Winds of change?

Deck chairs - but not on the Titanic. By dbking (Flickr: MVC-005F) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Deck chairs – but not on the Titanic. By dbking (Flickr: MVC-005F) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
I’m not the best person to write about organisational structures because this is a subject that sometimes makes my eyes glaze over.  Sometimes, but not always, and so this blog deals with just that subject and on three different levels.

Martin Harper has been dealing with the 3-card trick in his blog recently (here and here).  The three cards, which may be shuffled every three years (and this year is reshuffle time) are Natural England, the Environment Agency and that bit of the FC that will now be Forest Services.

The name of the game, led by Francis (bollocks) Maude (of whom we have thankfully heard very little in the last year, although unfortunately that doesn’t mean he has disappeared off the scene) has been to get rid of some cards through mergers or annulments.

Martin’s blogs are spot on about how raw a deal nature would get if NE were merged with EA.  I think that this would be a disaster and would be a very clear sign that this government means nature no good at all.  And Martin is also quite right that a merger of NE and Forest Services to create a Forest and Wildlife Service would be an excellent move.  In fact there are a few bits of EA which could be plucked from their current parent body and put into a Forest and Wildlife Service too.  I won’t go over this ground again as Martin has covered the ground so well.

What happens to government agencies or delivery bodies can also happen to government departments themselves.  Since all departments have shrunk in size over the last few years (except perhaps DFID) there will be a temptation to change the architecture of Whitehall departments.

There are some strange aspects of the division of labour between government departments.  For example, you might think that DFID, the Department for International Development spends its money on international development – but it doesn’t.  DFID has a patchy influence in funding some of the UK Overseas Territories, and that has always seemed odd to me.  And DFID is also the source of money that the UK pays to potential EU accession states (eg Turkey at the moment) so that they can do things to prepare themselves for joining the EU.  That always seems odd too.  A bit of rationalising wouldn’t do any harm at all.  Why not make the Foreign Office (FCO) the department responsible for all aspects of the UKOTs instead of, as now, spreading the responsibility between FCO, Defra (a bit and with no budget), DFID and DCMS?

We could get rid of Defra altogether; farming and fishing could go to Business, Innovation and Skills where the NFU would have a rude awakening of their real importance to government; the Food Standards Agency and all food-related stuff could go to the Department of Health; the natural environment could go to an enlarged DECC or even to DCMS.  Could nature do any worse than in its present home?

Maybe the Treasury should have a larger role in reporting on our natural capital – then they would have more of a stake in building it up rather than running it down?

However, generally speaking, I don’t think that fiddling with Whitehall departments would make much difference to anything.  The thing that makes the biggest difference, and this is a general truth (I claim), is who gets which jobs.  The right people in the right jobs makes more difference than the right organisation of government structures. How I wish we had the right ministerial team in Defra who would get on with their jobs and make a significant difference.  Structures and resources are important but it remains true that a small group of determined people can make a difference whatever the difficulties – and if they have political power then they can make a great deal of difference. Still, it’s difficult to see any really good politicians out there with a passion for the natural world and so it’s difficult to see the natural environment ever winning the jackpot in the Whitehall lottery.

Having dealt with agencies and government departments let us now turn to the tangled bank (see here, here, here, here and here); the mix of environmental NGOs. It seems more and more obvious to me that we have too many NGOs and that as a result, nature’s voice doesn’t get heard.

There were four organisations who did the most to get a Marine Act; the Marine Conservation Society, WWF, the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB.  A week ago I went on a march with/for MCS but didn’t see any of the other three involved in it.  This week I must get around to responding to the Wildlife Trusts’ request for me to respond to the consultation on MCZs.  I don’t think WWF has asked me to do anything on this subject although they clearly want more MCZs to be created.   I can’t find an ask on the RSPB website either (except for my money) although I did ge a letter from the RSPB (what a quaint means of communication these days) asking me to respond to the consultation.  It seems to me that we have four organisations who want the same things but aren’t working together quite enough to maximise the chance, for we supporters and for nature, that the desired result comes through.

I suspect that the same might be said for agriculture, climate change, forestry and almost every other issue.  The differences in view between Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB over neonicotinoids are quite small (and probably unnoticed by most of their supporters anyway) and yet the voice for nature is quite fragmented.

If we had a large number of wildlife NGOs who disagreed about things then it would still be rather annoying but at least it would make some sense to have so many of them, but the thing is that our wildlife NGOs actually agree about almost everything.  In which case, we should ask whether some mergers or much closer working would be the least we should expect of our present NGOs.  If you aren’t convinced then tell me why the NFU isn’t trying to split into the Hereford Bull Farmers Union, the Wheat Farmers Union, the Sugar Beet Farmers Union, the Free-range Organic Brown Egg Producers Union and all the other possible divisions of one voice.

