One of the more interesting consequences of having written a blog about Nature and politics for eight years, (aside from a short break between July 2012 and May 2013), is that you can look back at earlier ramblings, thoughts and predictions and see what actually happened.
The gradual demise of Natural England - the champion for Nature in England - started way back, when the Coalition Government came into power in May 2010. And on looking back, it appears I have unwittingly been chronicling that demise. So, here’s the story, as I see it.
Outgoing Natural England chair Andrew Sells (who will no doubt be looking forward to meeting the Queen to receive his K, for services rendered) recently made an appearance before a very small gathering of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee (EFRA). Former RSPB Conservative Director Mark Avery, in his excellent blog, has written about some aspects covered in the outgoing Chair’s hour-and-a-half exit interview - notably that Sells is now in favour of introducing vicarious liability for (grouse moor) landowners. But only after leaving the job where he could have pushed for its introduction.
The tone of Sells’ thoughts is one of regret. Sells regrets that Natural England lost its independence from Defra; Sells regrets that “we as a society haven’t been very good” about dealing with wildlife crime. And Sells mourned the 55% loss of resources Natural England have to notify, protect and ensure the good management of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). He didn’t even mention the badger cull.
Sells was also unhappy about Countryside Stewardship, complaining that the scheme - introduced to pay farmers to manage their land for wildlife, landscape and so on - was doomed from the start; “like a badly designed car...various parts never worked.” This apparently was not Natural England’s fault, but no-one’s; he “can’t point the finger” of blame anywhere. But he did note that Defra had parachuted in managers on secondment to run Countryside Stewardship, so perhaps it was their fault after all. The colossal failure of the Rural Payments Agency in failing to create the correct maps for farmers to use when applying for Countryside Stewardship was mentioned in passing - but since Defra decided to hand CS over to the Rural Payments Agency to run, it seems, as usual, that failure is rewarded.
But let’s rewind back to November 2013 when it was announced that Andrew Sells had been chosen to chair Natural England’s board. Sells was a player in the Tory backroom influence machine. He had been treasurer of Michael Gove’s favourite Tory dark-funded lobbying operation - otherwise known as Policy Exchange. Policy Exchange was and continues to be the crucible in which Tory policies - policies promoting less regulation and more privatisation - are forged and future Tory Ministers trained. You don’t get to be treasurer of such a key part of the deregulatory apparatus without (a) being very generous with your cash and (b) believing unflinchingly in the ideology.
A murky web
Sells had also been a key player in the “no2av” campaign. Those who will remember back that far will recall that one of the deals Nick Clegg made with David Cameron (remember them?) was that there should be a vote on introducing proportional representation. Clegg utterly fluffed this once-in-a-political lifetime opportunity to improve our democratic process. But more importantly, a highly effective Tory campaign was set up to kill the idea stone dead.
Step forward Andrew Sells - working hand-in-glove with the Matthew Elliott. Matthew Elliott, for those who don’t know, set up the ironically-named ‘Tax Payers Alliance’, which lobbies to get rid of taxes, and the public services taxes fund. Matthew Elliott also ran the Vote Leave campaign in the EU referendum. Elliott sits at the very centre of the very murky web of right wing lobby groups, which we could call the Tuftocracy, on account of them all being housed in one building in 55 Tufton Street, Westminster.
It would not be any exaggeration to suggest that 55 Tufton Street has more influence over UK politics than any other address, including 10 Downing Street. Sells was also generously giving donations to the Tory party - a total of £143k donated up to the point when he became Natural England chair.
Before Sells went into politics he made a massive fortune - first as a Venture Capitalist - setting up a private equity firm with John, now Baron Nash. Nash, once ennobled, went on to become a Tory Education Minister, and set up a chain of academy schools. Sells also founded Linden Homes, a house-builders firm which specialised in brownfield development sites. When Linden Homes was sold to Galliford Try, Sells walked away with millions.
Sells was chosen to chair Natural England by former Secretary of State for the Environment Owen Paterson. Paterson was famous for a number of ridiculous statements such as “badgers moved the goalposts” - but Paterson’s brother-in-law is Viscount Matt Ridley, a Policy Exchange visiting scholar. Paterson had been vilified in Cabinet over Natural England’s brave decision (though they were being pushed all the time) to make Lodge Hill a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Lodge Hill on the Hoo peninsula in Kent is a former defence training camp which was being sold off by the Government, for housing. As a brownfield site, it seemed like a no-brainer, until someone pointed out to Natural England that it supported the UK’s largest Nightingale population and is one of the largest areas of wildlife-rich neutral grassland in the country. (Several people have said to me that Natural England’s decision to protect Lodge Hill was akin to it signing its own death warrant. I have to admit some responsibility having been part of the RSPB team which successfully lobbied, and presented evidence, in favour of its protection.)
More stick, less carrot
You can imagine the scene - how dare Natural England interfere with the Government’s business of selling off public land to their private housing developer mates (and generous Tory party donors) for private profit? Who did these people think they were? There was a big row in Cabinet. George Osborne was livid. The answer, obviously, was to install, as the new chair; a Tory donor who had founded a very successful brownfield housing developer. As Sells put it to the EFRA committee: “The Cameron era Government wanted much less stick and more carrot.” In other words, stop using the law and start asking people nicely, and pay them, to stop doing bad things.
