Will cuts to Natural England hurt nature conservation?

Although it’s good news that Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) will be spared the axe of the  comprehensive spending review – what about the people who administer the grant scheme?

Natural England faces a heavy budget squeeze – they’ve had a recruitment freeze for most of 2010. Delays to applications already suffer significant delays, and the expectation among NE staff is that there will soon be fewer of them… to do the same work!

Dr Martin Warren at Butterfly Conservation said “It is great news that extra funds have been found to support HLS, which is crucial for halting the decline of our farmland wildlife, including many declining butterflies and moths. But it is difficult to reconcile these cuts with the claim to be the Greenest Government ever. We will be monitoring the true impact closely as the situation becomes clearer in coming months”

Mark Avery at RSPB said, “Organisations like the Environment Agency and Natural England will be considerably smaller and there will be less money available to spend on conservation projects aimed at halting the decline in biodiversity in this country.”

People worth their salt

I hope Natural England doesn’t get rid of the teams who make Environmental Stewardship really work. NE has specialist advisors on the ground, working with farmers and landowners to help them choose the best options and pushing for best value for money in each grant aid agreement. These people are precious to England’s wildlife. (The same applies for each national agency, obviously. Sorry, I would comment more specifically on the other parts of the UK, but only want to write about what I know. )


Could pro-active change be more effective than cuts?

Defra has to consider what it’s trying to achieve. Bear in mind the UK’s failure to deliver biodiversity targets – along with everyone else floundering at the UN Biodiversity Convention at Nagoya. Why constrain Natural England at this point?

I’m all for chopping bureaucracy – and there are bound to be savings ripe for the picking – but they must be cost-effective. Some of the people I speak to over the phone are new to the job (a worrying proportion of them) and whilst I believe they should keep and invest in current staff, NE could save money by simplifying the process, and using the most knowledgeable office staff to tackle queries and problems.

In fact, a new web-based FAQ forum could ease the enquiry workload and help everyone to get things done faster.

The government could also save money by removing barriers to effective collaboration between agencies and government departments. One bloody obvious example – NE and RPA use different mapping systems and databases. Each has different field data sets for the same farm. This guarantees a particular rate of failure to get things right first time – probably close to 100% based on my experience.

Ask any ecologist or farm wildlife adviser – we can expect errors to be embedded in the application pack they produce. Field numbers, maps, contact details… everything needs checking and single errors can require replacement of the whole pack. (a kilo of paper?) Oh, and if you’re organic, you can expect your of certifying body to keep an out-of-date land schedule, with different field numbers. That in itself could delay your application, and might be worth updating with the current RLR numbers. The waste generated by dysfunctional system is massive.

Jason Ball


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