An NE staff member writes…

The following is a lightly edited version of an email I recently received from someone whose identity I know, and who I know to be a NE employee.  Understandably their identity is not revealed here.

The editing I have done is mostly to remove clues as to their identity.

I work for NE.  I’m writing to thank you for what you are doing, especially challenging the Walshaw HRA.  It is vital that NE gets as much pressure from the pro-wildlife side as it gets from the farming and shooting lobbies.

NE needs to be under pressure from both sides.  I have been involved in my fair share of conservation battles and have seen how they pan out. Inevitably when something gets a bit contentious, people complain to senior managers, or Defra, and the pressure is always on to find a solution that makes the controversy go away.  

If there is only lobbying from one side, then a manager (especially a non-conservationist) is going to be tempted to give in to whatever that lobby group wants. However, if there is another side to the argument then they have to work harder and there is a much better chance of a good result for the environment. 

I think some managers, especially those who aren’t naturally a part of the conservation movement, genuinely fail to appreciate (or forget) that there is more than one side to the argument. The lobbying we all get from vested interests is strong and constant and often aggressive, painting conservation staff as unreasonable. Managers are told that these people are our customers and it is our job to keep them happy. We hardly ever hear anything from conservationists and when we do it is usually polite and gentle and easy to ignore. Even worse, many conservation organisations avoid all controversy to the extent that they do not support NE on the occasions when it does take a stand.

This situation is more acute when there is a government that is not very interested in the environment and has lots of farming and shooting friends….and even worse when they have the austerity culture well-established and can easily threaten to cut funding even harder if NE does not dance to their tune. (Incidentally, s15 and s16 of the NERC Act allow Defra to tell NE what to do in any case. I’m not aware of the powers being used but I’m sure their very existence has an effect). Therefore the pressure from environmentalists needs to be directed as much to Defra as NE.

So….I think you should keep challenging NE and Defra as hard as you possibly can when bad decisions are made. However, where I am less comfortable with some of the content of your blog is what I think of as more general ‘NE bashing’. Painting NE as ‘not fit for purpose’ only further undermines us, reduces support for us amongst the conservation community and makes it easier for government to continue to cut funding.

NE is in crisis at the moment.  You know about the drastic funding cuts. We have a mixed bunch of managers many of whom have a limited understanding of conservation. We also have a board stuffed full of vested interests some of whom are allowed to have far too much influence over operations. I think that managers’ responses to the cuts are poorly judged and that the structural changes they are currently planning will reduce our effectiveness even more. Increasingly, Defra seem to be telling us what to do and not even wanting our advice on subjects we know far more about than they do. So yes, it is a mess.

But I still believe that there is an important role for a statutory nature conservation body to include at least;

  • Caring for designated sites. Someone needs to check how they are being managed, give friendly advice and support but in the last resort make sure the law is actually applied (I think the conservation movement often lazily assumes that just because a site is designated that it is protected. You know this is not true)
  • Wildlife licensing
  • Agreeing priorities for action nationally
  • Advising government on policy
  • Ensuring that agri-environment schemes are applied appropriately to get the best results for wildlife (rather than can so easily happen, simply becoming a nice fat payout for friends of the government)
  • and probably other things I’ve forgotten about

Incidentally, there is still a lot of the above going on…and good things being achieved…but behind the scenes and unpublicised. If I didn’t think it was still possible to do good, I wouldn’t still be there.

In my view (similarly to the House of Lords report and the People’s Manifesto for Wildlife) we need:

  • greater independence from government and an ability to give them advice whether they want it or not
  • a different balance of interests on the board (perhaps a main board of conservationists and folk who know how to manage organisations with a distinctly separate advisory group containing the vested interests)
  • better funding (agreed more than one year in advance to reduce political influence)
  • more emphasis on having conservation expertise at all levels in the organisation
  • an arrangement by which the government is held to account over SACs and SPAs post Brexit
  • proper control over the operation of agri-environment schemes (this currently seems to be slipping away. I suspect government are currently thinking of future a-e schemes that have no NE involvement and are set up by private land agents and the like)
  • some good targets to work to (the targets to get SSSIs into good condition under the Labour government were great)
  • a duty to further a Nature Recovery Network that goes beyond current statutory sites (as per Lawton)

Whether this is achieved by reform of NE or starting again, I don’t much care.

To summarise, I would like you to decide what you want from NE and to put your considerable talents into campaigning for us (or someone) to be in a fit state to be able to provide it. I know your main focus is grouse moors, and rightly so, but I would love you to focus a bit more on constructive rather than destructive criticism of NE.

Anyway, whether you agree with any of this or not I am still a big fan of your work. You have been incredibly effective in bringing the problems of grouse moors to public attention and I greatly admire your persistence.

Mark writes: I was grateful for this. For the avoidance of doubt, I do think that NE is unfit for purpose and will continue to say so here (unless things change in which case I will say that instead).  My view is a widely held one but a view to which the NE Board appears wilfully deaf and blind. The fault lies with the NE leadership and management (including Defra but an NE Board and senior managers with any backbone would be seen to be standing up to Defra).  Staff like the one whose words are reproduced here are being let down, dreadfully and terribly let down, by those with real power in NE to make things better.

By the way, several people came up to me on the People’s Walk for Wildlife and said how grateful they were, as NE staff, for what I write here about NE and its rapid decline under the current government and ‘leadership’ ‘team’.

The solution for this would be a clear-out at the top of NE – perhaps this won’t really happen until we get a change of government?  Until I see that change I will be continuing in a very restrained way (blimey – I could write every post on this blog about NE’s failings if I chose) to highlight the failings of this once reasonably effective organisation.  But of course Andrew Sells is standing down and I hear that the Chief Exec may not be that far behind him.

