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We are delighted that a House of Lords Select Committee has recommended greater independence and resources for Natural England, the government’s adviser on conservation, landscape and public access.
Last autumn we submitted evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. We expressed our concern at Natural England’s lack of independence.
We argued that ‘Natural England has regrettably been sucked in to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). It no longer has its own website, nor does it issue its own press releases. It has no independent voice as the government’s advisor … This lack of independence causes us deep concern; government needs a critical friend.’
Other organisations and individuals expressed similar views. Accordingly, the Lords Committee has urged government ‘to take steps to enable Natural England to operate with the appropriate degree of independence. As a minimum requirement, we recommend that government should allow Natural England to re-establish its own, independent press and communications function.’
Says Kate Ashbrook, our general secretary: ‘This is excellent news and we hope that government will act on this recommendation. More than ever in these times of austerity we need Natural England to champion the cause of the countryside—and it cannot do this while cocooned in Defra.’
The committee was also concerned that, while Natural England has done a splendid job in developing and creating the England Coast Path, Defra has not allocated funding for the long-term maintenance of this path, nor of the 13 national trails in England.
It goes on to recommend that the government should include payments for maintenance and enhancement of public access within the new system of public funding post-Brexit.
The committee also recommends that Natural England should have sufficient resources to deliver against all the element of its general purpose, which include the promotion of public access, and that, with greater resources, Natural England should prioritise public access.
Comments Kate: ‘This chimes with our evidence. We said that: “We do not feel that, 11 years on, access and wildlife have been integrated throughout Natural England—instead, access appears to have been side-lined”. We called for greater integration of access, wildlife and landscape conservation, throughout Natural England.
We pointed out that, while Natural England’s conservation strategy for the 21st century, Conservation 21, has as one of its three guiding principles ‘putting people at the heart of the environment’, we have seen no evidence of how this is being achieved.
‘We also highlighted Natural England’s important role, post Brexit, in ensuring that public funding for agriculture is directed to securing public benefit in particular through the provision of public access. It is pleasing that the Lords Committee agrees.
‘Now we need government urgently to endorse the recommendations and to act on them. We shall be pressing it to do so,’ Kate concludes.
The government has published a consultation paper on the agriculture bill, and the Open Spaces Society has joined with the British Horse Society, British Mountaineering Council, Cycling UK and Ramblers in promoting a petition so that people can support the inclusion in the agriculture bill of measures to protect and improve public access.