Natural England phase-out plan will disrupt net-zero targets, experts say | Conservation

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Discussions over the dismantling of Natural England have sparked anxiety, with experts fearing it could further harm efforts to protect wildlife and achieve net zero.

Campaigners have sounded the alarm after spotting the proposal buried in a recent government consultation on nature recovery, which was sent out to stakeholders.

Craig Bennett, the chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, said “various ministers are a bit obsessed” with absorbing the conservation watchdog into the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra ), thereby destroying it.

A government spokesperson confirmed that this was being considered, although no firm decision has been made.

Wildlife experts fear it will be the final nail in the coffin of the government’s ‘critical friend’ and will mean there will be less scrutiny of actions ministers take on nature and the environment.

The conservation watchdog, established in 2006, lost its independence from Defra under the Conservative government.

However, although underfunded and not independent, it plays a crucial role in defending biodiversity and protecting England’s most important habitats.

His responsibilities include monitoring the nation’s most important wildlife sites, paying farmers to protect wildlife, and advising on planning applications. The body, led by former Friends of the Earth campaigner Tony Juniper, is responsible for maintaining many carbon-rich habitats such as peatlands, wetlands and forests, which will be key to achieving the goals of net zero.

A government spokesman did not deny rumors that Natural England could be taken over by the government.

They said: “We have ambitious plans for nature to achieve, and our independent bodies have a key role to play in this.

“It is only right that we ensure our ALB landscape supports this ambition, and it is possible that changes will be made to the current structure – however no decision has been made and if and when a decision is made it will be expressly for the purpose of enhancing our ability to deliver for nature.

Juniper did not contest the idea and said: “The Green Paper rightly considers all options to improve nature provision, including reform of independent bodies. He recommended a comprehensive nature strategy for Defra.

Over the past decade, Natural England has lost its ability to hold government to account. Conservation charities sounded the alarm in 2012 when the watchdog was stripped of its independent online presence, as well as its own press office, with all of its announcements and information being run through the government. In 2018, its former president Andrew Sells confirmed that the body was no longer independent.

Bennett said: “We spoke to ministers about how we would be extremely concerned about any proposal that would weaken independent bodies.

“It’s also depressing that they’re wasting time on this. What the government needs to do is focus on environmental law enforcement. Instead, there seems to be an obsession with moving furniture around Whitehall. If they are not careful, it will be like moving deckchairs on the Titanic as we face massive crises.

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To deal with the crises of nature and climate, Bennett argues that the body needs more money and independence — not less.

He said: ‘They need to increase funding for Natural England, give them more money and more power – instead of going 100% in the wrong direction.’

Kate Ashbrook, the president of the Open Spaces Society, agreed.

She said: “We are concerned about Defra’s proposal to consolidate the independent bodies of the Defra Group. Over the past few years, Natural England has been sucked ever closer to government, no longer having its own website and press function. We need it to be strengthened, not weakened, and given greater independence to act as an essential friend of government.

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