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Natural England cares more about the welfare of butterflies and bats than ordinary country folk. There was never anything "natural" about Natural England. From the word go it was a cumbersome quango cobbled together in unseemly haste after the Foot and Mouth crisis – an unnatural marriage of convenience between the Countryside Agency, the Forestry Commission and English Nature. Since then it has attracted a host of adverse headlines and real angst among many rural communities.
Natural England is perceived as dictatorial, interfering, petty-minded and out of touch. It seems to care more about the welfare of butterflies and bats than ordinary country folk. It churns out 'position statements' as though it was a government department. The behaviour of its leadership has been described as invisible and out of touch – and those comments came from staff in an internal survey conducted four years ago.
The criticisms, however, have not melted away. Natural England has courted huge unpopularity by trying to force the reintroduction of the white-tailed sea eagle. It incurred the wrath of farmers and landowners by scrapping legislation to order rabbit culls when crops are threatened. It has been economical with the truth in closing fishing grounds…the list goes on and on.
Last year the Public Accounts Committee reported that Natural England's management of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI's) was based on out of date information and incomplete records.
For an organisation that prefers to think of itself as environmentally-friendly and spends a great deal of money nurturing a touchy-feely image, these comments ought to provide a pretty clear message.
Unfortunately Natural England appears to have developed total immunity from all bad publicity. It refuses to take any notice.
After the 2010 general election – in a vain effort to avoid being targeted by the new government – Natural England's chief executive (salary £144,000 pa) announced a jobs freeze and hired an expensive firm of consultants to tell them what they were doing wrong. The consultants' conclusions were a blinding glimpse of the obvious to Natural England's critics.
Now the organisation is scheduled for some major wing-clipping:
• to dramatically reduce back office costs
• to stop activity that government does not need to do
• to stop policy-making and lobbying.
My purpose in raising this matter as a parliamentary debate is to provide the government with sufficient ammunition to prevent Natural England slithering off the hook again. The reputation of the organisation in my constituency is little short of Stalinist. It is high time they were ordered to get off their high horse.
©2003,2004 Ian Liddell-Grainger. All rights reserved. www.somersetwest.org.uk