Not the worst thing ever? But surely not the best.

There was a lot of discussion about the EA dropping their biodiversity role because of cuts last week.  Everyone squealed (see here and here) that this was a bad thing – as they were meant to do because that makes the cuts more difficult.  I’m not so sure.

I’ve never really thought that the EA fully deserved the word ‘environment’ in its title – from the way it behaves.  Certainly the way it behaves over the natural environment.  I can absolutely recall some of those that are dismayed by EA’s proposal now, being dismayed by EA’s lack of vigour in protecting biodiversity back then.

Cuts to environmentally-orientated agencies rarely help  the environmental cause so it’s clearly not a ‘good thing’ but if it means that NE has more clout on all matters to do with biodiversity then that could be good.  In the past I have felt that NE and EA have tripped over each other sometimes – each wanting to be ‘in charge’ but neither wanting to do much.

I am much more worried about the lack of confidence and vigour in the statutory agencies than in their lack of budget.  They could do so much more than they have recently done, with even less money than they currently have.  Now that isn’t going to happen either.

When it comes to building statutory agencies back up again, as it will, let us look carefully at the roles of NE and EA to ensure they each have clear roles and are funded and motivated to carry out those roles.

I find it difficult to cry for the loss of a function that was carried out, at best, patchily.

And yes, just as there are many good farmers, and some saintly gamekeepers, there are also many EA staff who do their very best for biodiversity – I could name quite a few, but that doesn’t mean that EA as a whole has been great for wildlife conservation.  We could do better.

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16 Replies to “Not the worst thing ever? But surely not the best.”

  1. Dear Mark

    I am afraid to say that in this instance a primary focus on birds gives a distorted view of the situation.

    Across the board the Environment Agency is the agency that works to conserve aquatic wildlife, Natural England has dabbled by comparison. Also when it comes to the spatial planning system Natural England DOES NOT represent biodiversity, but the Environment Agency did.

    Here are three examples:-

    1) The Riverfly Partnership – a coalition of conservation and fishing bodies concerned about the future of and monitoring the status of riverfly populations was funded to the tune of £150,000/annum by the EA, they have cut this to £50,000, we could barely get an NE staff member to attend meetings.

    2) The Environment Agency was the force behind work to conserve the White-clawed crayfish. In 2012 there were 21 projects in the UK focussed of saving the native crayfish and creating ark sites but in 2014 there are only two left and there is NO work to create vital ark sites! See more at http://www.buglife.org.uk/blog/matt-shardlow-ceo/britain-too-poor-wildlife .

    3) The impacts of the loss of the Environment Agency as a funder of conservation work for the Freshwater pearl mussel are even more profound. As you are probably aware more than 50% of world population of this internationally endangered species occur in the UK, but in England and Wales most of the populations have had to be taken into captivity because pollution meant they were no longer viable in the wild. It is currently unclear how these populations will be maintained or returned to their rivers when the EA stops funding the work.
    I could continue with a long list of species that the EA has been sustaining or researching.

    In the planning system Natural England only covers the Wildlife and Countryside Act and the Birds and Habitats Directives, Natural England DOES NOT provide advice on biodiversity – on the species and habitats protected by the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act (and SNH is just as, or more, narrow in its approach as well).

    This means that in terms of developments Natural England are only of use to you is you happen to be named on an SSSI citation, be a bird or be one of the tiny number of other animal and plant species listed under the Wildlife and Countryside Act or Habitats Directive.

    The Biodiversity Lists are where most of the species that are threatened with extinction by development reside, many are not on SSSIs and they do not appear on Natural England’s ‘alert map’ that they use when determining which planning applications require a response.

    On the other hand the Environment Agency would comment on species that were not on the WCA. In many cases the EA would object because terrestrial biodiversity was threatened while NE was silent on the matter.

    Would you scrap Natural England because its coverage is patchy – no some patches are better than none!

    I agree that in theory Natural England could take on aquatic biodiversity delivery work, but there is no indication that they want to or have the resources to replace the £100,000’s of cuts that the Environment Agency is making. Or how this would relate to implementing the Water Framework Directive.

    If the EA becomes primarily a climate change adaptation agency perhaps it would make more sense if it was based in DECC rather than DEFRA?

    In terms of saving biodiversity form planning Buglife has been meeting with NE for many years and every time we ask them how close they are to being able to represent biodiversity (S.41 list) in the planning process, every time it is a year or two away, but it has never happened. How can Defra or the NGOs expect biodiversity offsetting to work if neither NE or the EA are paying any attention to what is happening to our most endangered species and habitats in the planning system?

    Come on Mark, birds are under 0.2% of our species, you often give a thought for the rest, why not this time!

