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We have called for there to be a strong agency to champion the environment, landscape and public access to and enjoyment of the outdoors in England. The society was responding to the triennial review of the Environment Agency and Natural England being carried out by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
The society has argued that the review should result in agencies better able to champion their areas of expertise and interest and to develop policy as well as deliver it. The society considers that government, local authorities and other public and private bodies benefit from a knowledgeable, independent body which is able to question and challenge their work. With staff on the ground and a good evidence base, an arm’s-length agency is well able to develop policy and present ideas to government.
The society believes that the outcome of the review must be strong advocacy of all Natural England’s purposes on the environment, and public and access and enjoyment. The society attaches particular importance to its role in conserving and enhancing the landscape and promoting access to the countryside and open spaces and encouraging open-air recreation, recognising how these contribute to our social and economic wellbeing.
We would be concerned if any reorganisation were to lead to a downplaying of Natural England’s vital work in protection of the landscape, and of public access and recreation. For instance, Natural England has an important role in developing coastal access and managing the decadal review of, and restrictions on, land mapped as access land under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.
We especially value Natural England’s role in promoting common land, a type of land unique to England and Wales, where others have rights in common with the landowner. Commons provide immense public benefit (20% of sites of special scientific interest are common land, nearly 100% of common land has rights of public access, for instance). Commons need a champion and Natural England, which brings together nature conservation and biodiversity, landscape and access, is the ideal body to ensure that they are properly recognised, celebrated, managed and enjoyed.
We also value Natural England’s role in promoting public access-land and rights of way, working with local authorities and others to achieve more and better-quality access. This role must not be any further reduced. Natural England also has a valuable experimental role, being able to pilot and test ideas on a small scale before releasing them for wider benefit.
We believe that Natural England’s work on public access and recreation provides excellent value for money in itself, and also in promoting economic benefit through encouraging enjoyment of the outdoors. Natural England is a centre for expertise and knowledge; it has long experience of dealing with these issues and inventing new ways of achieving them. Any future body must have the same focus, and any reorganisation must ensure that skills and expertise are retained.