Natural England to get 47% funding increase amid ‘green recovery’ plans

Owl will wait and see if it really happens. Can you rebuild lost teams of expertise overnight?

Patrick Barkham 

Natural England, the government’s conservation watchdog, is to receive a 47% increase in government funding this year as its role expands to support a “green recovery” and provide environmental scrutiny of the government’s controversial “Project Speed”.

The dramatic funding increase is a boost for wildlife protection and monitoring after a decade of deep cuts which left the agency at “crisis point” and its chairman, Tony Juniper, admitting that it would struggle to reverse declines in biodiversity.

Natural England monitors and manages some of the country’s most wildlife-rich places, including sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) and many nature reserves, also providing expert advice on the environmental impact of new homes, roads and other developments.

Juniper, the influential former Friends of the Earth campaigner who was appointed chair in 2019, said: “I am delighted to see the government backing nature recovery and giving us more of the tools we need to make a real difference and build back greener from the coronavirus pandemic. Natural England has big ambitions to establish a ‘nature recovery network’ and I believe our renewed focus and remit will help us to achieve this.”

The “nature recovery network,” a vision of landscape-scale restoration that joins up nature-rich places to better enable wild species to move through the countryside, was first mapped out in the government’s 25-year plan for the environment in 2018.

After a modest injection of an extra £15m last year, Natural England’s total budget for 2021-22 will rise to £198m, of which 90% is from Defra, plus £2.5m from other government departments and the remainder from fees, charges and external funding. Although a big increase from a low of £85.6m in 2019-20, its budget is still less than the £265m it received in 2008-09.

In its expanded role, Natural England will be a statutory consultee on the government’s “Project Speed” to accelerate infrastructure projects, an aspiration recently branded “an utter disaster” by conservationists.

Juniper told the Guardian that there was “a lot to do” to “join up the ambition to streamline the development process at the same time as achieving ‘nature recovery’” but that there was not necessarily a contradiction between these aspirations.

The forthcoming environment bill includes the requirement for all developments to provide a “net gain” in biodiversity, which Natural England will assess.

“Housing and infrastructure can be done in ways that are quite damaging [to nature] or in quite a good way. Our task at Natural England is to get these things as complementary as they can be,” he said. “If we can step back and have ecological thinking built into the planning process, that’s going to solve a lot of the problems before they emerge.”

The agency will also administer the new “nature for climate” peatland grant scheme and increase its work with farmers, helping Defra design the new environmental land management scheme (Elms). This post-Brexit support for farmers aims to provide “public money for public goods”, with farmers paid for environmental services such as flood alleviation and carbon sequestration in soils and trees.

Juniper, who has consistently argued for more government resources, said the increase was a “a very welcome outcome for this year” that would “put more capacity into the organisation”.

In 2019, he warned that the “massively depleted” agency could not adequately manage the “jewels in the crown” of English nature. The government missed its 2010 target to restore half of SSSIs to “favourable” condition by 2020, with more than 60% of the nature-rich sites in unfavourable condition, and more than half not monitored in six years or more due to the funding cuts.

Joan Edwards, director of policy and public affairs for the Wildlife Trusts, said: “This is a positive step in the right direction, but Natural England has suffered underfunding for years, which has had a significant effect on the work it needs to do for nature’s recovery.

“We hope that this is the first of a series of increases to Natural England’s budget, we are still one of the most nature depleted countries in the world. In the run-up to Cop26 we must show the world we mean business, tackling the twin nature and climate emergencies, and Natural England has a vital role to play.

“We still need to see significant increases in funding, for example, for work improving natural habitats at sea so that marine wildlife can flourish again, and sea habitats can store carbon once more.”