Guest blog – Whither Now for State Nature Conservation? by Dominic Woodfield

Dominic Woodfield is the Managing Director of Bioscan, a long established and well respected consultancy specialising in applied ecology. He is a life-long birder, a specialist in botany, habitat restoration and creation and in protected fauna including bats, herpetofauna and other species. He is also a highly experienced practitioner in Environmental Impact Assessment and Habitats Regulations Assessment. Most of his work is for the development sector, but he has also undertaken commissions for Natural England, the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and campaign groups. He once mounted an independent legal challenge in defence of an important site for butterflies in Bicester, Oxfordshire, which resulted in planning permission for a five-hundred unit housing development being overturned. He lives in Oxford with his partner and family.   

 

As most of the followers of Mark’s blog will by now be aware, the Government is consulting on a new nature conservation agency that it claims will be ‘world leading’, will spearhead environmental governance post-Brexit and hold our elected politicians to account on environmental matters.

The first question one might ask faced with this prospect is, “Isn’t that the job of Natural England?”. Well, it is, or at least it was, and ought to still be while it remains in existence. Those as moderately long in the tooth as me (or longer), will recognise the place Natural England (NE) is now in as the final leg of a cycle that takes a decade or perhaps two to play out. It starts with a shiny new nature conservation quango which blossoms for a few years in the glow of funding and enthusiasm. It then gets “too big for its boots” (as far as its ringmasters are concerned), is summarily admonished, starved for a few years while becoming increasingly ineffective and finally wound up and re-packaged. NE has run almost the full circumference of that circle, as did English Nature before and the Nature Conservancy Council before that. So here we are again.

Except that the depths that NE have sunk to in the course of its decline are arguably far deeper than any plumbed in the dying days of its predecessors. In what would increasingly appear to be its final months, the agency faces an unprecedented confetti of legal challenges, criticisms about a culture of secrecy and cronyism and deference to developers and hunting interests, pointed remarks about whether some of its most senior executives have either the relevant qualifications or expertise for the job and accusations that an exodus of its brightest talent has left it a demoralised automaton. Meanwhile, and perhaps this is the harshest measure of all, the health of England’s biodiversity holds to a precipitous downward course and the targets for halting this decline flash steadily by unmet and increasingly unheeded.

Last autumn I was drawn in to one of the current legal challenges facing Natural England. Tom Langton, a fellow ecologist with whom I had worked on a number of projects previously, approached me to ask if I would review the adequacy of Natural England’s assessments of potential impacts from badger culling on the top tier of protected sites in England: these being Special Protection Areas, Special Areas of Conservation and Ramsar Sites. These are all protected under international law and convention. Tom was working up a crowd-funded legal challenge to decisions taken by NE and other Government bodies in relation to badger culling policy and the execution of that policy. It was clear he felt he had exposed an absence of scientific rigour and anticipated I would do the same.

I confess that I initially agreed to the task with some genuine misgivings. I was worried about what a successful challenge to NE’s scientific authority would mean, most importantly for its role in delivering nature conservation, but also for those staff within it that I still hold in high regard. But those misgivings began to fall away as I delved into the detail and become increasingly appalled at the depth of the malaise within the organisation.

One of Tom’s legal challenges to NE (the other, against NE and Defra, relates to badger culling science and procedure) concerns the agency’s role in licensing the trapping and shooting of badgers as part of the Government’s bovine TB eradication programme. To say this is a minefield topic is an exercise in rank understatement. Thankfully my task was a discrete and clearly prescribed one, removed from the core debate. It was to answer the following question; ‘where culling is to take place in or near protected sites, have Natural England carried out the requisite impact assessments with due diligence and have they put appropriate protective measures in place?’.

The first hurdle I faced was NE’s paranoid and obdurate secrecy on this issue. To an extent this was not surprising – badger culling is a highly emotive and controversial subject – but the lengths to which NE seemed happy to go to prevent disclosure of even the assessment methodology it had followed seemed unjustified, extraordinary and ultimately suspicious. Tom had been chasing this information for years and, just before I became involved, the Information Commissioner summarily directed NE to offer it up. Instead they appealed, and it was another five months before the First Tier Tribunal upheld the Commissioners decision. NE had no place left to go and in spring 2018 grudgingly released some of their assessments, albeit still redacting essential detail that helped anyone make sense of them.