Our NGOs need, if they are to influence government, to work much more closely together, with one voice – nature’s voice – if they are to make a difference in political advocacy.

Wakey wakey! Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F010753-0010 / Wegmann, Ludwig / CC-BY-SA [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de (], via Wikimedia Commons
Wakey wakey! Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F010753-0010 / Wegmann, Ludwig / CC-BY-SA [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de (], via Wikimedia Commons



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27 Replies to “Winds of change?”

  1. Forestry of course is moved into the Department of climate change as it stores carbon at a very cheap price. The Environment Agency like Natural England seems to do nothing these days so it go any where thanks to its staff letting it happen. Like a football team going down the pan as fans you make yourself heard not sit back and hope your job is safe. Lack of 'boat rockers' means you are just a pawn being moved around at will. You deserve what you get.

  2. The possible merger of EA, NE & the soon to be FS fills me with horror. The principle reason is the lumping together of all things 'environment' - this displays an already obvious lack of knowledge with regards the land management sector. What has happened to Sustainable Development? Is it, as it appears totally dead in England now?

    One big club which need not concern themselves with economy or social issues. A new logo, the purchase of many thousands of fleeces and the continuing disenfranchisement of people from landscapes and the nature within them. And their only method of voicing their concerns is to sign up to an NGO, who are obsessed solely on fragmented patches of outstanding beauty or high biodiversity value.

  3. Your analogy between the 'tangled bank' and the NFu is certainly thought provoking. It's made me seriously consider for the first time that a single Natures Voice is required. Something federal like Germany perhaps. With a strong central voice speaking to government and the public while retaining its diverse focus on species and habitats and the folk who are especially interested in them.

  4. Mark - I think there is a very good point lying within your blog today and we have probably been avoiding facing up to it for too long. There are probably too many conservation charities in the UK (OK, not as bad as the cancer charities) causing the fragmentation. This tends not to be helped by member-tapping (it is like player tapping in football - I cannot think of another way of describing it) on the back of the harder conservation policy decisions. I am not going to risk diverting the comments by naming a particular policy decision but basically, if the RSPB makes what could be a controversial decision, the Wildlife Trusts and the WWT can benefit simply by remaining silent. Indeed, I used to see a lot of jumping the ship voluntarily under those circumstances. One of my hopes was that some NGOs would remain strong but the threats of the recession have made for an even more cautious approach so I am not surprised to see you comments about the RSPB et al. Whilst I recognise the usefulness of having regionalised responses to conservation from the Wildlife Trusts, I am not sure they always get involved in a consistent way and ploughing a careful path through larger national issues is not helpful in the long run. So it goes on, and it would be easy to criticise each NGO on at least one point- The National Trust is arguably the largest of all and is at least in part, conservation organisation (and I do not just mean conservation o buildings)for exmple. Having said all this, I am not sure what the answer is unless we could see the creation of an ad hoc meeting of minds crewed by representatives from each NGO whenever a large subject for debate came up.

      1. Indeed, I just wish it would happen more often! I have an unsettling feeling that it is all too easy to divide and conquer when some NGOs hold back and wait for a reaction before they issue their own response. I note that you have made a similar point in response to Jonathan below.

  5. It may be true that the various wildlife NGOS could work together better than they currently do but I am not sure that mergers of a multiplicity of organisations into just one or two would be a good thing. Whilst the main bodies that you mention do tend to agree on most conservation issues, the fact that they are independent organisations, each with their own specialist knowledge, approach and policies is I think desirable as it fosters a diverse approach to solving conservation problems that might be lost in a a single conservation monolith. (Much the same concern really as that a single government agency taking over the separate roles of EA, NE and FC would leave some or all of the current responsibilities of these organisations inadequately covered). I also have a feeling - that may be entirely wrong - that it potentially does have more impact if RSPB, Plantlife, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, the Wildlife Trusts et al. all separately take the same message to government than it would if a single body, representing all of nature, were the sole spokesman.

    1. Jonathan - what if those organisations don't take the same message to government? How does diversity work then?

      And I don't think I mentioned a single coalition monolith, but we are a very long way away from that with dozens of conservation organisations.

      1. I think there can be a conflict here between efficiency and effectiveness. It is clearly rather inefficient to have so many wildlife NGOs, each with its own office staff, finances, CEO etc. Also I, like many others, cannot afford all the annual subscriptions to join too many organisations, so they are to some extent in competition with each other. However I agree entirely with Jonathan Wallace that it is probably more effective to have several different organisations all badgering government to do something, rather than just one or two large NGOs doing it. At the very least this may impress a government minister more because it takes up more of his/her time and keeps bringing thoughts back to the problem in question.
        We are probably lucky in Scotland in that we have just one Wildlife Trust for the whole country. This allows the SWT to employ a number of specialist staff and probably makes the management of many wildlife reserves more efficient (though the large geographical separation works against the latter). I am sure there is scope for some merging of NGOs, but the advantage of many voices singing from (more or less) the same hymn sheet must not be lost; and as has been pointed out, we do have the LINK organisations when a single voice is required.