One idea Sells seems keen on is “net gain.” This is where developers, say, of new housing, compensate for destroying wildlife by paying money into a ‘pot’, which is then spent creating new wildlife habitats somewhere else. It used to be called Biodiversity Offsetting (partly because of proposals to use it at Lodge Hill), but that got a bad name so it was rebranded. Biodiversity Offsetting, (I mean Net Gain) Champion David Hill, who set up the Environment Bank, an organisation that was created to .. err.. take the money from the Developers and give it to landowners to create wildlife habitat, was Sells’ deputy chairman at Natural England for most of the time Sells was Chair. So, it’s not surprising that Sells is so keen on it. (Hill is now promoting Net Gain alongside Matt Ridley, Owen Paterson’s brother-in-law, in a paper produced by that other dark-funded, pro-deregulation, “the market will solve everything” lobby group, the IEA. Small world.)
This wasn’t the first time the Tories had given Natural England a good kicking.
Shortly after Natural England was created - by amalgamating the Nature experts at English Nature, with the people who paid farmers to farm slightly less intensively; and the Countryside Agency in charge of landscapes - new NE boss, Helen Phillips, frightened the horses at a National Farmers Union conference in 2007. The NFU had successfully lobbied the Labour Government so that most of the farm payment budget back then was handed over to farmers for doing nothing. Phillips said she wanted to “raise the bar” and make farmers do something for their payments. This was entirely beyond the pale (she had kept her speech secret from her own Board of Directors) and the knives were out from then on. By 2009, Shadow Environment Secretary, Nick Herbert, was making dark threats that Natural England should not be openly criticising Government policy and that NE had become a “political lobbyist.” The then NFU President Peter Kendall weighed in:
“When I see Natural England having a large policy section I ask if that really is the best use of our money. Defra should be developing policies and its agencies should be delivering them.”
And so it came to pass - when the Coalition Government was elected, it did just that - removing Natural England’s ability to develop policy, advocate that policy to Government, or even carry out its own publicity. (It’s worth noting too that Nick Herbert originally ran the British Field Sports Society, which became the Countryside Alliance and founded his own Right Wing Think Tank, Reform, which worked closely with Policy Exchange. He went on to occupy a number of Ministerial positions.)
Two birds, one stone
It’s interesting to note to what extent Natural England’s statutory role of notifying SSSIs to protect our best wildlife sites was abandoned once Sells took over: After a busy year in 2013/14, when five sites were protected, this dropped to zero in the two subsequent years. Only a handful of sites have been protected since then, including the very large West Pennine Moors SSSI.
Sells also shook up the Natural England Board, bringing in reps from the NFU, upland farmers and the Game-shooting lobby, alongside conservation NGOs. He also lobbied for Marine Management Organisation Chief Exec James Cross to be installed. NE staff view Cross’ recent departure with relief - he was regarded as weak and biddable. As a result, the Board became more heavily involved in the day-to-day running of NE projects. Interference is the word that has been used.
Natural England doesn’t even report on how many new SSSIs it has notified now, just that there is a “pipeline”. Even when it does notify new sites, like this one yesterday, it doesn’t make any announcement to celebrate the fact. It’s almost as if NE is embarrassed about saving wildlife.
Following the very controversial decision to notify Lodge Hill as an SSSI - the controversy partly centred around whether the grassland there was sufficiently valuable to warrant protection - Natural England reviewed its approach to choosing grassland sites. Having looked at the data, and the extremely perilous state of so many of our grasslands, it decided that it should effectively protect the entire remaining resource for a number of grassland types. Needless to say this has barely even begun. It takes a lot of expertise to notify a site as a SSSI. I know many of the people working at NE and have worked with them closely. I have the utmost respect for them. They are doing their level best in the circumstances. And then there’s Brexit ...
As Andrew Sells noted “Brexit has consumed Defra”. And Defra, in turn, has consumed many of the best minds in Natural England. Sells claimed he was happy to see NE staff seconded to Defra to work on where to site the emergency food supply dumps, although he had worried they may not come back. At least he need worry about that for only another few weeks before his retirement.
So where does all this this leave Natural England - and indeed England’s Nature?
We await the publication of Michael Gove’s second big ‘it’ll all be fine after Brexit’ Parliamentary Bills - the Environment Bill. This will tell us of his plans for a fantastic new environmental regulator. The Withdrawal Bill includes text explaining how this new regulator will replace the work previously done by the European Commission and EU Court of Justice. Forgive me if I’m a little sceptical. And it’s not just me - influential Think Tank, Green Alliance, also express doubt. Bearing in mind that RSPB took a complaint against Natural England to the EC over its failure to stop grouse moor owners damaging internationally important peatlands, it seems unlikely that this new regulator will be just another reincarnation of Natural England. It can’t mark its own homework and be an effective regulator.
Now that Natural England has lost its function of paying farmers to manage their farmland slightly less intensively, what role does it have? I would argue its primary role should be protecting England’s wildlife - and that means finishing the job of protecting all sites which meet the criteria as Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
This is also probably one of the best ways to identify farmland which would benefit from the new “public money for public goods” approach to paying farmers to farm in an environmentally-friendly way, so it kills two birds with one stone.
NE also needs to focus on protecting species which occur outside SSSIs; not through biodiversity offsetting, or net gain, or whatever you want to call it, but by protecting their habitats where they are now. It doesn’t help NE’s reputation when it advises landowners to kill native wild animals, because people might be worried about them.
We need a new champion for Nature in England, and will need one more than ever after Brexit. NE needs to evolve again, into a new organisation, independent of Government. That won’t happen until we have a Government which recognises the value in that independence.
Miles King is an Ecologist, founder of People Need Nature and a regular columnist for Lush Times. These are his own views. Follow him on Twitter @Milesking10
Photo credit: “Nightingale-filled scrub at Lodge Hill SSSI Kent" (Miles King)