All party Parliamentary Conservation and Wildlife Group 11th May 2011 – Future Priorities of Natural England

The BES policy team yesterday attended a meeting of the All party Parliamentary Conservation and Wildlife Group. The meeting commenced with a talk about future priorities of Natural England from Dr Helen Phillips, Chief Executive of Natural England, followed by a question and discussion session. The talk focussed on the effects of the budget cuts on the services that natural England provides, and the direction of Natural England’s efforts over the coming years. The recent reform of Natural England has resulted in budget cuts, a ban on lobbying activities, and a keener focus on customer service. However there has been no legislative change and the main purpose of natural England remains the government’s independent advisory body on the natural environment. Dr Phillips explained to the group how Natural England will continue to provide this service despite the funding cuts.

Dr Phillips started by focussing on the successes of Natural England in the past five years, of which there have been many. A survey of farmers enrolled in agri-environment schemes revealed that 84% thought that Natural England gave good or excellent customer service. 70% of agricultural land is now under some sort of environmental management which is up from 45% in 2006. This has made a noticeable difference to protected species and habitats on which agricultural land has an important impact. 96% of (Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) are in good or excellent condition compared with only 73% 5 years ago. A slowing of farmland bird decline has occurred with signs of recovery. 30% of the UK landscape is under some form of protection whether that be SSSIs or national parks. There have also been a variety of very successful programmes to connect people with their environment.

However Natural England faces many challenges in protecting the natural environment. England is still experiencing ongoing habitat losses and biotic homogenisation, with many once common species rare and declining. The natural environment is also experiencing increased pressures from an increasing human population demanding more from the same land area. Importantly Lawton’s vision of more, bigger, better, and joined protected areas still has not been realised. There are lots of imminent opportunities to respond to these challenges: the Defra white paper, European biodiversity strategy, the National Ecosystem Assessment. Natural England aims to make sure that people reconnect with nature, our natural assets are protected and we maximise the opportunities offered to society by a green economy. Dr Phillips noted that there is also strong cross party support for these ideas, improving the chances of success.

The talk ended with Dr Phillips outlining the main strategies Natural England will employ to achieve these goals over the coming years:
• Improving protection of priority species and habitats.
• Continuing the success of the agri-environment schemes.
• Establishing a coherent network of Marine Protected Areas.
• Taking a landscape scale approach to conservation.
• Creating “ecological restoration zones” led and funded by a wide variety of organisations.
• Forming partnerships with businesses, local authorities, and NGOs.

One of the main themes to the questions was the effect of budget cuts on the ability of Natural England to provide sound advice to local people, who have become more involved in local decision making because of the Government’s “Big Society” initiative. Natural England have collaborated with the Environment Agency, Forestry Commission, and Wildlife Trusts to share information and identify priority areas in which to act. Defra is also developing an evidence portal for local people to enable access to sound scientific evidence to empower local communities to make more decisions.
Dr Phillips suggested that the BES could also have an important role to play in ensuring good decisions are made at the local level, by providing accreditation for learning and education programmes. This could be particularly useful when training members of local authorities tasked with making decisions about protected species and habitats in planning applications. She also suggested that the BES could support and contribute to research work done by Natural England, by providing quality assurance or peer review.