      2. True, you didn't mention a single monolith, Mark, so I apologise if you feel I have implied you did.
        With respect to your first question, that is a fair point but I think that better collaboration between NGOs may be the best route to avoiding an unhelpful confusion of messages. Within reason, I think that there is a benefit to having a diversity of organisations pushing for nature conservation.

  6. Spot on I think Mark, the NFU isn't daft (sadly) they realise different splits would only weaken any political clout and money raised. I personally can't see the RSPB merging with other organisations, unless anyone on here knows any different. The point made by Ian P and the number of cancer charities is a little mute, for example the Macmillan trust will work with Cancer Research, Cancer Research UK have rediverted funds to smaller cancer charities at one point or another,next time a breast cancer advert comes on at the end of the advert you might see two other charity names appear (the ones who help fund the advert). The same can't be said about the RSPB, remember your blog post about oil soaked Guillemotts and my question as to why the RSPB can't/couldn't help fund those who were taking the injured birds in? Something about a Royal Charter etc. Though Ian also raises another interesting point about when one NGO raises an unpopular issue others seem to go quiet....perhaps this is why some were missing on the MCZ march and even more weirdly how some of those missing are asking for a summarisation from you! I can see your report turning up on/published with the following disclaimer "the views expressed are not the view of [insert ngo name here] but are those expressed by Mark Avery". I have to ask if they weren't there on the march Mark why would want to publish a summary for them?...ooops gone off topic again..soz

    1. Douglas - just to clarify what I meant about the cancer charities, I am aware that some of them work together but I was thinking more of how we perceive them. I know from my own experiences and those of friends that people will donate to the specialised branch (as you say, breast cancer for example) that is most personal to them. I am not sure this is efficient but you are right in that a couple of the charities act as umbrellas and that is far better than we see in conservation. However, it seems a quaintly British idea to have so many individual charities broadly pulling in pretty much the same direction on whatever subject we happen to be interested in. Incidentally, I still do not agree about your guilemott point - RSPB = conservation/RSPCA = animal welfare - although interestingly, the RSPCA actually work (to some extents) as an umbrella for independent wildlife hospitals albeit that they are not very upfront about it.

  7. Well in a strange way you are spot on about splitting the NFU as they cannot fight for what collectively farmers of different types want,for example all livestock producers really suffering due to very high cereal prices so what suits the cereal producers is the opposite to all those needing cereals for their livestock.
    Of course farming being the most important(even if clever people like yourself do not agree)industry(ask people to go without food and see what is really important)should definitely have its own minister.Whether he is strong enough to ignore the NFU is a judgement on him/her not the NFU which is just another union and in fact not that strong as farmers cannot strike as food in general perishes and has to be sold.
    Anyone thinking these wildlife organisations are important to the average person is very misguided,just look at the Badger Trust Membership,signatures on recent petitions to help BOP.Fact is farming much more important to ordinary person than conservationists in general understand,strangely they will criticise farmers for using too many herbicides etc and then walk round the back door at reserves and bingo herbicide sprayers on the back of tractor.

  8. Hello Mark, yes, there are too many wildlife organisations who seem more concerned for their organisation than for wildlife. Some wildlife organisations seem to be in a competition to see who gets which pot of money for their own projects. There are bound to be winners and losers. Perhaps a fairer system could be created. At present animosity between the competitors is the result and some areas loose out. Our environment and the wildlife that live there are treated as a business and competition is fierce. Is this what we want? I suppose it is too much to hope for co-operation among the interested parties!

  9. Look at the decision makers of any conservation NGO of size and you'll find diplomats and pen-pushers, much like any other sector. These 'leaders' do not hold their positions for any reasons other than glory (MBE please sir) and self-sustainability. They and their appointed underlings are tasked with 'chasing the money' rather than aiming to fulfil an ultimate conservation goal at local, landscape or national scale. This is why we see fewer 'reserve wardens', 'rangers', or 'employed naturalists', and find more 'recycling awareness officers', 'community engagement officers' or 'get-fit-with-nature-or-some-such-rubbish officers'. All these job titles are just fine and dandy if we have an unlimited pot of green money. But we don't. We need to prioritise. UK NGOs in the green sector have gotten very fat on being able to talk well and network or lobby. This hasn't achieved anything. We need to get back to trusting willing sergeants on the ground to care for our environment; doing rather than saying. Minimal guidance is required; man has been managing the land for millenia. Sure we make mistakes, but we also learn from them and have the ability to apply new knowledge. The biggest crimes come when that new knowledge (and even some old knowledge) is not given the chance to be applied, because it's being bandied back and forth across a multitude of NGO-owned polished teak meeting room tables before being abandoned in favour of the next targetted funding bid.

