Update: see this category for the latest Natural England posts on The Ranger’s Blog.
On 7 November 2005 the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill had its second reading in the House of Lords. It all seems to be going terribly well, with just about everyone agreeing that it is a good thing, and the only serious complaints being from those who want more of it, and one doughty English nationalist blog praising the new agency almost before it was a twinkle in the minister’s eye for the sole reason that it had the word ‘England’ in its name. I did read one pro-offroading blog which seemed dead set against it because it would be devastating for the recreational motorist, but after seeing the ravages of such persons on our own Tennyson Trail last year this, frankly, seems to me be even more evidence in favour of the bill.
Natural England is going to be the “independent agency responsible for conserving, enhancing and managing England’s natural environment”, swallowing up both English Nature and the Countryside Agency. There’s also going to be a Commission for Rural Communities, which will be some kind of rural champion organisation. All this is brought about because of the Haskins Review on the government’s role in the countryside – remember that? No, thought not.
So, is it a good thing or a bad thing? There remains obvious tension between the present roles of English Nature and the other agencies that will form the new body, particularly when wildlife conservation is concerned. A number of bodies have expressed their concerns. The NFU expressed concern in March 2005, saying “Some wonder though if the new agency will in fact, be all things to all people.” This is a reasonable fear – it now has a very large remit, and in the past, the work of English Nature has brought it into conflict with those promoting access and development. It may be that the new agency will find it harder to protect the most important wildlife and countryside sites if it is no longer quite so clear what the priority is when conservation and other demands are in conflict. Equally the promotion of rural development may find itself more constrained by the requirements of wildlife. There is also some concern that a part of the reason for this reorganisation is to give more political control to the previously (fairly) independent agencies. For example, it appears that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs may have the legal power to issue guidance to Natural England on various matters, a constraint that is not placed on its predecessor bodies. We watch and wait. See this intriguing blog entry – wish he’d carried on, perhaps he will!