‘Serious concern’: One Natural England employee assigned to SSSI assessments for every 73 sites, figures reveal

EXCLUSIVE: Natural England has assigned the equivalent of just one staff member to carry out condition assessments for every 73 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), new figures released to ENDS reveal.

Malvern Hills, Worcestershire. Source - GettyImages, Matt Walford

Figures released under Environmental Information Regulations legislation show that in 2022/23, Natural England had the time resource equivalent of 56.14 full-time employees assigned to carry out SSSI condition assessments across England’s 4,100 SSSIs. 

This included time recorded by staff “on all aspects of SSSI condition assessments which includes planning, survey, recording, updating of information, feedback for landowners and reporting elements”, according to the information accompanying the figures.

This equates to one full-time equivalent employee for every 73 sites, and has led green groups to question if Natural England’s resourcing is “adequate to the scale of the task” of reaching the goal to restore 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030.

The news comes following the release of a new ENDS film, WILDERNESS, which documents how hundreds of millions of taxpayer pounds have been poured into green farming schemes in national parks, while protected sites in the same places have degraded.

In the documentary, Natural England insiders warn that the government is “way off track” from meeting its flagship statutory nature targets and needs to be “realistic” about its lack of progress.

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Natural England has pushed back on the significance of the figures released to ENDS, with Caroline Cotterell, programme director for resilient landscapes and seas saying that the calculation “only considers part of [Natural England’s] work to improve SSSIs”, as it only takes into account those assigned to SSSI monitoring, and that the regulator remains “committed to delivering the government’s SSSI targets”.

She added that Natural England also enlists the support of “trusted partners and third-party contractors to gather data needed to enable us to make condition assessments. This increases our capacity to update our assessments and speed up the process to recover nature and bring sites into a better condition.” A spokesperson would not confirm who these partners and contractors are.

However, green groups have questioned what the figures mean for the country’s ability to meet its statutory goals. 

Kate Jennings, RSPB head of site conservation and species policy, said that the figures obtained by ENDS “are a cause for serious concern”. 

“We know the breadth of work required to restore the best sites for nature is significant and we continue to support an uplift in funding to Natural England, but these figures show how thinly resource is spread and it’s simply not enough. We need to see those increasing resources translating into action by Natural England for SSSIs on the ground.”

Jennings continued: “Nature and protected habitats are a precious asset. A good rule of thumb in life is to know how much you have of anything precious. Knowing the condition of the country’s special places, like rare chalk grasslands or heathlands, is not a ‘nice to have’, it’s essential to take responsibility for nature recovery.”

She added that if the government is to make good on its 30x30 commitment “then urgent action is needed to restore our finest sites for nature, and monitoring is a fundamental prerequisite to do that well”. 

“The country must know the current health of our SSSIs to inform where and how quickly it needs to act,” Jennings continued, noting that this was reflected in the government’s Environmental Improvement Plan target for all SSSIs to have an up-to-date condition assessment by 31 January 2028. However, “the state of England’s SSSIs has long been in decline (from 43% (by area) in favourable condition in 2010 to 37% today), and as of February 2021 78% of those sites had not been monitored since 2015,” she said.

Head of policy and advocacy at the Wildlife and Countryside Link, Matt Browne, added: “As the countdown continues to tick down towards 2030 targets to restore and protect nature, it must be questioned whether this level of resource is adequate to the scale of the task. Natural England needs sustained funding increases, to deliver more ambitious delivery programmes and monitoring resource to restore nature sites. Promises on protecting 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030 will be not delivered without an improved and expanded SSSI network.’’

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The resourcing of the government’s nature regulator has come under increased scrutiny in the last year, with multiple whistleblowers having spoken to ENDS about how years of low pay and high churn is impacting Natural England’s ability to do its job. 

In WILDERNESS, when ENDS put the regulator’s stretched resourcing to Dave Slater, the regulator’s regional director for the south west, he said that “like many public bodies, [Natural England has] reduced in size significantly over the last 10 years”.

“I think that did mean we had to cut back on some of our work, including on SSSIs”, he said, adding that the agency is now “back up to size”, and noting that it is now bigger that it has been for a while following “significant investment in the last couple of years”.

Indeed, a recent National Audit Office report showed that in September 2022, Natural England was below its year-end target of having 2,980 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff by 268 - a gap of almost 9%. By February 2023 its staff resource was 2,979 FTE.

However the SSSI condition assessment capacity figures chime with what multiple insiders have told ENDS over the past year. They have said that although much of the new funding the regulator has received has gone to new policy initiatives such as biodiversity net gain, the regulator’s core work areas, such as carrying out protected site condition assessments, and advising local planning authorities on planning applications, are being left over-stretched.

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