    Matt Shardlow
    CEO
    Buglife

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    1. Matt - you could hardly make a better case for making it clear where the job of representing biodiversity should lie. At the moment it is split to biodiversity's detriment. It's nothing to do with birds or wider biodiversity - it's to do with who has the responsibility and whether that is clear.

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      1. Surely biodiversity should be a responsibility across Government and whether you are a Local Authority, Defence Estates, or the EA you should be ensuring that biodiversity in your sphere of influence is protected and conserved. Again this principle is embodied in the NERC Act biodiversity duties, but is not properly implemented.

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          1. So this is a significant retreat for biodiversity in Government and should be condemned.

            NE surely will struggle to replace all those lost Local Authority ecologists and biodiversity officers, and EA’s contribution which was big and very significant.

            Perhaps NE would like to state publically if they will be stepping into the empty biodiversity shoes of the EA?

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  2. Why not combine the EA and NE with clear roles and sufficient funding for the new organisation. This opportunity was ignored in last years triennial review. This is a sign of poorly led protection of our environment in the mis-belief that building houses people cannot afford will reverse the recession. The recession was caused by the banking system. It will take a reversal of the way banks work before the recession starts to recover.

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    1. Diapensia - I think it would make sense to move the biodiversity functions of the EA into NE - but not to merge the two organisations. that's my view, anyway.

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  3. What is very clear is that if both organisations are facing a combination of funding cuts, job losses and morale-sapping sniping from government ministers and others, biodiversity will suffer. The more obscure forms of wildlife are likely to take the greatest hit because they are little known in the first place and so it is easy to overlook impacts on them and secondly even when the impacts are identified it is not easy to rally support for little known organisms such as most invertebrates and lower plants that most people would not be able to recognise. It is vital that Defra ministers should understand exactly what they risk losing and ensure that both organisations maintain the appropriate levels of expertise to be able to advise on the impacts of developments on all elements of biodiversity.
    The Environment Agency is involved in many areas of land/water use with major ramifications for wildlife including permitting abstraction and effluent discharge, industrial pollution permitting, flood defence schemes amongst others so if it does not have biodiversity expertise of its own it would be necessary for it to work very closely with Natural England. In an ideal world it would have its own expertise and work closely with NE.

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  4. Maybe we should devise a system that combines all these disparate departmental functions and areas of expertise under one national umbrella - something like the Conservancy of Nature perhaps, or Nature Conservancy......

    I expect there would be many economies of scale to be had - much cross-fertilisation of ideas, expertise and knowledge sharing would be facilitated - and the body/agency would be able to speak with one voice, from a position of reasonable authority. Just a thought.......

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    1. I am not sure how comfortably EA's former Her Majesties Inspectorate of Pollution (HMIP) functions would sit within such an organisation. These include permitting industrial installations, waste management permitting and related activities.

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      1. Room for all under the 'big-tent' I envisage. At least the consequences of the various 'permitting' functions would be understood better, and following hopefully joined-up, all-informed discussion/investigation, either nipped in the bud or pointed somewhere more appropriate/less damaging, if deemed detrimental to important ecosystems/habitats.

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      2. "I am not sure how comfortably EA's former Her Majesties Inspectorate of Pollution (HMIP) functions would sit within such an organisation"

        Very uncomfortably I would venture to suggest. You cannot have an organisation tasked with responsibility for inspection and enforcement of statutory legislation also responsible for providing voluntary advice and training - there is a clear conflict of interest.

        Agriculture provides a good example of this. Are farmers likely to invite an organisation to come onto their farm ( e.g. Catchment Sensitive Farming, Soils for Profit etc) to provide advice on potentially sensitive issues such as Nitrate Vulnerable Zones, IPPC, SSAFFO knowing that the same organisation is also responsible for legal enforcement ? Of course not, it would be an untenable situation for both parties.

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  5. Those people proposing the EA biodiversity function be moved into NE forget that part of the reason the EA has a biodiversity function is to advise their own internal works as much as anything else. The NERC act makes it clear that public bodies should have this resource. Many Local Authorities don't have an ecologist anymore, and as a previous poster mentioned, NE aren't interested if its not a site or species covered by the WCA or the Habitats regs as they don't have the staff either. Plus, sine the Torys came into power, they set he policies that these organisations have to follow. They are no longer 'independent'.

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  6. As an ecological consultant, I agree with Billyo. The EA have been extremely helpful on a number of schemes I have worked on (especially when an LPA has been lacking an ecologist) with their expertise in freshwater habitats and species. Their input and expertise has helped ecological enhancement measures achieve more for wildlife (particularly on the landscape/catchment scale that the EA work on) than would otherwise have been the case. I'll miss them.

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