An image speaks a thousand words, doesn’t it. Imagine being the person at Defra who decides which image to use for each story. “Natural England board members appointed.” Natural. England. Something natural perhaps. Hmm – perhaps a picture of a soaring Eagle. Ooh no, bit controversial they’re being shot all over the country. Ok how about a wildflower meadow? We don’t want to upset the farmers. Err dolphins? Oh god, that’ll just remind people that post-Brexit fishing is in a complete mess. Let’s just go with the Defra name plate. Keep it neutral, boring.
Yesterday Defra announced four new members have been chosen to join the Natural England Board. Natural England Board has ten members. The Board sets the strategic direction of Natural England’s work, and is in theory independent from Defra. In reality Natural England lost its independence when the Cameron Govenrment came in in 2010.
The Board members that are retiring are:
Andy Clements – who has had a long and illustrious career in bird conservation, latterly as chief exec of the British Trust for Ornithology – the BTO. The BTO gather the data on bird populations which is then used to influence how the land is managed, at least in theory.
Teresa Dent – chief exec of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. GWCT, or the Game Conservancy as they used to be known, have a foot in two camps, conservation and shooting. In the past they have produced valuable research on birds and other wildlife living on farmland, and how to tweak management for their benefit (mostly in order to shoot it).
Simon Lyster – Simon has worked in nature conservation at national and international levels for well over 30 years. He was a senior director at WWF and at one point Director General of the Wildlife Trusts, but I think it’s fair to say he was too radical for them back then.
Professor Mike Winter from Exeter University is a rural policy academic so has expertise useful for developing Natural England’s countryside stewardship agri-environment scheme.
All four of these have experience, expertise and a wide network of contacts with the environmental and conservation world.
The six that are staying are:
Tony Juniper – chair. Doesn’t really need an introduction.
Lord Blencathra – deputy chair. He’s mad keen on hunting, and I wrote about Lord Blencathra back in August 2018.
Marian Spain – newly appointed Chief Executive after a long period as stand-in. Marian was previously running my old stamping ground at Plantlife.
Catherine Dugmore – a chartered accountant from Price Waterhouse – the firm that ran the “industrial scale” tax avoidance factory.
Prof Sue Hartley – Prof of Ecology at University of York.
Henry Robinson – farmer with 1000 acres of land near Cheltenham; and former President of the CLA.
The four new directors are:
Kerry ten Kate – one of the leading lights globally in the natural capital movement. Kerry developed the ideas behind biodiversity offsetting. Kerry and Tony have worked together a lot over the years.
Rosamund Blomfield-Smith – worked in the city at Morgan Grenfell the blue chip merchant bank, before moving to Rothschilds and ING Baring. A city banker.
Kim Shillinglaw. A TV executive, Shillinglaw commissioned Horrible Histories at the BBC so deserves a lot of credit for that. She went on to head science and natural history commissioning, before a stint as controller of both BBC2 and BBC4, when 4 lost its own controller. She also commissioned Springwatch and Autumnwatch. In more recent times she’s been in the commercial sector at Endemol.
Peter Unwin. Unwin was a senior Defra mandarin when I spent far too much of my time at meetings with Defra civil servants, back in the day when that was my day job. Unwin left Defra in 2015, having first joined the Department of the Environment (DoE) in 1983. I remember Unwin as a senior figure, who would slip into meetings after they had begun, sit quietly listening and then slip out again, often without saying anything.
There you have it. Four senior figures from the conservation world, replaced by none.
This leaves the board with a hunter (and former Tory politician), two natural capital champions, a banker, an accountant and a former civil servant.
On the plus side, there’s someone who has a real expertise in engaging the public with stories about nature; an ecology academic, and a farmer who is undoubtedly interested in nature.
I understand Natural Capital is the only circus in town now, and that’s just reality, whether I like it or not. But Natural England is supposed to be first and foremost the Regulator, for the natural environment. I don’t get the impression from these new appointments, that regulation is going to be top of the list of priorities when the Board sets its agenda. Not just its agenda, but Natural England’s agenda.
As I discussed yesterday post-pandemic, and post-Brexit for that matter, society is having to deal with The Freeloader Problem, perhaps to a greater extent than it has in many decades. One way of challenging the Freeloaders is Regulation. From what I’m hearing, the Freeloaders are at work in the environmental sector just as much as they are elsewhere.
We need Natural England to be that strong effective regulator, more than ever.