The government has allocated GBP15m in additional funding to Natural England for this financial year after a decade of cuts that have left England’s wildlife agency “in crisis”.
Natural England’s chairman, Tony Juniper, said the funding marked a “significant change of trend” in the financing of the government body, which has seen its budget slashed by GBP180m since 2008.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – which sponsors Natural England – allocated the additional funds after positive discussions about the importance of reversing wildlife decline in the UK, Juniper told the Guardian.
“I am hoping later this year we can look to secure the resources we need for ambitious nature recovery across the country for a multi-year period,” he said.
Natural England has a range of responsibilities including monitoring the country’s most important wildlife sites, advising on planning applications and paying farmers to protect wildlife. Defra’s funding for the agency plummeted from GBP265m in 2008-09 to a low point of GBP85.6m in 2019-20.
The inadequate funding of the UK’s natural environment departments had a “profound, negative impact on England’s biodiversity”, the House of Lords Select Committee concluded in 2018. This year’s additional funding will take Natural England’s grant-in-aid budget up to around GBP100m; GBP4m of the additional money comes from Defra’s GBP30m biodiversity fund, announced last year.
But critics argue that the extra funding does not go far enough. The conservationist Mark Avery of Wild Justice described the announcement as “a smidgen of good news”.
“Well done, Tony, for getting back a small fraction of the money Defra has hacked out of Natural England over the past decade,” he said.
The Green party peer Natalie Bennett said: “The government must not be allowed to get away with celebrating a measly announcement of an extra GBP15m grant as any kind of restoration. That’s just 10% of what has been cut since 2009.”
Juniper, who became chair of Natural England in April 2019, said the increase was the first step to getting funding back to 2008 levels. “We felt it would be necessary for us to get back to that kind of funding level in order for us to do what was needed to fully implement the government’s 25-year environment plan,” he said.
Of the GBP15m, GBP4m will be allocated to monitoring and improving sensitive sites, known as sites of special scientific interest, which cover 8% of the UK – the equivalent of 1m hectares – and contain “special” habitats, geology, plants or animals.
Less than 40% of SSSI sites are in “favourable” condition and more than half have not been monitored in six years or more due to severe budget cuts and staff shortages. The government missed its 2010 target to restore half of SSSIs to favourable condition by 2020.
The rest of the funding has been ring-fenced for other core statutory duties such as advising on the environmental impact of planning applications, licensing work and improving national nature reserves, Juniper said. He would also like to invest in more large-scale landscape recovery projects, such as Dorset’s Purbeck Heaths super national nature reserve, which started in March.
A report by the Prospect union in January last year concluded that staff at Natural England were in “in crisis”. Internal reports show there were 2,661 permanent staff at the organisation in 2007 compared with 1,786 in March last year, resulting in roles being amalgamated and high levels of stress for workers.
One anonymous employee, who left last summer, after two years working for the organisation said it was the “most humiliating professional experience I’ve ever had”.
“I’ve got two first-class degrees from Oxbridge, I’ve got years of experience and I earned GBP20,000 for four days a week,” she said. “They couldn’t increase my hours. I ended up working five days anyway. I had to leave because I had to work two other jobs to make ends meet.”
Juniper said he was working with the union to review pay and conditions at Natural England and hoped to do more to support staff. “It’s not only issues of pay that have concerned me since I arrived, but issues of workload, with some people having multiple roles. This is a reflection of the dedication of the staff who have been working extremely hard to maintain the service that we provide for the country.”
Juniper acknowledged there was “still quite a long way” to go to secure nature’s recovery. He said: “I came into an organisation that had a number of challenges and I do think that after my first year we are beginning to meet some of them in terms of rebuilding the confidence of the organisation … I’m delighted to see that the budget increase this year is just putting some more fuel in the tank.”
A Defra spokesperson said Natural England does vital work protecting the environment, water, invaluable natural spaces, and wildlife. “That is why we have provided Natural England with over GBP11m in additional funding to ensure they are able to not only protect our natural environment but also improve it for future generations.”
The conservationist and author Peter Marren, who has recently written about the decline of Natural England for British Wildlife magazine, said Defra’s comment about improving the natural environment “betrays a depth of ignorance”.
“It presumably equates improvement with planting trees or leaving corners in public parks for the nettles. The real wild environment – our remaining old woods, downs, heaths, semi-natural meadows, moors, bogs, rivers, ponds and lakes, are in a terrible state and getting worse,” he said.
“I don’t think there’s a great deal anyone can do to offset the loss significantly, but a properly funded Natural England would at least be able to address some of the issues on protected sites.”
Kate Jennings, the head of site conservation policy at the RSPB, said there was a huge amount of ground to recover if the government was serious about tackling the nature crisis. “The RSPB has repeatedly called for Natural England to be given the resources and the independence that it needs to do its job properly, and so the announcement of an increase in funding is really a welcome first step in the right direction,” she said.
Craig Bennett, the CEO of the Wildlife Trusts, said: “While it is welcome to hear about a modest increase in funding for Natural England, they will still be left with an overall budget that is much lower than it was decades previously, at a time when ministers have said we’re facing an ecological emergency.
“There is still a long way to go before funding is back to historical levels, or indeed to what is needed to reverse the declines in the abundance of nature we’re experiencing in this country.”