Bonfires and beacons

] {{Fir0002}} “]Despite the soggy weather, beacons have been lit across the UK to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee.  Spare a thought for the inhabitants of Tristan da Cunha and their Jubilee beacon.

When the most remote Jubilee beacon in the world was  lit, its flames were fuelled by the bodies of invasive species of plants.   Work to clear New Zealand flax, loganberry and other invasive plants is creating space for endemic species to return and the dead vegetation has to be destroyed, so the Island Council agreed this was a practical course of action. More than 40% of the Tristan archipelago is conserved for rare birds, plants and other wildlife and two of its islands, Gough and Inaccessible are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Since the Coalition Government came into power (what is the point of the Liberal Democrats by the way?) we have been seeing a slaying of the quangos – some would say a bonfire.  The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the Sustainable Development Commission, and their excellent reviews of the state of things, are no more.  And those roles have not been adequately replaced by government, government agencies nor, yet, by the NGOs.  They have just disappeared – there is not even a burning ember or the smell of smoke on the air to remind us of them.

Quango stands for quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation and is a horrid little word. There is some debate about what they are and how many quangos exist. Bodies such as Natural England would once have been called quangos, and since the term is usually used as a term of abuse, they sometimes still are referred to in that way eg in the publicity campaign that preceded NE’s change of mind over Walshaw Moor.

However, we can no longer refer to NE as being quasi autonomous – they appear not to have any autonomy at all.  We need to learn to call such bodies delivery agencies. And what are they delivering?  They deliver government policy and perhaps Ministerial whims.

Government is there to be shot at – despite everyone always saying that praise works so well, I do not know of an organisation that exists simply to praise all the good things done by government.  And so, if bodies such as Natural England are now delivery bodies how should we interact with them?  Are they, whoever ‘we’ are, on ‘our’ side or ‘their’ side?

I’m not sure that we have all yet come to terms with this change.  The same people are working for bodies such as Natural England (just fewer of them!) and so one’s friends and colleagues in NE still feel like friends and colleagues.  For those friends and colleagues, I hope we still feel like friends and colleagues too.  But the world has changed and in NE you need to look to your Minister’s wishes to a far greater extent than ever before and that may put you more often in conflict with your friends and colleagues.

Organisations such as Natural England used to attract a very different type of person from the Civil Service.  NE’s (and before them NC’s, NCC’s and EN’s) staff were often similar in outlook to those of NGO staff but had chosen a different route to express their love of nature and passion to protect wildlife.  These days it is much more difficult to encourage young nature enthusiasts to head for the statutory sector as the job security is less certain but more importantly, the chance that you can make a difference to nature seem to me to be materially reduced.

When I started writing this blog I hadn’t foreseen the point I am now going to make; there are three of our list of ‘new Elizabethan’ naturalists who made a huge difference through the statutory nature conservation sector.  Max Nicholson almost invented the statutory sector (and much of the rest of the system that has been handed down to us), Norman Moore worked eminently in that sector and Derek Ratcliffe was a campaigner and visionary within the statutory sector whose like we have not seen since.  How would they all view the current state of affairs, I wonder?

There seem to me to be two consequences of the change in status of our quangos – and neither has yet been properly implemented.

First, NGOs need to raise their game to fill the void.  They need to speak out more and to produce more telling and authoritative reports and statements of what is wrong and how it should be put right.  Maybe it’s difficult to do this when money is tight but it seems to me to be an inevitable consequence of the current situation.

Second, government, in our case Defra, needs to fill the void it has created too.  If NE cannot speak independently on all matters to do with nature conservation then we should hear much more from Defra to explain what is happening.  This has signally failed to happen. Defra has shut down NE’s ability to speak out and not bothered to fill it itself.

The justification for trimming the sails of over-exuberant quangos is, and there is some truth in this, to recapture the policy voice in the government department where resides the democratic responsibility for policy.  But that necessitates a replacement of the quango’s voice with argument, explanation and justification from the department.  We see precious little of that from Defra and that is not good enough.  The statutory conservation voice has been snuffed out, not transferred.  A beacon has been doused.





9 Replies to “Bonfires and beacons”

  1. With the National Parks now under attack by this government when will the public wake up as it is their money which is being used to destroy Natural England and the National Parks.

    1. Janet – Welcome! It has been silenced – cannot imagine NE speaking out in forestry (as it did in 1980s) or GN crops (as it did in 1990s or marine protection and raptor persecution (as it did in 2000s) these days. That’s just a starter.