I was asked by Tom and his legal team to review this information to check whether the statutory agency had been going about this crucial task with due rigour.  Working round the disclosure obstacles, I found that, unequivocally, it had not and, moreover, that this had evidently been the case since the start of badger culling in 2013. I found myself concluding that the agency charged with protecting the best of England’s nature, had been pursuing an extraordinarily cursory and prejudiced approach to assessment of impacts from badger culling and that this can only have put some of England’s rarest wildlife and most special protected sites at clear risk of harm. Betrayal does not seem too strong a word.

Tom Langton is not alone in advancing the case that NE is now failing in even its most fundamental of duties. Legal challenges to the agency are starting to snowball. As readers of this blog will know, Mark is running several (here and here), and the RSPB are following suit. The cracks are beginning to show – Natural England recently capitulated in the face of one of Mark’s challenges and have accepted they carried out a defective impact assessment for an upland European Site. The parallels with Tom Langton’s challenge are clear. Tom is also challenging aspects of the badger culling policy on ‘absence of proper science’ grounds. That also is not new ground: last year Natural England’s science was found by a judge to be flawed in respect of impacts from air pollution. The still incumbent chair of NE has been revealed as having a background of house-building and financial asset management, with no nature conservation credentials at all. A House of Lords select committee recently found NE to be ‘hollowed out’ and unfit for purpose.

In tandem with rising concern about the ability of Natural England to fulfil its current statutory purpose, there is growing unease about what could replace it, stoked by the nature of the current Government consultation on a replacement body, and the implications for environmental governance of Brexit more generally (see here and here). Leaving the EU is seen by many environmentalists as an opportunity – a chance to part with the shackles of the CAP and deliver something better for the rural environment, farmer and conservationist alike. But the direction the Government is now taking on environmental governance and accountability can do nothing but temper such optimism.

Fundamentally Tom Langton’s challenge, which reaches the High Court this week (9th-12th July)  is part of a pattern. I have characterised it as different pieces of a jigsaw that, once assembled, depict a graphic picture of a dysfunctional nature conservation agency. I have dared to hope that the rot was superficial – that any outward appearance of being in hock to vested interests disguised a body that was still sound of mind underneath. I am increasingly struggling to hold on to that hope and vision.

Ultimately I can most easily reconcile myself to the prospect of challenging the core worth of NE in its current form by looking closer to home. Professional environmental consultants such as myself need a properly functioning statutory agency, otherwise it falls to us to become judge and jury, operating either in a complete vacuum or in an environment of diminishing compunction to take heed of advice, good practice, policy or even the law. I have seen first-hand how the less scrupulous have become emboldened in the wake of NEs slide into ineptitude. The direction of travel for biodiversity protection seems increasingly to be towards poorly evidenced gestures, the success or otherwise of which relies upon mere assumptions or balance-sheet decisions (yes, I am talking about district licensing for great crested newts and biodiversity offsetting using drop-down menus instead of getting ones hands dirty in pursuit of the right answers).  Without rigorous monitoring, how do we know if these things are working and without an effective NE, who’s enforcing that rigour?

In the past, when NE (and especially its predecessor EN) had both adequate front-line expertise and teeth, and used both, my role as consultant was often as an independent broker, tempering and challenging the more obstinate or unrealistic excesses of the statutory authority through good-tempered scientific debate (or simply informed debate) and trying to find middle-ground inventive solutions to keep both client and agency happy. Yes there were times that obduracy and lack of expansive thinking of individual officers made me tear my hair out, but one always felt that EN (and the early days of NE), at least had its sights squarely on its statutory raison d’etre, and never strayed far from the remit of Nature, Conservation, Authority (with equal stress on all three words).