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12 Replies to “An NE staff member writes…”

  1. ‘Conservationists.......usually polite and gentle and easy to ignore.’
    Yup, that’s got to change.

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  2. Several things in the post interested me greatly.
    The persons who would seek to prevent NE from doing it's duty clearly have undue influence without anything becoming public about their actions.
    I can't blame the conservation NGOs particularly for their polite manner manner. Any NGO which acts in a campaigning manner which is even slightly away from their charitable actions can run foul of the charity commission as has already happened. There is also the Lobbying Act, but neither of these difficulties apply to those who clearly have their feet under the table at NE without any consequence. I'm happy that it is up to individuals such as yourself to take matters forward in a way which cannot be ignored totally.
    NGOs may band together as a group, which makes them more powerful and less able to be prosecuted as the group has several heads, harder to chop off. We see several examples of that already, and these groups may well be more successful in future campaigns.
    With the Peoples Manifesto for Wildlife now available, I see a future for individuals to act alone or in groups to take on all the aims of the manifesto in an effective manner.

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  3. Excellent blog & sadly "NE" I have to agree with Mark, in my area the organisation is not fit for purpose.

    If NE have done well locally then yes I write in praise but it needs NE to do something to receive praise for surely?

    I won't bore readers with a catalogue of examples, as I want to be proactive rather than negative but when there are staff more occupied with reporting on themselves within the organisation, paper shuffling and failing to undertake monitoring, land management for key species etc. etc. then with the utmost respect ....

    I absolutely agree that we need an organisation to be fit for purpose but it needs teeth and a backbone and the current model is well past its sell by date. That it was been made thus is a political decision (aided by revised regulations etc.) aided by political appointments and one might venture to suggest that it is thus to protect the politicials and their establishment friends, so if removed then there would be less time wasted with obstacles and obfuscation and clearer targets?

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  4. When you say NE is "not fit for purpose", do you mean it's being run badly enough to qualify as "failing" thanks to those that make its policies and its lack of resources, or do you mean the principle of the quango as currently set up and powered is inadequate in principle? They are different.

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    1. Jon - more the former than the latter, but it is a bit of both, plus those in the organisation at all levels are actors not simply victims.

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  5. "Managers are told that these people are our customers and it is our job to keep them happy. useful term in this context which is not very "

    An interesting comment: in point of fact we are ALL NE's customers (insofar as 'customer' is a useful term in this context, which is not very far). There is absolutely no reason why the interests of developers or farmers or shooters should be paramount.

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    1. Well said, Jonathan. As citizens and taxpayers we ARE all their "customers"; we're customers because we pay the bills, landowners who *receive* the money have less of a claim to that relationship than the rest of us do. NE does, all too often, seem to forget that.

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    2. I disagree...we are their employers. They provide a service for the natural environment. Biodiversity should be the customer.... it is certainly paying the price.

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  6. Just to add to Mark's last, there are clearly structural and political issues that disable NE by design.

    But I have also had bad experiences at ground level from some long established staff; focusing on process not outcomes, and applying standards of scrutiny and bureaucracy to "friendly" organisations trying to good things, because we have to play ball, that they would never dream of applying to a private landowner trying to do self-interested or bad things.

    The culture of valuing process over outcomes was always there, as anyone involved in BAP can confirm, but it has definitely got worse over the years. So with regret I too decided some time ago that NE was well past its sell by date and unfit for purpose; by design, but also by culture.

    None of which is to say that it doesn't have some great staff trying to do their best; these are the ones I would hope would stay and flourish in a new organisation. But their hands are so tied in the existing NE that I can't see them reaching their potential without such drastic reform.

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  7. This comment from an NE employee underlines what most of us already know, but which bears repeating. It is not the rank and file of NE, nor those within it that continue to work hard at the sharp end of conservation, or do their best to, that are the problem. It is the managers, vested interests, the executive and the Defra and Govt overlords, as well as the systems that they create and obstacles to effectiveness that they put into place, that are the problem.

    Unfortunately it is now beyond argument that these elements make NE, as an entity, no longer fit for purpose - by which I mean the purpose enshrined in the NERC Act (see http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2006/16/section/2). That again is not the fault of site managers and conservation scientists within the organisation - it is the fault of their superiors and paymasters that actively work against their best efforts.

    No-one wants to tar every NE employee with the same brush, but sadly, muting ones criticism to protect the sensibilities of 'the good' only hands the balance of pressure to those lobbyists who actively work to ensure the key decisions are made by 'the bad'. Those lobbyists have no such qualms about the feelings of the rank and file. And we have handed them the initiative by tiptoeing around this issue for too long.

    A further problem is that the public relations elements of NE (the one part of the organisation that seems to be growing) have turned it into a Roman tortoise, shields interlocked, that is simply unable to cope with even constructive criticism. God forbid anyone might be allowed to see what's going on inside, and the outside world of conservation looking on in dismay is therefore reliant upon barely audible mutterings of discontent (like this one to Mark) and occasional and rapidly cut off squeaks of derision that escape through the shield wall. This does not help critics of the current state of the organisation draw clear lines between the good and the bad. But neither should it stop them from criticising it.

    I really don't think pouring water on the current critical discourse around the function and efficacy of NE in order to protect the sensitivities of its more worthwhile employees is the right approach. We can all do what we can to ensure that NE employees who know they are doing a good job, in difficult circumstances, don't feel stung by criticism of their employer, but that should never stay our hand in calling out what is wrong. Indeed there has to come a point where those within the organisation look to themselves, and their better calibre colleagues, to make more of a noise, for the good of everyone's future.

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  8. Not fit for purpose maybe it’s this governments purpose to make sure it’s not fit, to me NE are just getting in the way of big agri and shooting interests.

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