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Last modified: 12 December 2012
Legal advice commissioned by the RSPB has suggested that plans for Natural England’s future are unlawful and will reduce their independence and ability to act as England’s watchdog for wildlife.
The RSPB sought advice on documents produced by the Government outlining the agency’s new direction next year, after concerns ministers want to prioritise economic growth at all costs.
Natural England (NE) is an arm’s length body which was set up to be an independent champion for biodiversity. However, the new rules would force it to take into account economic factors as well as impact on wildlife when advising on planning proposals.
This comes just days after George Osborne’s proposals, in his Autumn statement, for all non-economic regulators to have regards to growth – a fundamental shift from their current statutory remit.
A consultation on the future of NE is expected in the coming days as part of Defra’s triennial review into its agencies.
Mike Clarke, RSPB Chief Executive, said: “Natural England is one of the most important defenders our wildlife has in this country.
“It is critically important that it is free to provide impartial and scientific advice on matters within its expertise. If it is expected to factor in economic considerations before giving ecological advice, there is a serious danger that this will lead to ill-informed decisions and a failure to safeguard our most important sites for wildlife.
“There is growing consensus that our prosperity and well-being is linked to the quality of our natural environment. It would be short-sighted to trade this away in pursuit of a quick fix to the economic crisis we face.
“We were so concerned about this issue we have sought legal advice on current plans for NE’s future and this has confirmed our worst fears.
“Government must reiterate that NE remains an independent champion for wildlife with a clear focus on preserving and enhancing our countryside for present and future generations. This was what NE was set up to do by parliament and the threats to wildlife have not gone away – in fact they have grown.”
Natural England’s stated statutory purpose is to, ‘ensure that the natural environment is conserved, enhanced and managed for the benefit of present and future generations’.
The organisation’s current management plan requires it to act as an ‘independent champion of the natural environment, inspiring public support and holding the Government and others to account for their actions’. In stark contrast, the draft replacement drawn up by Central Government states that NE will ‘support the Government’s aims and priorities as effectively as possible’.
The RSPB believes this directly contradicts David Cameron’s own 2009 test for quangos. One of which was: ‘Does it fulfil a need for facts to be transparently determined, independent of political interference?’