Natural England steps into the Tumbrel


The Maiden, the Scottish forerunner to the Guillotine

Liz Truss has apparently already agreed to a 32% cut to the Defra budget for the 4 years from 2016-17 onwards. This impressive feat allows her to sit on the panel which resides over the imposition of cuts on other, unprotected departments. Truss is an acolyte of the Chancellor, whose ideological mission seems to be to dismantle as much of the public sector as he can before anyone can stop him. Farmers Guardian has already suggested some areas which could be affected by this cut.

Looking back at a previous post, I see that Defra had already taken a £32% cut from 2010 to 2015. By 2020 Defra’s non capital budget will be down to £1.2609 billion, a reduction of £500m a year spending from the current financial year and effectively halving Defra’s expenditure from 2010 (£2.46bn) to 2020.

This level of spending cut is catastrophic under any terms. Natural England, which is by no means the largest public body funded by Defra, will see further severe cuts to its workforce. It’s unlikely we will see any further moves to protect wildlife by notifying them Sites of Special Scientific Interest – indeed as Mark Avery has written, The Gate Zero project appears to be a new mechanism to prevent SSSIs from being put forward for protection. Given the controversy surrounding recent (ahem grassland) notifications, such as  Lodge Hill, Rampisham Down and Benty Grange, this is not entirely surprising. Lodge Hill was apparently discussed at Cabinet level and it seems entirely plausible that Osborne would have been thumping the cabinet table demanding that someone rid him of these pestilent ecologists, given his tirade against wildlife “placing ridiculous costs on development”.

Funding to support the management of SSSIs resides within the Agri-environment budget, now known as, in yet another example of “back to the future”, Countryside Stewardship. This comes from the EU and is therefore exempt from the current and coming cuts.  Of course if Britain leaves the EU (or more accurately if England leaves the EU, since brexit could trigger a wave of devolution/dissolution), the funding for agri-environment will disappear. Will the Treasury replace it with domestic expenditure? Dream on. Natural England is also the agency which oversees protection of wildlife through the European Birds and Habitats Directives. The cuts could well prevent NE from protecting the sites, habitats and species on the Directives, leading to punishment from the European Court.

Of course Natural England does many other things beyond SSSIs – but if it cannot fulfil its function of protecting England’s very best wildlife, then it doesnt augur well for its other functions, especially non-statutory ones.

Does anyone care? Would anyone mourn Natural England’s passing? Outside of the rarified world of conservation organisations and their more active supporters, it would appear not. Compare the impending loss of Natural England with moves to reduce Environment Agency spending on flood control, let alone the brouhaha around the proposed sale of a lot of very boring Forestry Commission forestry plantations, mostly frequented by dog walkers.

The simple sad truth is that there is no mandate for nature in England. Until many more people care about nature in their own lives, nature in their own communities, nature will be seen as expendible, and agencies like Natural England will quietly step into the Tumbrels, to await the Guillotine.

photo: “The Maiden” by David Monniaux – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in Defra, George Osborne, Liz Truss, Natural England, SSSis and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Natural England steps into the Tumbrel

  1. John Jones says:

    Your commentary on what is happening is so depressingly and, once the Tories were re-elected in May, so predictably true. Since replacing Owen Paterson, Liz Truss hasn’t shown much public enthusiasm for the work of her department and was presumably appointed to manage a run-down of its activities. The recent ‘revelation’ on Channel 4 News that Rory Stewart has been expressing a desire in Europe to water down the European Nature Directives seems designed to reduce further the obligations on the British government. Depressingly there is barely any opposition to any of this and even amongst those of us who are interested in wildlife and nature conservation there seems little conviction that in order to keep it we will have to fight for it. Organisations like the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts, good as they are in many aspects of conservation, are reluctant to lead a fight and keep their opposition to government policy fairly low key, perhaps out of concern about their charitable status and the repercussions that may follow any more combative activity on their part. What can individuals who oppose government policy do without the leadership of a campaigning organisation like the RSPB? We can write to MP’s, sign petitions, join campaigns etc but none of this seems particularly effective, important though it is to continue doing it. I wonder how many of us do get involved in this way. The RSPB has over a million members but only just over 20000 have signed Mark Avery’s petition on driven grouse shooting, only just over 8000 of the Wildlife Trusts 800,000 members have signed up to be ‘friends of marine conservation zones’. Is there the appetite amongst more than a minority of people ‘interested’ in wildlife to do something more than just be a member? I think not and it depresses me.

