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.