A key government body no longer has the resources it needs to adequately protect the country’s natural heritage, the main union representing its employees has claimed.
Prospect said that almost a decade of real-term pay cuts and four years of funding cuts at Natural England, coupled with a reduced workforce and how Brexit is taking over the Government’s priorities, has left it struggling to meet its responsibilities of conserving and enhancing the natural environment.
Natural England also advises on post-Brexit farm policy and is tasked with helping to deliver the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, but the body is at “crisis point”, the union claims.
Since 2010, the Natural England’s core grant has halved and in the same period its workforce has fallen from more than 2,500 staff to just over 1,500 staff, with the bulk of the reduction in the last year.
Workers have been subject to a one per cent pay cap for eight years and have been blocked from advancing through pay grades, Prospect said.
The result is a highly qualified workforce that is facing financial hardship, increased workloads, loss of pension accrual and is suffering from terrible morale with staff looking elsewhere for a better deal, the union said.
Prospect accused successive ministers of making the situation worse by undermining and attacking the independence of the work of agency experts.
Garry Graham, Prospect’s deputy general secretary, said: “Michael Gove (the Environment Secretary) likes to talk about England’s green and pleasant lands but under his leadership of Defra, they are being put at risk.
“Cuts have left Natural England at the point where it’s workers are saying that they don’t have enough people or resources to do the things they need to do.”
Mr Graham added: “If we are to be able to regulate our own environment properly after Brexit it is also vital that we cultivate and maintain the skills to do so domestically.
“Now is the time for the government to act, give Natural England the resources it needs, and give it’s dedicated staff the recognition and the pay that they deserve.”
Prospect called for Natural England’s remit to be properly recognised and funded, for its autonomy to be “meaningfully restored”, for the damage caused by the pay cap to be reversed and for pay progression for staff based on skills and competency.
It also wants employees to have pay parity with the rest of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
A Defra spokeswoman said: “The work of Natural England and its staff to protect our invaluable natural spaces, wildlife and environment is vital and its independence as an advisor is essential to this. As set out in the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, Natural England will continue to have a central role in protecting and enhancing our environment for future generations.”
Despite its criticism, Prospect praised the “excellent” daily work by staff at Natural England. The union’s report follows a survey over the past year of union members who work there.
Natural England has been working with the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority to trial payments for farmers in Wensleydale for their success in producing species rich hay meadows or good habitat for wading birds.