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks John. Sorry to be depressing – I have also been privately castigated for being downbeat (you know who you are) from within NE”s hallowed chambers. We can and do need to take action for nature, and we need to convert the millions of tv wildlife documentary viewers and RSPB et al members into people who are passionate about nature and who make their feelings known to politicians like Truss. But more than that, we need to change the way the public feel about nature, and change the way we talk about nature, changing the language we use, and using different approaches to get across the way we feel about nature. This is what I am hoping to do with People Need Nature.

      • John Stone says:

        The way wildlife is presented on TV does nothing if not put across the image that nature is a problem elsewhere but not here. Spring and Autumnwatch are happy clappy and celebratory: the more hard hitting stuff is always focused elsewhere. Until we are prepared to tell it the way it is, then how can we expect the public to understand the scale of the problem. This Government that will brook no criticism has ensured that the BBC will not challenge it; and serious journalism has gone the way of the Great Auk. Where is the Panorama expodition of Government failings on biodiversity policy? Nobody is holding them to account.

      • Miles King says:

        thanks John. While I agree up to a point, I think the public are innured to stories of environmental devastation and this approach alienates and makes people feel powerless. I am happy to continue to highlight things which I think have gone wrong on this blog (and suggest solutions0, in the safe knowledge that I am not writing for a public audience.

        In that sense I think things like Springwatch are the right approach because to a wider audience of several million, they are saying nature is fantastic, essential part of our lives and encouraging people to get out there and experience and enjoy it.

        While I love the Attenborough spectaculars (such as the latest one on predators) I think that Springwatch is more effective at connecting people to nature, as opposed to regarding nature as somewhere out there, in a remote corner of the world, and often portrayed as pristine (how often do you see a person in those progs?).

  2. David Dunlop says:

    There’s a growing sense of disconnection fronm imagined nature and self-reproach for it since the early 19th century, at least amongst “the chattering classes”:

    “The world is too much with us; late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
    Little we see in Nature that is ours;
    We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
    This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
    The winds that will be howling at all hours,
    And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
    For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
    It moves us not.”

    William Wordsworth (1806)

    Here’s fervently hoping you and others have found or find ways to recover that “bright confident morning again” that Robert Browning thought William Wordsworth had later abandoned Whatever I’ve been doing all these years, as have so many others, it’s not been very catching. So little time, so many people, so much getting and spending…

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks Dave. Perhaps you have a role to play, with your expert knowledge of poetry and nature?

      • David Dunlop says:

        I wonder…

        In Memory Of W B Yeats

        “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
        Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
        For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
        In the valley of its making where executives
        Would never want to tamper, flows on south
        From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
        Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
        A way of happening, a mouth.”

        W H Auden (1939)

        as, frustratingly, poetry’s not been very catching either…

      • Miles King says:

        Thanks Dave. Sometimes “a way of happening” is exactly what is needed.

  3. kitenet says:

    Arguably the last 20 years or so have seen more resources going into ‘public engagement’ / outreach / citizen science than ever before, with numerous organisations and funders targeting this aspect of conservation work. Why has this not produced more support for the campaigns you mention? Either the public just isn’t bothered, or we’re doing the communicating badly. I hope it’s the latter, for that at least offers the hope we can do it better in future.

  4. Reblogged this on Cambridge Aromatherapy and Massage and commented:
    When will her title be officially changed to, “Minister for the destruction of the Environment?”

  5. Mark Fisher says:

    “a lot of very boring Forestry Commission forestry plantations”

    Cheap shot, Miles, when FC woodland is for many people the only openly accessible woodland they have near them.

  6. Pingback: New additions to the Defra Board are unlikely to upset Truss or Eustice | a new nature blog

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