Government guts nature watchdog and sends staff to work on Brexit

Table showing decline in Natural England's funding since 2010
  • Ministers have slashed Natural England funding by 55 per cent since 2010
  • Agency “systematically gutted” as nearly 500 staff moved to Defra

Parliamentary questions by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas have revealed the Government is gutting the watchdog charged with protecting England’s most precious natural landscapes and wildlife habitats.

Ministers have slashed funding for Natural England’s monitoring of these unique places by 55 per cent – from £1.58 million to just £700,000 – since 2010, leaving less than £170 for each of England’s 4,126 sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs).

A previous parliamentary question by Caroline found 47 per cent of SSSIs have not been examined in the last six years, breaching national guidelines.

Since July 2016 – immediately after the EU referendum – ministers have moved 463 staff from Natural England to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Figures from December 2017 show Natural England then employed a total of 2,176 staff.

Significantly, 50 Natural England staff have recently been seconded to work on Brexit for two years. Responding to Caroline’s parliamentary question, Farming Minister George Eustice said these roles are “not deemed a high priority [and] have been left unfilled, and work reallocated or stopped”.

The resource cuts come just nine months after the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan promised to “not only conserve but enhance” protected areas, and weeks after guidance on upholding environmental standards if the event of a no-deal Brexit revealed the UK could be without a green watchdog for several months after the UK leaves the EU next year – potentially increasing pressure on existing bodies like Natural England.

Caroline Lucas MP said: “These devastating figures reveal a government policy of systematically gutting Natural England. Behind Michael Gove’s public promises of a ‘Green Brexit’ is a secretive assault on the agency that looks after irreplaceable habitats and beautiful landscapes.

“This ideologically-driven austerity is putting precious places at risk of irreversible destruction. Some damage will already have been done – so it’s vital ministers reverse cuts to Natural England’s funding immediately and expand its specialist team to protect and restore our neglected environment.”

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