Natural England has 'lost independence' due to repeated government cuts, chairman warns MPs

'What started as a cost saving has run over into something which feels more like less freedom'

Jon Sharman
Thursday 22 November 2018 17:15
Natural England has suffered 'destabilsing pressure' from repeated government cuts, chairman Andrew Sells warns MPs

Britain's nature watchdog has lost “a lot of independence” because budget cuts have left it without leaders of its own in a string of key posts, its outgoing chairman has said.

Andrew Sells told MPs that Natural England (NE) lacked a human resources director which meant staff had go to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to make complaints.

Mr Sells told parliament’s environment committee that was like a Metropolitan Police officer being forced to take a case of bullying to the Home Office.

The non-departmental public body sponsored by Defra, is responsible for ensuring that England's land, flora and fauna, freshwater and marine environments, geology and soils are protected and improved.

Mr Sells said that it was also missing a finance chief and communications department.

NE’s grant-in-aid has been cut by 47 per cent in the five years since he took charge, he said. This meant that funding for some of the agency’s key roles including monitoring the country’s most prized natural assets and sites of special scientific interest has dropped by even more than that because they are not ring-fenced.

Merging of office and IT functions which began as a cost-saving measure have spiralled due to “cut after cut after cut”, Mr Sells said.

“It made very good sense to have common IT systems," he told MPs. "But then we got into saying, or Defra got into saying to us and to other bodies, ‘Well actually now we’re going to integrate your finance function, and we’re going to integrate your HR function, and we’re going to integrate your press and comms function’.

“Running NE now is a very different thing from running it five years ago. I don’t have a head of comms to talk to about who we should get to this event or that, or get our stories out. If I want financial information I have to turn to someone in Defra, which I think raises quite serious questions about how the chief executive [of NE] can be the accounting officer because he hasn’t got a finance director.

“What I think started as a cost saving has run over into something which feels more like less freedom, frankly. I think, in truth, we have lost a lot of independence.”

NE has been unable to reassure partners at local level that it is doing its job because the lack of a communications team meant it could not get the word out, Mr Sells said, adding that he was aware that at times press enquiries for NE had gone through Defra’s communications team and the department had put its own spin on the responses.

“We think we have lost too much of our freedom to [get stories out],” Mr Sells said.

He added: “The difficulty is that all our money effectively comes from Defra. There’s an inherent contradiction in there – they want us to deliver their priorities, we say we’ve got 500 statutory duties and responsibilities [and] we want to deliver those. Five years ago, we could determine very largely what we did with our money and how we made the announcements. Now, we can’t.”

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Cuts have even been made during the financial year, Mr Sells told the committee, specifically £6m this year.

Even though NE had been able to “generate a bit more income from our own activities and find sources of finance from everywhere”, making the total overall budget cut about one-third over five years, “it’s very hard to run any organisation with that destabilising pressure”.

Earlier this month the environment secretary was accused of “poaching” some 50 staff members from NE to help with Defra’s preparations for Brexit.

Michael Gove’s department has recruited more than 2,000 staff to work on Brexit included 400 seconded or loaned from the Environment Agency and NE.

A Defra spokesperson said: “The work of Natural England and its staff to protect our invaluable natural spaces, wildlife and environment is vital and its independence as an advisor is essential to this.

“With the government’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment, Natural England will continue to have a central role in protecting and enhancing our environment for future generations.”

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