply when next to a residence, so NE are not given the tools to protect it, even though they want to. This loop hole needs plugging. Perhaps the planning law needs changing to ensure (restrospectivly) that farm buildings when converted to residences have covenants added to the title deeds to ensure the hedgerow is maintained and any gaps filled.
    For example, a barn near me, that is converted to residential, systematically removes hedge trees each winter so that…..they can extend their garden (once a farm field) into the ancient woodland. It makes my blood boil. Someone with a legal brain please help NE and other concerned individuals rectify this situation.

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