Shuffling the deck-chairs?

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Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Shuffling the deck-chairs?

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When it comes to nature conservation and environmental protection, there are a few big tasks that only government can do.

Governments can set the ambition (bigger populations for species, more habitat), agree policy (to guide how we use our land and sea), establish laws (to protect species and sites) and secure resources from the exchequer to make this happen. 

But there are some jobs that are better done at arms length from central government: tasks such as enforcing the law, monitoring, providing technical advice, allocating incentives, supporting local projects and providing independent and expert information about the state of the natural world.  This is where the statutory nature conservation agencies have historically played a significant role. 

This work is complemented by an army of volunteer naturalists, landowners, businesses and the myriad of NGOs such as the RSPB.  In many ways it is quite a crowded sector, but there is a distinct role for bodies we refer to as 'the agencies'.

As well as the Forestry Commission, the future of Natural England and Environment Agency will be determined over the coming months.  Government is obliged to respond to the Independent Panel of Forestry report in early January and it is likely that it will consider the implications for Natural England and Environment Agency at the same time which are currently undergoing a ‘Triennial Review’ by government.

While this may seem like a rather bureaucratic exercise in shuffling deckchairs, this review matters.  These agencies play a crucial role in realising govenment ambition to "protect wildlife and ... restore biodiversity".  This is why I wrote yesterday that Ministers needed to take their time and have clear heads when deciding on the future of these bodies.  The crisis facing ash and woodland wildlife provides a challenging backdrop to these decisions.

We need strong independent champions of the natural environment which operate free from political interference and are able to offer truth about the state of the natural world to those in power.  And these organisations need to have the resources to do the job that government wants them to do.

The review provides an opportunity to take stock of the work these bodies do, and consider what changes (if any) could enhance their ability to deliver government commitments for the natural world. 

We have been working with other nature conservation NGOs to share our experience with government to influence the triennial review process.  We have urged caution about any changes that they propose to make.  We will need to be convinced that the proposed benefits from changes significantly outweigh the costs of upheaval and the serious distraction from the day to day job of protecting the environment that could result. 

But we are agnostic when it comes to government architecture and institutions.  The phrase 'form should follow function' must be the guiding principle for ministers.  Over the next few days I shall outline some of the real (natural) world challenges that the agencies face and offer some thoughts as to what this means for the future of these bodies.

If you have experience of working with these bodies or have a view about how their performance, it would be good to hear from you.


  • The real natural world challenge that these agencies and their NGO partners failed to protect us from was ash die back which we have imported and then planted across the country. The silence re responsibility on this catastrophe to my mind represents a degree of professional collusion in this "catastrophic" misjudgement. I hope for an inquiry re House of Commons Select Ctte but when all hands are tarred; what hope is there ?

    CCW and EA have amalgamated I believe in Wales and this was always the obvious move for a powerful and independent EPA in England. How will that go ; we wait? Instead here in England we have a muzzled English Nature with all the old MAFF civil servants in seniority over their EN counterparts at Natural England and both NE and EA silenced by the Coalition; this NE amalgamation was fought for by RSPB (as I remember) and has been very unsuccessful in my view. Obviously any more changes are not to be welcomed but what a mish-mash; but who an earth thought that this NE would be a good idea ? Where are the resignations re ash die back ?  Environmental protection has failed whose heads have rolled ?

  • I only have limited experience of working with the FC and NE in a volunteer interface capacity, but my impression of both is similar, and that is they always seem rather unforthcoming, not very good communicators and therefore not very easy to work with. I think this is in part due to considerable under resourcing, but also partly due to a rather secretive culture. No doubt confedentiality is necessary in many cases but I am sure in many other situations it is not and this overall approach they tend to adopt should be changed.

    As mentioned some time ago, the recommendation in the Independent Panel Report on our Forests, that Natural England review many of woodlands to see whether they should be afforded better protection, just seems impractical on a reasonable time scale, with the totally depleted recources that NE currently have.