Millions of pounds of extra annual funding is needed if a key government agency is to deliver for the environment and have better relationships with farmers, its leader has warned.
Tony Juniper, chairman of Natural England, said he had become acutely aware of the “strain” befalling his staff since he took the top job at the agency in March, following years of budget cuts.
If the agency, which advises Ministers on protecting nature and landscapes, is to fully realise the ambitions of the Government’s much-heralded 25-Year Environment Plan, then the Treasury must be prepared to bankroll Natural England by up to £140m in additional funding every year, he said.
The main union representing the agency’s staff, Prospect, called for Natural England’s remit to be properly recognised and funded in January, saying the agency did not have the resources to adequately protect the country’s natural heritage.
Since 2009-10, Natural England’s budget from Whitehall has fallen from £242m to £100m, while its workforce has fallen from more than 2,500 to just over 1,500 staff.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post during a visit to South Acre Farm near York this week, Mr Juniper said: “One thing I have noticed as the relatively new chair at Natural England is the enormous stress and strain being experienced by our teams as a result of successive cutbacks over recent years.
“This is now limiting our ability to do what we would like to do in being able to have good, ongoing, deeper relationships with the farming community which are about face-to-face conversations.”
Mr Juniper was visiting dairy farmer Paul Tompkins, who has cut water pollution and improved air quality after taking advice from the Catchment Sensitive Farming service, a multi-agency initiative involving Natural England and other public bodies.
Mr Tompkins told of how it was crucial for farmers to have access to regional officers who grasp the local context so that their advice is appropriately tailored.
Mr Juniper said: “One of the things I have noticed... is how much (farmers) value advice from people they recognise, that they know. They trust them; those people know their farms; they understand their local context, and by working together we can get an awful lot done.”
He added: “What I’m hoping we can do over the years ahead is... make the case for properly investing in the recovery of the natural environment, and as the country makes that step, towards resourcing the agencies that do that work, we can be rebuilding those relationships that we have with the farming community... but we need resources to do that.”
On how much extra funding Natural England needs, he said: “We need about £40m (a year) to get back to the level of doing our basic day job, and if we wanted to get into a position of implementing the 25-Year Environment Plan in the way that we think would be best achieving its goals, it would be another £50m to £100m on top of that.”
A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “Natural England and its staff do vital work to protect our invaluable natural spaces, wildlife and environment.
“They will continue to play a leading role in advising farmers and land managers and ensuring our future agricultural policy delivers for nature.”