Natural England staff 'heartened' by Juniper appointment

After years of cutbacks, staff at England’s natural environment regulator and environmental groups have a more positive view of the future now that environmentalist Tony Juniper has taken the helm.

One Natural England officer told ENDS staff at the agency were “pleasantly surprised” by Juniper's appointment as chair and that they were “heartened” that he had signalled his intention to fight for a “better budget” and greater independence.

Writing on Twitter, Tim Hill, its chief scientist, also said that the body was excited to have him on board.

Also on Twitter, Mike Moorcroft, the body’s principal climate change specialist, said: “Great that we can start moving forward with our new chair. Personally I’m delighted it’s someone who sees the big picture. Can’t do conservation in the 21st century without tackling and adapting to climate change!”

British Trust for Ornithology director Andy Clements said the decision was a “huge boost” for the organisation and the delivery of the 25-Year Environment Plan. “I'm very excited for my next 18 months on the board of Natural England, working with Tony Juniper, a passionate environmentalist who gets stuff done!”

In a blog published today by the Wildlife Trusts, after his appointment was confirmed, Juniper wrote: “My aim will be to support and hone the impact of the organisation’s wide-ranging activities, from protecting our national nature reserves to advising farmers and from opening England’s new coastal path to ensuring greater public access to our wonderful natural areas. I will be seeking to celebrate, protect and deepen the impact of Natural England, not only for the sake of our wildlife and beautiful landscapes, but also for the huge benefits that our success brings for society.”

“It is my sincere hope that during the coming few years we will together finally begin to achieve the historic turnaround for nature that we all know is so desperately needed,” he continued. Juniper resigned as the Wildlife Trusts’ president to take on his new role.

The comments come shortly after the union Prospect laid bare how deep cuts to funding in England’s natural environment regulator have undermined its core remit, slashed enforcement action and seriously stressed staff.

Launched in parliament on Monday, its report notes that Natural England is in its fourth year of successive budget cuts, “with no sign of let-up for the years ahead.” Its core funding is less than half of what it was a decade ago, with knock-on effects on protected sites, countryside stewardship, planning response times, agricultural water pollution, wildlife licensing and biodiversity.

Its staff “are high-calibre professionals – experts in their field – and will be pivotal in enabling government to achieve its 25-Year Environment Plan. But they can only go on so long. They, and Natural England’s work, have been undervalued and underfunded by government for too long,” said Prospect.

The body had a “panicked and fraught” response to its 2018/19 budget being lower than expected, moving some staff into Brexit roles in DEFRA on secondment and forcing specialists into completely different roles. Yet the fallout has been greeted with “a deafening silence” by DEFRA, according to Prospect.

Its resources are now so low that many staff are even reluctant to appoint new habitat management volunteers. Their training, travel expenses and safety equipment cannot be afforded, according to the report.

Staff have been told that its core role in protecting sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) is no longer a priority. As a result, 54% of the 4,122 such sites in England have not had the required six-yearly survey, environment minister Thérèse Coffey admitted the day the report was launched, with a similar proportion known to be in an unfavourable condition.

Years of below-inflation pay rises, removing progression through pay scales and staff cuts has led to morale being at “an all time low” one officer said. This has in turn caused considerable stress, work-related illness and hindered Natural England’s ability to retain and recruit staff.

During a survey conducted by Prospect and fellow union PCS in 2017, another officer told Prospect that the organisation has “a bullying culture” and problems with disability discrimination. Although some improvements have been seen, “progress is under threat because management is distracted by trying to tackle the shortfall in money,” says the report.

Speaking at the launch, Natural England's interim chief executive Marian Spain said: “Natural England takes this report - and the concerns raised – very seriously. Our staff are our greatest asset, demonstrating every day their enthusiasm and dedication to the natural environment and using their scientific expertise to help protect it.

“But inevitably cuts of almost 50% to the Natural England budget over the last five years have meant changes to the way we do things. Since taking on my role in December, meeting staff and hearing about the pressures they face has been one of my top priorities.

“I want to reassure staff that Natural England’s leadership shares their passion for protecting our natural environment and that we are putting measures in place to tackle the type of issues raised by Prospect. Although Natural England currently operates in a difficult financial climate the staff are still achieving great things."

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