I would give my right arm to go back to that level of engagement and professional discourse. Over the last ten years NE have withdrawn increasingly into a small, dare I say it almost Desmoulin-like, shell. Like a wounded animal it has restricted the flow of influence from its remaining expertise into external appendages. One consequence is that it has vacated the line it used to hold against all forms of damaging or unsustainable land use – that line is now largely manned by voluntary organisations, charities and concerned individuals. At the same time, NE undermines those actors by seeking to maintain the pretence of being the statutory authority on all such things, a source for abject confusion and misconception for decision makers that invariably stacks the odds against those who have picked up the dropped baton and who at the end of the day seek to protect the greater volume of England’s everyday biodiversity. It is the worst of both worlds. On the occasions when one can actually engage with NE, one is all too often faced with that ghastly term “outcomes focussed” and the sense that staff are shackled and expected to act as little more than a facilitator or in the interests of appeasing the most moneyed interests at play.

It might genuinely be time to put NE out of its misery and create something better from the ashes. However, I have little faith that the Government intends to put anything better in its place unless it is forced into that position by public pressure. By rights that pressure ought to flow from outrage that the Government’s current wildlife watchdog has merely become the caretaker for a policy of ‘managed biodiversity retreat’. Everyone with an interest in the future of nature conservation should demand something better. We can start with a vigorous and vociferous response to the Government’s consultation .

 

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12 Replies to “Guest blog – Whither Now for State Nature Conservation? by Dominic Woodfield”

  1. Thank you for such a clear account of the demise from the front line. Along with many others we have already booked our rail tickets for the walk for wildlife in September and hope that your blog becomes a rallying call to yet more folk.

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  2. So we have a two decadal cycle that is only effective for the first couple of years of its existence and always volunteers, charities and individuals are left to pick up the baton. Surely there is some merit in trying to develop more structure to that volunteer, charity and individual community. My personal experience of campaigning locally is that although there is a lot of greatly appreciated support, we could certainly benefit from a central campaigning vehicle, an independent conservation council where we can get campaigning advice, legal advice and access to national platforms to promote our cause/ defend our local area. At the moment we have to hobble it all together and that is only partially successful. A central conservation council, made up of reps from the main NGOs, volunteer groups and individuals could not only support conservation activism, but also guide independent activism towards achieving national objectives (e.g. as set out in the response for nature report by the state of nature group) and could also lobby political parties to improve their biodiversity manifestos and policies. Basically I'm talking about a conservation organisation that solely deals with campaigning and political activism. A strong enough organisation could effectively replace the clearly overall useless state structures. ??

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  3. The increasing expectation of ministers that Natural England should act essentially to promote and facilitate economic development is corrosive. Nature cannot speak for itself in the planning process or other areas of economic decision making so it needs someone to advocate for it and that surely should be the clear role of NE. Inevitably there are many cases where the protection of nature clashes with economic development proposals and when this occurs there is no shortage of people (and resources) making the case for development and it is really not appropriate for NE to be co-opted onto this 'team'. Rather, it should without fear or favour, be making the case for protection of nature and the enforcement of environmental legislation. This does not mean that it can never compromise and must simply say "no" to each and every proposal (God knows, when nature finds itself arraigned against the forces of economic development it is virtually always nature conservation that ends up having to compromise) but it does mean that its point of reference should always be "does this proposal pose an unacceptable threat to nature?" not "how can we fudge a way to agree to this?" . Sadly we seem to have arrived at a state where the latter is the default and it is probably not unduly cynical to suppose that the proposed new watchdog will be equally shackled and toothless.

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  4. A very interesting observation, thanks Dominic. Since this is the third time round in recent memory do you have any insights on why the organisations fail? Is it the nature of the job that any organisation in this area burns out due to attrition in the constant battle to save what's left or is it simply political meddling?

    An initial glance suggests that from the current government's point of view perhaps everything is working as intended. That does not bode well for any re-incarnation since the pressures from Brexit will likely be severe. It seems likely that given the recent announcements from major employers in this country that economic priorities are likely to be front and centre and environmental ones sacrificed for the National Good.

