Natural England is buckling under pressure brought about by cuts to its budget and staff, leaving the environment it protects under threat, a report by union Prospect has found.
A 12-month investigation found the body, which is responsible for maintaining and protecting England’s natural environment and was, up until last year in charge of Countryside Stewardship, was now under resourced and struggling to fulfil its obligations.
Garry Graham, Prospect deputy general secretary, said: “Michael Gove likes to talk about England’s green and pleasant lands but under his leadership of Defra, they are being put at risk.
“Cuts have left Natural England at the point where its workers are saying they do not have enough people or resources to do the things they need to do.”
NE’s workforce has been slashed in half, going from more than 2,500 staff in 2010 to an estimated 1,500 this year.
At the same time its budget has been slashed from £242m in 2009-10 to £100m for 2017-18.
“If we are to be able to regulate our own environment properly after Brexit it is also vital that we cultivate and maintain the skills to do so domestically – we will no longer be able to rely on the EU to do bits of it for us,” said Mr Graham.
“It is a Government’s responsibility to safeguard the countryside for future generations. But once biodiversity is lost it cannot easily be regained.”
NFU deputy president Guy Smith said delivery of the new Environmental Land Management Schemes will be a ‘huge task’ for Defra and while it was not yet clear which agency would oversee them, the body must be adequately resourced.
“Give the poor record of delivering previous agri-environment schemes it is imperative that the delivery agencies going forward are properly resourced with functioning IT so these new schemes can be delivered competently,” said Mr Smith, adding farmer confidence had taken a knock.
“Where ELMS will lie in the Defra family is not clear but if it is within Natural England’s cart then we have to make sure the cart is fit to carry the load.”
Mr Smith said NE’s approach to speaking to farmers ‘one to one’ on the ground was a particularly good function ‘and one which must not be overlooked going forward’.
A Defra spokesperson said: “The work of Natural England and its staff to protect our invaluable natural spaces, wildlife and environment is vital and its independence as an adviser is essential to this.
“As set out in the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, Natural England will continue to have a central role in protecting and enhancing our environment for future generations.”
Defra moved the administration of Countryside Stewardship and Environmental Stewardship to the Rural Payments Agency in October last year.