    So I blame the over-abundance of NGOs too. But mainly the big ones. They lose sight of the prize too quickly and too often. The smaller conservation charities usually rise up out of a need to fill an overlooked situation, to deliver within a niche that doesn't fit the profile of Sir Nationwide Trust-me-I'm-a-Dr's behemoth.

    It would be a great and worthwhile study if someone clever conducted an analysis of conservation NGO's individual spend. Let's find out what proportion of Tom, Dick or Harriet's hard-earned subscription fees (as well as DEFRA's, NE's and EA's grant funding) actually makes it on to the ground, as opposed to funding jobs for the boys in perpetuity...

    1. "It would be a great and worthwhile study"

      You could get the ball rolling - ferret about in the nether regions of their websites, for the stuff they don't want you to see. Boring-looking stuff buried in the appendix to the annexe in the back of the Annual Report, often in pale brown or grey 8pt print so you can't read it.

      If you don't think they are serving their core purpose, ask questions.

  10. This the first time I have posted a comment- so I do so with a bit of trepidation. As a supporter of various NGOs it has seemed to me for a long time that the message is becoming diluted and that there is plenty of green "fatigue". This can only play into the hands of the current government and vested interests. Its ideal from their point of view to have splintered movements on the "divide and rule" principle. The message simply gets blurred and the public people get bored. I am not on the inside of these organisations and get frustrated by the duplication of time and resources on certain issues, i.e the badger cull, MCZs and climate change.

    I suspect that the average person in the street has no idea what an MCZ is let alone what the issues are. The NGOs should pool their resources and have some sort of umbrella organisation which can drive issues forward. There is weight in numbers (just ask the Unions of the 1970s) and given that only about 65% of the electorate voted last time (just less than 30m), as a united force with all the members that they have, the environmental movement would, and should, have enough clout to make a real difference even in a first past the post system. It wouldn't prevent each NGO having its own specialisms but the big issues could be focused through a single jointly funded organisation.

    Of course there would be squabbling and some infighting but at least there would be a focal point. Otherwise the danger is that the smaller organisations such as the Badger Trust, who let it not be forgotten were the ones who successfully challenged the cull in Wales and brought the unsuccessful judicial review in England, get drowned out as campaigns build momentum and then splinter into various factions.

    The NFU, love it or hate it, seems to me to be an example of how this can work.


    1. Nick -thank you, and now you have dipped your toe in the water please come back often for a swim around the comments here.

  11. Mark - is there any sign from the shadow cabinet of "the right ministerial team in Defra who would get on with their jobs and make a significant difference / a small group of determined people can make a difference whatever the difficulties."? I seem to recall Mary Creagh saying some interesting things at the back end of last year which made me start to think here's someone who gets it, but when I then looked I didn't see much environmental coverage on her website. This was many weeks ago admittedly so may have changed.

    I'd like to believe that someone like her might be a "really good politician out there with a passion for the natural world" who might be in a position of influence should the next election not produce a Tory/UKIP coalition (now there's a thought...). It seems disappointing that as a former climate change sec Ed the Miliband hasn't spoken up more strongly on the environment and the coalition's record - or am I being unfair/did I miss it?

    1. MK - I am not totally won over by Mary Creagh yet. She has a nice line in political point-scoring but I am yet to be convinced that she would really feel at home as Defra Secretary of State. But I may be wrong.

  12. MK: check out which Natura 2000 site is in Ed Miliband's constituency and factor in the issues the site has suffered under his watch and continues to face now .... so I suppose we're back to the value placed on the natural environment by those who 'run' the country?

    As for any organisation not delivering core promises, bring on the scrutiny Filbert .... regretably we are only a representative democracy!

  13. Each individual society or organisation charges a subscription but would members of any two that merged pay double? I doubt it. So there is a risk of a loss of income to the sector. How much research has been done on cross over memberships?
    The NFU acts as an 'umbrella' body to some extent. There is the National Beef Association, the Znationsl Sheep Association etc
    The trick is in the relationship between them all. Here we come back to egos and the amount that the officers of one organisation will allow others to speak for them

    1. David - thank you. Would I pay double - probably not (so I would make a saving because I am paying double now). Would costs be reduced - yes, definitely - so I shouldn't have to pay double.

  14. Very interesting blog article. You are spot on that any merged of NE with EA will be devastating. As an ex-EA employee who has witnessed the internal operations of the EA, I know first hand what a merger will mean for NE. I'd be happy to share my experiences here. I have started a blog on this also, as the contempt for tax payers and licence payers is disgraceful. More money is spent on containing bad PR than protecting the environment, and most people working here are just happy to be on the gravy train.


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