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  5. Good blog from Dominic and a very good reason to let the government know your views. When you add to this SNH, we are in a sorry state indeed.
    But yet again, this is preaching to the converted. How can we get the animal loving British public behind this? How can we inform the masses of just how bad things have got?
    Last Thursday the RSPB invited their members, by email, to respond to this consultation. Good start, but crucially they didn’t inform us as to why it is so desperately needed that we should do so. No mention of how useless the statutory bodies have become, no mention of how the government intend to weaken our already poor environmental laws.
    We pay our subs to various NGOs so that they protect what is important to us. Trouble is, those same NGOs are failing to stir the masses into real activity, failing to inform.

    Look at the growing concerns over plastics as an example. One mention by David Attenborough and subsequent mentions on other programme such as Springwatch and suddenly people come to realise that they have been let down by government bodies and are demanding that something is done.
    We need this same information out there for nature.
    I doubt if one percent of the public are aware that fox hunting still continues in this country, that birds of prey are being slaughtered by the rich, for a Victorian ‘sport’.
    That badgers die in huge numbers to appease the farmers without robust scientific evidence that it is the correct thing to do to stamp out TB.

    The 99% need to see stink pits, truck loads of mountain hares, stoats suffering in traps, shot golden eagles. And yes, frogs dying at the bottom of modern grouse butts on Walshaw moor.

    We need to get this info out there now. The NGOs aren’t doing it, the media certainly won’t do it and it can’t be done on blogs such as this or at birdfairs that only the knowledgable attend.

    We need to Crowdfund a film. A big, hard hitting film, with a big name at the helm to get it shown.

    Impossible? Ok, so any other suggestions?

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    1. Will need all that and more and some more too. Surely the best way to achieve that is a central campaigning organisation and it has to be headed up by NGOs and established figures making a serious and radical public challenge on government and the obsession with nature destroying malignant growth.

      It's no good having more splinter groups, we need to build it into the conservation establishment and direct the conservation movement towards a more confrontational direction that embraces campaigning targeted at the masses, activism and direct action in order to drive through core systemic policy and enforcement changes - that most obvious vehicle is to develop a campaigning cell out of the state of nature alliance behind the state of nature reports.

      Conservation NGOs need to set aside the obsession with recruiting members to their own churches for a while and concentrate on interconnecting with the wider conservation community and driving through some systemic changes that will create a societal shift in the way nature is valued- which will eventually lead to all of them tapping into the mass market which is necessary for fundamental change.

      If any new splinter group is to appear- it could be one to put pressure on the state of nature alliance to get moving on this???

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  6. Excellent article, Dominic. Just to add to the confusion around Brexit, here in Wales, we have effectively returned most of the devolved powers we had over the environment to Whitehall for the duration. So even though the Welsh Government is about to publish a consultation on the future of land management here, there is no guarantee that we will be in a position to act upon it anyway! It may turn out that your responses to supposedly 'England only' consultations like that of DEFRA on post Brexit Environment Principles and Governance will have a significant impact in the devolved countries too.

    Meanwhile, it is not only environmental campaigners that see Brexit as an opportunity to re-set land management priorities. Wales' Conservative Shadow recently expressed 'concerns regarding the future of [farm] subsidies if Britain [sic] decides to adopt an approach that prioritises environmental protections rather than food production. ' So we have to be doubly vigilant and energetic in making sure that there is a robust voice for nature during this period.

    Whilst the statutory agencies of EN, SNH and NRW are both under-resourced *and* responsible for representing both conservation science and industrial concerns, they will never free themselves from the weight of corporate industrial corporate lobbying, including that of road building and construction, not to mention the malign influence of the NFUs.

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  7. A letter in today's Guardian from the CEO of NE replying to an article by George Monbiot. Seems to have a different perspective than the excellent blog by Dominic:

    George Monbiot (4 July) should be assured that Natural England retains its strong voice for nature, along with its statutory role and driving mission to protect and enhance the country’s wildlife, geology, habitats and landscapes. Our independence from government is firmly set out in the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, which gives Natural England the powers to ensure that the natural environment is conserved, enhanced and managed for the benefit of present and future generations.

