English Nature, the Government's independent wildlife watchdog which publicly opposed genetically modified crops, is to be replaced by a new conservation body which the Government claims will be a bigger and stronger wildlife and countryside champion.
Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, said yesterday that the new body would provide "independent policy advice", but did not confirm whether, as an non-departmental public body, it would be as independentas English Nature has been.
The announcement yesterday prompted concern from green pressure groups and conservationists, led by Sir David Attenborough, who said that an independent voice for wildlife and conservation in the English countryside was of paramount importance. "Anything that diminishes that is to be deplored," said Sir David.
Mark Avery, director of conservation for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. said: "Biodiversity is under tremendous pressure. Any new body built around English Nature must retain a strong independent voice."
The abolition of English Nature has been recommended as part of a lengthy review of service delivery to rural communities, carried out by Lord Haskins, the businessman-farmer and former chairman of Northern Foods, who is a close friend of Tony Blair.
The review was prompted by the merger, in the aftermath of the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001, of the Environment Department with the Ministry of Agriculture, to produce the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). There is a widespread feeling in Whitehall that Defra is too bureaucratic, with far too many funding schemes, inspectors and agencies. The review recommends cuts and devolution of services to the regions to make Defra leaner and simpler - and may involve several hundred redundancies. Farmers in particular would be happy with it, Lord Haskins said, because they have been receiving inspections from up to 16 officials from different bodies. He says that should be no more than three or four.
The Countryside Agency, which looks after national parks and access issues, and parts of the Forestry Commission, are also to be scrapped. They will be merged, with English Nature and grant-giving parts of Defra, into a big new Land Management Agency.
Mrs Beckett said the new agency would be "a single, stronger authoritative body, accelerating integration of work on biodiversity, natural resource protection and landscape issues in order to improve the environment across rural, urban, marine and coastal England".
Green pressure groups, while agreeing in principle, said too few practical details had been outlined. Tony Juniper, chief executive of Friends of the Earth, said: "We are very worried about what these changes may mean in practice. English Nature has been an increasingly effective independent wildlife protection agency, and no matter what happens, that role must remain. These proposals are the opinions of one of Tony Blair's businessman friends, not of a conservationist."
Some conservationists claim that the Government is scrapping English Nature because it has been too independent; for example, in calling for the large-scale trials of GM crops whose results, published last month, showed that growing the crops harms farmland wildlife. This has set back the GM cause, of which Mr Blair has been a keen proponent. Furthermore, many still remember the last conservation agency break-up when Nicholas Ridley, the Conservative environment secretary, dismembered what was then the Nature Conservancy Council into smaller and less powerful agencies for England, Scotland and Wales in 1989. Morale in the new agencies took a long time to recover, but English Nature eventually recovered its spirit, after Lady Young of Old Scone was appointed chairman in 1998.
Details of the shape of the new agency follow in the new year, but it is unlikely to be set up until after the next election.
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