Natural England chair sees ‘correlation’ between budget cuts and biodiversity decline

Natural England chair Tony Juniper has said he accepts there is ‘some correlation’ between the steep decline of biodiversity in England and the swingeing cuts to the regulator’s budget.

Tony Juniper told ENDS there was a 'very robust, compelling and popular case' for why more investment is needed in the recovery of the natural environment. Photograph: Leo Wilkinson

The comments were made during a visit to the country’s first ‘payment by results’ pilot scheme in the Yorkshire Dales National Park yesterday. The scheme could be rolled out nationally to reward farmers subsidies for the environmental outcomes they produce once the UK leaves the EU and no longer falls under the Common Agricultural Policy.

READ MORE: Q&A: DEFRA’s ‘payments by results’ pilot explained

Speaking with ENDS, Juniper said that the reasons behind the continuing decline for wildlife in England ran “very deep”, including decades of agricultural intensification, the progressive effects of fragmentation from sprawled urban and agricultural expansion, and the impact of climate change. 

He said: “I think in the context of all that, despite the very good work that Natural England does, I don’t think it would be the case that you could draw a causal link rather, there is a correlation.

“What I would be confident in saying, is that if we do wish to turn things around we need to address those fundamental drivers. And one of the ways we can do that is through a properly funded, well-resourced and politically strongly-backed nature conservation agency.” 

Natural England has seen its budgets slashed 47% since 2010, which has impacted its ability to carry out its core functions, such as carrying out its ability to protect Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), almost half of which have not been monitored for more than six years.  

The regulator had hoped it would see a financial reprieve in the September spending review but only £30m was allocated for biodiversity works, which is to be shared between several government organisations, something Juniper described as “disappointing” given the government’s conservation ambitions and its 25-Year Environment Plan. 

Juniper said: “We worked with DEFRA colleagues to prepare some figures for the spending review in terms of what we felt was the required funding for different levels of activity that we undertake and we were hoping to see a commitment in the spending review to rebuilding Natural England’s budget after a period of very significant cuts.

“Those cuts have been visible in our ability or rather, lack of ability, to carry out some of our core functions including monitoring the Sites of Special Scientific Interest and the management of the national nature reserves.”

But Juniper added that he remained remained confident that Natural England had a “very robust, compelling and popular case” for why more investment is needed in the recovery of the natural environment.   

He said: “Hopefully as we come to the next spending review we can see a stronger commitment from those deciding on the public spending priorities.”