      1. Thanks Mark. I wasn’t paying attention in previous years so was unaware of NE’s ‘voice’.

        As a complete amateur in this area (a member of the public in fact) I haven’t yet got a grip on which group (NGO/quango/trust/department etc) does what and who has any power. Is this part of the problem – no one else does either?

        1. Janet – maybe. You’ll have to forgive me (I hope) for plugging my forthcoming book, Fighting for Birds – 25 years in nature conservation, as a good introduction to the inside workings of nature conservation.

  2. Well we must not think that DEFRA will do anything other than do as they are told by Government and E U,they care too much about there jobs to be anything but yes men and while I have a certain amount of sympathy with that fact the way they carry out some of their instructions with threats of consequences if you do not comply is similar to what happens in Country’s that we consider ruled by oppressors.

  3. A relatively cosy world for the conservation NGOs changed dramatically with the last election. Having been there, at the centre of the wrong side of the Flow Country, I know what it feels like – but am also surprised and concerned at the lack of effective leadership in difficult times. The Forestry Commission is here today because it didn’t just change, it changed in a focussed, driven and inmaginative way that recognised it would go the same way as English Hen Harriers if it didn’t.
    You can’t always choose your battle ground: forestry at least grabbed the Government’s attention, but it wasn’t in the NGO game plan and in any case FC wasn’t meant to be popular. Round two is coing up with publication of the panel report on 4th July – will the NGOs capture and ride the Zeitgeist this time round ?

    Whilst you are quite right, mark, that Government isn’t there to be praised theres a limit to how long you can run on a purely negative agenda and its been obvious to me at least that compassion fatigue would eventually set in + if, as with the NT planning campaign, all you do is object to other people’s proposals you’ll pull them back (as NT very successfully did) but you always end up a little behind – to go forward there must be new, positive ideas – they are out there but they aren’t being deployed.

    Part of the problem is Defra – and conservation’s fixation with it – you’ll note in the blog Defra is used as a cipher for Government. But it has limited power, less ability to get things done and minimal influence across Government – FC made far more progress through ODPM/DCLG and BIS/DECC than ever through Defra.

    Technical ability to replace NE’s exepertise ? Look no further than the famous Commons forestry debate where every backbencher briefed by local people & businesses was better informed than the Secretary of State who relied only on Defra briefing, having cut FC out as ‘biased’ – just as they are doing to NE. Then loom at the Buzzard fiasco.

    Its got to stop – the politics may be entertaining but it simply isn’t funny. This isn’t dogma it’s just simple incompetence and both Governing parties need to get their act together, not least by consulting their own experts who from my experience are both committed and impartial.

    A very interesting discussion.

    We’ve got an emotional issue – forest sales – and the Government’s attention – the Forestry Panel.

    How about:

    RSPB wants more heathland. Carbon & deforestation are serious vulnerabilities. WT wants more woodland. Confor is concerned about the loss of conifer volume, so why not some mixed woods ? With cross sectoral support they could be much bigger, especially if they breathed life into the carbon code. WT wants its woods closer to people – Ramblers could build a new access agenda based on the rapidly extending peri-urban network of wilder land, led by FC, RSPB & WT. And perhaps an early example could set a planning precedent by attaching a large area of wilder woodland/habitat/ open access to a housing development ? NT ?

    Actions may speak louder than words in a policy free, dogma driven brave new world.

  4. My initial reaction to this excellent blog was to comment on the FC position, which whilst not a Quango but civil servants, their voice has been somewhat tampered with also, only to see Roderick Leslie’s comment take many words out of my mouth but many more thoughts to my brain added. Leaving aside the somewhat appalling desperation of Defra to understand the very basics, let alone comprehend the complexities of biodiversity (to such an extent they investigating the trading of it) leads to the easy conclusion that like lawyering (as Johnathon Swift advocates but has been totally ignored), science should really be kept out of government hands completely. Forestry is a science, like conservation is a science – you cannot silence it if you do it is no longer science. And as the team behind the save our woods website have proved it is discussion itself, (the realising of science), which can progress forestry, conservation and host of other countryside issues. It is therefore nothing more than dictatorial to silence anyone in any organisation in this time we need every voice possible, and considering that many governmental departments (remembering that the Forestry Commission do not have representation on the forestry panel) including the quasi have been able to hire and maintain many of the best brains available, this is more than an outrage it is despicable and would appal Dickensian society.

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