Natural England ‘cut to the bone’ and unable to protect wildlife, say staff

The government’s conservation watchdog has been “cut to the bone”, with staff underpaid, undervalued and overworked and feeling unable to protect England’s most valuable wildlife sites, according to a new report and testimony from workers.

Phoebe Weston 

Natural England, which is sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), has a range of responsibilities, including monitoring and protecting the country’s most valuable habitats such as sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) and national nature reserves (NNRs). It also works with farmers to protect biodiversity and advises the government on environmental policy, planning and licensing.

Defra’s funding for the agency has dropped by £165m since 2008, and as a result it is struggling to carry out these statutory duties, according to Prospect trade union’s Natural England 2020-21 report. “There’s a certain weirdness to working in Natural England in that everyone knows that we’ve been absolutely cut to the bone,” one employee told the Guardian. “Everyone knows we can’t do basic statutory stuff, let alone the bigger, exciting projects we want to do.”

Following a decade of cuts, this year the agency was awarded an additional £15m to recruit around 200 new staff, including roles to help deliver the Environment bill legislation going through parliament. While the report welcomes this investment, it calls it a “drop in the ocean” and warns that “urgent, radical investment is needed”.

“Public awareness of the plight of biodiversity and fragility of our landscapes has finally come to the fore … but it is clear from the trajectory of both funding, pay and staff numbers that to meet the ambitions and challenges set out in this report, and to not let the green recovery fall flat, government must step up and make good the damage done,” the report says.

Natural England’s “lack of money is affecting everybody because it is the paymaster for a lot of local nature conservation efforts – it’s the spider in the middle of the web,” said author and conservationist Peter Marren. “I don’t think most people have ever heard of Natural England, it’s not a high-profile public body. This is happening because nobody cares about it … apart from the tight circle that work in nature conservation.”

Natural England teams are increasingly being centralised in small regional hubs due to staff shortages. Management of SSSIs – which cover 8% of England – is mostly dealt with remotely, by email and phone. Previously, one person would manage 10-15 SSSIs, now they have up to 40. More than 60% of SSSI sites are in “unfavourable” condition, and half of them haven’t been monitored in six years, which is a statutory duty, meaning the reality could be worse.

Pay has been an ongoing issue at Natural England. Last year staff were in their eighth year of a 1% cap on pay, which has since been lifted. Only 9.5% of staff believe their pay adequately reflects their performance and the gender pay gap across the agency is 8.4%.

One employee, who left last summer, told the Guardian she was earning £20,000 for four days a week and worked two extra jobs to make ends meet. She had been working for a decade before joining the agency and had two first-class degrees from Oxbridge. When she raised the pay issue with her manager she said she was told, “it’s normal for people in Natural England to have second and third jobs to get by”.

She described working at the agency as stressful: “Natural England staff are the medics of the environment and they are watching their charges – the environment, species, habitats – going extinct and rotten every day. The grief and trauma of working in the natural environment in this country is intense. In Natural England it’s a nightmare.”

This week staff were planning to strike over pay issues. In response, Natural England set up a pay reform project and union leaders have given the agency six months before it will consider industrial action again. A union representative told the Guardian; “It’s hurtful that we’re not valued like our counterparts in Defra. Our work is technical, specialist and high risk, but not properly recognised by the government and yet it depends on us for advice. It’s a plea, really, for the government to recognise the vital work that Natural England does for nature and people.”

Public sector investment in conservation has fallen in real terms by 33% in five years, according to the 2020 biodiversity indicators report. Natural England chair Tony Juniper has previously said that ongoing budget cuts have left the organisation “massively depleted”, and he has been lobbying for more funding.

Mike Clancy, Prospect union general secretary, said there was a “yawning gap” between the government’s rhetoric on climate change and biodiversity, and the reality of years of underfunding environmental agencies.

“Protecting nature means investing in the people who do that work,” he said. “Natural England is at the heart of this agenda but it can only be effective if it is properly funded and the importance of its staff properly recognised.”

Natural England has an “absolutely critical job” in turning around catastrophic wildlife decline, said Craig Bennett, chief executive of Wildlife Trusts. “If our nation is to have the natural world that we yearn for, then ministers need to give Natural England the money and powers it needs to do its job, and let it get on with it.”

Green party peer Natalie Bennett said people protecting nature are doing so “on a shoestring” due to the severity of cuts. “We’re one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries, yet Natural England has been under-resourced at every turn and this threatens the work of its expert staff … clearly funding needs to be restored.”

Marian Spain, chief executive of Natural England, said the agency is embarking on a nature recovery network, rebuilding resilient landscapes, restoring wildlife, improving soil health, and helping people to connect to the natural world. “Our staff do an extraordinary job in caring for the natural world and we are committed to making sure they are rewarded fairly for their hard work,” she said in the comment, which came via Defra.

“This government has set out ambitious environmental targets, which Natural England is well placed to deliver on – however ongoing and significant investment will be needed if we are to truly realise the ambition of leaving the environment in a better state than we found it.”

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