The nature of the game

Published in The Guardian, on 12th November 2003.

For many people, the government’s proposal to abolish English Nature (EN) is simply punishment for having done its job too well. As the statutory adviser on biodiversity, it was EN which warned that genetically modified crops might damage the environment. This advice led directly to the establishment of a series of farm-scale trials, which showed that the use of such crops could harm wildlife. This was widely seen as driving a stake through the heart of the effort to win public support for their use in Britain. Faced with unwelcome news, governments frequently shoot the messenger.

For others, this move is not so much punishment as a pre-emptive strike. An avalanche of major development proposals is being planned for England. Roads, runways, reservoirs, ports and housing are promised on an unprecedented scale. Most, if not all, of these developments will have damaging effects on the suite of protected sites for which EN has responsibility under British and European law. EN is a potentially potent intervener in the planning process that will consider these developments. It does not take an overly suspicious mind to conclude that a government with a taste for pre-emption is taking another opportunity for regime change.

Finding hidden agendas is as traditional a political sport as shooting messengers. However, understandable though the above fears may be, I do not myself believe that they are well founded. The true story is, if possible, worse. This government could abolish English Nature by accident.

To understand this strange prospect we need to delve into the background a bit deeper. On closer examination, this story is not the familiar battle between furious ministers and an uppity agency. Ministers have gone to considerable lengths to reassure EN, both privately and publicly, that it has no desire to change the role it plays. I believe them. This battle is increasingly one between a permanent secretary, Brian Bender, and one of the external advisers for which this government has acquired such a taste.

In the immediate aftermath of the last election, the prime minister made a little-noticed change in the machinery of government. It brigaded environmental protection with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) to form the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). This decision was taken on the Friday afternoon immediately following the election. Not surprisingly, this was not the product of much careful analysis. Defra has struggled ever since to define what it is for. In the aftermath of the foot and mouth catastrophe, businessman Chris Haskins, a favourite of No 10, was foisted on Defra to help better define its role by carrying out a review of rural service delivery.

This he proceeded briskly to do – in fact, so briskly that he completed his review several months before Defra was ready to publish it. This it has now done. The row that exploded last week occurred when it became clear that the Defra proposals to implement Haskins’s recommendations would involve the abolition of EN.

One of Haskins’s central tenets is that policy should be separated from delivery. In pursuit of this belief, he proposed taking away the Countryside Agency’s work on delivery to leave in place a more focussed body that could concentrate on offering advice and guidance to government on how best to rural-proof its major policies.

The Rural Development Service (RDS) was to be split, with its functions and budget divided up between the regional development authorities and English Nature. Then EN, the agri-environment bit of the RDS and the access and landscape aspects of the Countryside Agency would all be rolled up into a new land management agency, into which, in earlier versions, Haskins would have included the Forestry Commission and even some bits of the Environment Agency. All this, he thought, would require primary legislation.

Haskins appears not to have noticed an outright contradiction in his proposals. If you are taking away delivery from the Countryside Agency to make it better able to give advice and guidance on policy, why are you then adding a huge delivery component to a body, EN, that is already sharply focused on policy advice and guidance?

But Haskins’s incomplete grasp of what he was doing was not the primary cause of last week’s row. Enter the permanent secretary. The Haskins proposals would mean Defra losing direct control of the RDS. This would cause much dislocation and slow down progress on delivery from a department widely seen as having a poor record. Furthermore, the RDS budget, funded from Europe, will increase shortly from £200m a year to £600m.

This presented a dilemma worthy of the supplest of civil service skills. Outright opposition to Haskins would invite political overrule but the reputational and cash loss of implementation would hardly improve Defra’s status among the senior mandarins in the Whitehall village. The solution was certainly supple.

The whole of the RDS would be merged with EN and bits of the Countryside Agency to create the new land management agency. Ministers would get a good headline, and conservation grumblers could be dismissed as having got a bigger and better body with a wider sustainable development remit. With no prospect of legislation before the election, interim arrangements could be put in place which would later be legitimised legislatively long after everyone had forgotten what any row was about.

Here is a sleight of hand worthy of David Blaine. “Merger”, as any businessman knows, is a euphemism for takeover. Under the permanent secretary’s approach, RDS would, in effect, take over EN. This would mean both the loss of biodiversity as its principal focus and also the loss of its independence from government since the whole purpose of this convoluted game is to retain the RDS cash and capabilities in Defra.

This is not what ministers say they intend – that was the message to those members of the council of English Nature who were invited to meet Ben Bradshaw, minister for nature conservation, last week. But it is what they will get by accident if they remain bystanders in the battle between Haskins and the permanent secretary.

There is a simple test of what is actually happening. Implementing Haskins’s proposal for EN now does not require primary legislation. Ministers already have the powers to bring about what he proposed. If it is to be a statutory body giving independent advice to government with biodiversity as its primary purpose there is no reason why it cannot continue to be called English Nature, or maybe even New English Nature, whatever additional responsibilities it is given. If ministers insist on a new name, it will be because they have a new purpose.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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