    Like all public bodies we have met the challenge of reduced budgets by reducing our reliance on public funding and instead increasingly working in partnership with organisations and individuals that share our commitment to the natural world – such as the Back from the Brink partnership that has helped save 20 species from the threat of extinction. Furthermore, in recent years we have made great progress in creating the world’s longest continuous coastal footpath and helped establish a “blue belt” of 50 marine conservation zones around England, with more in the pipeline. With the publication of the government’s 25-year plan for the environment, Natural England has a key role to play in delivering this ambitious agenda to leave the environment in a better state.
    James Cross
    Chief executive, Natural England

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    1. My immediate reply to James Cross in conversation would have been B*****ks.
      Put more politely I would say you could have fooled me, really?

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      1. Yes, the rapidity of this response from NE suggested George Monbiot's piece had touched a nerve, and it was funny when GB pointed out that it had to be published on the Defra website as NE has had its own platform taken down. I do find the very careful wording in the first paragraph interesting. Things to note: (1) it pointedly does not say that NE retains its independence from Defra/Govt. It says NE retains a strong voice (which could mean it retains a measure of weight justified or unjustified, when it does speak) and a statutory role (well, obviously). It then sets out that its independence from Govt is set out in statute, which is very much not the same as saying we are actually independent from Government in accordance with that statute. Finally it mentions 'powers', the subtext being that if naughtiness is happening, we will stop it. Can James Cross advise when these were last used in any meaningful sense in the pursuit of nature conservation? The second paragraph is rather puff pastry with no filling. No claim to have halted or reduced the rate of biodiversity decline I notice, but we have a shiny new footpath so that people have better access to see the less wildlife NE's tenure has presided over.

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  8. This is an excellent nuanced account by an experienced ecologist. As some will be aware I've commented on this before and I think my points were possibly misinterpreted. I think the emphasis on the criticism of Natural England is mistaken, because as Dominic implies, if this government replaces it with something else it is likely to be worse and not better.

    Overall, what I mean is that the basic problem is how vested interests channelled through the statutory conservation body's political masters is the problem. In other words, what any statutory conservation body becomes and the way it's primary role is compromised, is a function of it's political masters, and not the organization itself. NE has become what it currently is because this is what the political regime wants, and not as a result of inept management.

    So called austerity measures were in fact a false flag operation, to force government departments and public bodies into adopting ideological policy, without it being to overt what was happening, and all covered by the smokescreen that it was about balancing the books. If departments are under constant cutbacks, and further threats of cutbacks, it is relatively easy to get the upper tiers of management to impose ideological policy, without being directly ordered to do this. As departmental heads are under constant threat, they know they have to please their political master to avoid further swingeing cuts. The senior managers soon learn what their political masters want, and become servile and obsequious to avoid invoking the wrath of their political masters and further cuts.

    Conservation and environmental protection is popular and can be used to detoxify nasty government policy, and we have seen both David Cameron and Michael Gove play this card. However, conservation laws, environmental protection laws and their implementation can get in the way of powerful lobbies, the farming industry, the agrochemical industry, the landowning and shooting industry, and industry general. All these lobbies have excessive influence over this particular government.

    In other words this government wants apparent conservation for PR purposes, but it also wants statutory bodies who will turn a blind eye to the laws, regulations and general ethics, when this gets in the way of powerful lobbies, which contribute to the political party, or have influence with it. NE has become exactly what this government wants it to be, and this is not an accident. Any replacement body or reform implemented by this government, will try and hardwire this into this new or reformed body - whilst disingenuously pretending they are not doing this.

    The only way we can counter this is by being far more overt about what we know is going on. It's impossible to get hard evidence for what this government, and indeed other governments have done, because this is how the government wants it. It wants to get it's way with a nod and a wink, with the Sword of Damocles of budget cuts forcing this compliance, and not via official orders. However, we can very clearly see the consistent pattern, and know very well that if the government didn't want this, that they'd intervene and force the statutory bodies to do their job properly. In other words we can use our intelligence to know by inference what the government wants, and we must say loudly what is going on.

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  9. we the British public have got to bring this inept lot to book and soon before they can do anymore harm.

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