The Natural England Board is looking for a scientist.
This type of role might once have looked quite attractive when Natural England was seen as an organisation that worked hard for the conservation of nature, but is now far less attractive when it is difficult to see Natural England as anything other than a rather weak arm of a government that cares not for nature. Badgers anyone?
My rather cursory internet search kept delivering strategy statements about NE’s science (here is one which has some great gobbledygook in it) which tell us that Natural England ‘will be recognised’ for something or other. The trouble is that NE is hardly recognised these days for existing, let alone for existing well. It has, quite deliberately, been largely absorbed into a faceless, formless and feckless Defra approach to nature.
What do these two sentences really mean? ‘We will have an evidence programme that is fit for purpose yet adaptable, responsive and innovative. It will be effectively co-ordinated with the programmes of Defra and other key players engaged in developing the natural environment evidence base.‘ Badgers anyone?
When one looks at Natural England these days one sees a shadow of its former self. It would be wrong to think that NE was ever perfect – it was sometimes a right pain in the butt – but it was once a pain in the butt that was demonstrably on the side of nature conservation and that is now much more difficult to discern.
This is where, if this were a conversation, one of us would say ‘But NE has a lot of dedicated staff, of course’ and the other would nod slightly sadly and respond ‘Yes but they aren’t allowed to do anything useful any more are they? There are real conservationists in the organisation but the so-called leadership of Natural England does not have a nature conservation ethos anymore.’
The world outside of NE remembers a much better former NE, and sees some of the same faces in the organisation, and wishes that it could recapture any of its past reputation as a force for good, but the reality is that statutory sector nature conservation is pretty much dead in England. That is the fault of the government which from 2010 dismantled the ability of the statutory sector to do a good job. It isn’t the fault of NE staff, except the current leadership does have to carry some responsibility for not showing any enthusiasm for leading the organisation to a better place.
Although things could get worse – Liz Truss is said to be thinking about a merger of NE with EA. The best thing that happened to NE recently was that Dilley dallied in Barbados too long. Would even Liz Truss throw NE into an organisation which was so in touch with its stakeholders and customers (yuk! yuk! and triple yuk!) that its chair was watching the water lap the beaches while they watched it pour through their homes and businesses? Possibly, I wouldn’t put it past her.
At least a merger with EA would remove all lingering affection for the role of the state in nature conservation. It would be the final nail in the conservation coffin.
I just wonder whether it is even possible to get out of this mess. The corporate memory of how the state does nature conservation is even now almost lost. It’s another example of shifting baselines. There are precious few staff in NE who remember what it used to be like and could rejuvenate NE’s conservation work. There are precious few in the NGOs who now remember what it was like to work closely with the government sector to deliver nature conservation on the ground. This government (mostly in coalition with the forgotten party) has dismantled statutory sector nature conservation – as it intended to do. We did all breathe a sigh of relief when NE wasn’t simply abolished but its current state is now hardly much better.
Natural England doesn’t need to look for a scientist, it needs a miracle. And they just don’t happen these days.
Is there anyone out there who is assembling the blueprint for rebuilding the ability of my taxes to deliver nature conservation in the fields and hills, rivers and seas of England? If not, could someone please get on with it?